Are Organic Foods Worth the Cost?
How to get the biggest bang for your organic dollar.
This week, I thought I’d tackle a topic suggested by Thomas in Austin, Texas.
Hey, Nutrition Diva. I love your podcast and I have a question about eating organic. My Mom raised us on organics but as a college student, paying twice as much is not a cool idea. So, is eating organic worth it? Is it really better for the environment? Or is it just marketing to get us to pay more? Thanks!
Thomas, it’s not just students: We’re all feeling the pain. Food costs have risen faster this year than they have in almost 30 years. Every trip to the grocery store seems to take a bigger bite out of the budget. As you’ve noticed, organic foods cost more—on average, about 30% more—than conventional foods. Is it really worth the extra dough? It’s a fair question.
Organics and your health
First, organic growing practices are definitely better for the environment and, for many people, that alone is enough to justify the extra cost. To learn more about the environmental issues, check out the Make it Green Girl show, another great podcast in the Quick and Dirty family. Make it Green Girl tells me that she’s planning to do several episodes on organics in the near future, so you might want to subscribe to her show.
Let me address the nutrition part of your question: Are organic foods actually more nutritious? For organic fruits and vegetables, the research has been mixed. Some studies have found organic fruits and vegetables to contain more antioxidants than conventionally-grown produce. But other studies have failed to find significant nutritional differences.
I think it’s pretty hard to generalize because the nutritional quality of fruits and vegetables starts to go down pretty much as soon as they’re picked. So, I could easily imagine a scenario in which a conventionally grown tomato that you bought at the farmer’s market the day after it was picked could have more nutrients than an organically grown tomato that was picked two weeks earlier and flown across the country to the grocery store (check out this tip of mine if you want to know whether or not it's a good idea to freeze vegetables).
What’s NOT in organics may be more important
To be honest, if it were JUST about nutrient content, I think I’d have a hard time making the case that organics are worth the extra money. Non-organic fruits and vegetables provide plenty of vitamins and minerals. Unfortunately, they can also contain pesticide and herbicide residues—toxic chemicals that accumulate in the body over time. Exposure to these chemicals can contribute to cancer risk (especially in children) and reproductive problems, such as infertility and miscarriages.
Because organic fruits and vegetables are grown without artificial pesticides, they do not pose this danger. But now we’re back to Thomas’s dilemma. What should you do if organic fruits and vegetables are simply too expensive? You avoid the Dirty Dozen!
Avoiding the Dirty Dozen
The Environmental Working Group tested 43 of the most commonly eaten fruits and vegetables—all conventionally grown—to see how much pesticide residue they contained. At the very top of the list, with the highest pesticide levels, were peaches, apples, and bell peppers (Quick Tip: peeling apples might help avoid pesticide residue). At the bottom of the list, with the lowest pesticide load, were onions, avocadoes, and frozen corn.
But here’s the amazing thing: The EWG found that by avoiding the so-called Dirty Dozen (the twelve fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide residues), you can reduce your exposure to pesticides by almost 90 percent! Here are the twelve you want to either avoid (or buy organic): Peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, imported grapes, spinach, lettuce, and potatoes.
The EWG has a nifty wallet-guide that you can print out and take with you. I’ll put a link to it in the show notes.
My Plan for Eating Healthy Without Going Broke
So, Thomas, here’s what I do. First and foremost, I try to eat lots of fruits and vegetables and I try to buy things that are in season where I live because they will be fresher and therefore more nutritious. If the organic is even close to the same cost as conventional, I always choose organic. Not only is it better for me but I believe it is better for the environment and, therefore, better for everyone.
When the organically grown stuff is a lot more expensive, I will choose conventionally grown for the fruits and vegetables that have lower pesticide residues. For the Dirty Dozen, I suck it up and pay for organic…or do without. This system keeps my grocery bills in line, my pesticide exposure to a minimum, and gives me the biggest bang for my organic buck.
Now, of course, fruits and vegetables are just the tip of the organic iceberg. We haven’t even talked about organic milk, eggs, meats, cereals, pasta, and jelly beans—and each has a different balance of costs and benefits. I promise I’ll come back to this topic in future episodes. For now, though, we’re out of time.
Find out how you can support the local foods movement and find a farmers' market near you over here.
This is Monica Reinagel and you're listening to The Nutrition Diva: Quick and Dirty Tips for Eating Well and Feeling Fabulous.
These tips are provided for your information and entertainment and are not intended as medical advice. Because everyone is different, please work with your health professional to determine what’s right for you.
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