The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates labelling of organic foods, says organic fruits and vegetables must be grown without the use of most synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, and the seeds cannot be genetically engineered. Surveys done over the years show that organic produce is often (but not always) more costly to grow and thus more expensive than conventional produce. There are a number of factors to consider when deciding whether or not to buy organic produce.
Nutrition: All fruits and vegetables (fresh or frozen, cooked or raw, organic or conventional) are good choices from a nutrition standpoint (especially compared to much of the food supply). Many factors impact the nutrient content of produce, including soil quality, ripeness at harvest, time from harvest to consumption, storage and transport conditions, and cooking methods (which can increase or decrease nutrient availability). So there is no sureway to know whether that organic carrot is more nutritious than its conventional counterpart. Research on the subject varies, and more research is needed. Some studies, for example, have found higher concentrations of antioxidants in organically grown fruits and vegetables, or more diversity of beneficial bacteria in organic vs. conventional apples. Importantly, these differences appear small and unlikely to be very consequential in the context of a healthy dietary pattern.
Pesticide Free? “Organic producers use pesticides—they just use very different types and less,” says Timothy Griffin, PhD, an associate professor and chair of the Division of Agriculture, Food and Environment at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. “The concentration of pesticide residue on organic fruits and vegetables is substantially lower than that of conventional produce, but it is usually not zero.” For example, organic foods could potentially have residue from pesticide drift from nearby farms.
Pesticide applicators, farm workers, and farmers are at greatest risk for negative effects associated with pesticide exposure, which include higher risk of Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma according to a review of studies published in 2017 in Environmental Health. “Consumers can get low exposure over a long period,” says Griffin, “but it’s relatively rare to see pesticide exposure from food at a level that would cause concern.” Beyond potential impact to human health, certain pesticides pose risks to other organisms that are unintentionally exposed, and the environment.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets the maximum amount of pesticide residue permitted to remain on or in produce for human safety. Some advocacy groups, like the Environmental Working Group (EWG), feel the EPA levels are too high. To help consumers make informed choices, EWG annually publishes the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15,” consumer guides that identify which conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables have the highest and lowest levels of pesticide residue (available at www.ewg.org).
Whether one buys organic or conventionally-grown produce, washing is essential. Washing removes not only pesticides, but also dirt and microbes. Simply rinsing produce under running tap water removed 10 to 40 percent of pesticide residues in a recent study. Hard produce like apples can be scrubbed with a brush, while swishing delicate fruits and vegetables, like berries, in clean water helps remove residues and harmful bacteria. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend use of soap to wash produce, as soap residue is a contaminant in its own right.
To date, the health implications of current pesticide exposures from conventional fruits and vegetables are unclear. “Since the 1980s, we have seen again and again that people who eat more fruits and vegetables have lower risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancers, and many other chronic diseases,” says Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, dean of the Friedman School and Editor-in-Chief of Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter. “The vast majority of these have been conventionally grown. It’s possible organic produce is even more beneficial, but if the choice is between conventionally grown fruits and veggies or none at all, choose the fruits and veggies.”
Ultimately, a decision to buy organic versus conventional produce depends on what you are trying to achieve. Reducing pesticide residue, supporting the environment, and buying more produce for your dollar can all be factors to consider. It may help to know that, where consuming fruits and vegetables is concerned, there is no wrong choice for your health.