“Going organic,” i.e. eating only “organic” foods, is just one of the many ways we often hear about changing our diets for the healthier—and presumably the better. The term “organic” here describes products farmed without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, growth regulators or livestock feed additives. This also excludes production of genetically modified organisms. The idea behind organic food production is to limit the public’s exposure to potentially harmful chemicals while also maintaining environmentally and economically beneficial production. Many consumers seem convinced of its importance, as organic food sales have increased significantly over the past decade. But is eating organic foods really any more beneficial than regular produce? Moreover, is switching to organic worth the increased prices which normally accompany these alternative food choices?

In general, most people agree that it is common sense to try to limit our exposure to pesticides. It is important to understand that many pesticides still persist even after produce is washed. Studies have found persistent chemical residues in many produce, such as on the exterior and interior of a potato even after it had been cooked.  Some of these chemical residues possess links to serious illnesses such as cancer, birth defects and infertility. Peeling fruit and vegetables is the most effective way to limit chemical exposure when buying non-organic foods. Furthermore, there is also some evidence that some organic foods may contain more nutrients than conventional ones, as a study on strawberries, leafy greens and wheat has shown. This study found that these organic selections produce more phenolic acids, which act as antioxidants that prevent cell damage and protect against oxidative stress, inflammation and cancer.

When searching for specific guidelines, there are some foods which may be more important to buy organic than others. Guidelines have been published by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) outlining foods with the highest exposure to pesticides. These foods, such as apples, peaches, nectarines, strawberries, grapes, celery, peppers, cucumbers and more, are considered to be “The Dirty Dozen.” With these types of produce, it may be worth it to purchase organic options due to the generally high use of pesticides. Conversely, the EWG also published guidelines titled “The Clean Fifteen,” which show that foods such as avocados, pineapples, onions, asparagus, mangoes and cauliflower tend to possess lower levels of pesticide residues.

Opinions on the benefits of organic food consumption remain divided, as some believe there to be insufficient evidence to suggest that these pesticides cause harm, and that there is no clear proof that an organic diet is healthier than a conventional one. Conversely, others fear that continued exposure to pesticides may cause severe illness and that avoiding these chemicals leads to overall better health. Either way, it is important to be aware of potential pesticide exposure and to consider thoroughly washing or peeling produce before consumption. Visit the local farmer’s market to explore locally grown organic food options, not to mention lots of fresh, tasty products which support the local economy!

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