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Organics for the Win: Why I Still Buy Organic Produce

Written by Sarah Gilbert - 6 Comments

Organics for the Win: Why I Still Buy Organic Produce

“Organics,” said the headline, “not really very much better for you.” And a million mothers wept.

Organics not proven “healthier”

Indeed, according to a survey of a number of research studies — one of those “studies of studies,” as I think of them — there are very few proven health benefits to consuming organic produce over conventional produce. The nutritional content is identical, says one study; the pesticide residue remaining on conventional produce once it’s consumed is teeny. The study also looked at the differences between organic and conventional pork, chicken and dairy products.

That’s not to say there is no difference at all. Here are some of the observable benefits to nutrition when choosing organics:

  • Organic produce has a “30% lower risk of contamination with pesticide residues compared to conventional produce,” says Stanford University study author Dr. Crystal Smith-Spangler.
  • Due, in all likelihood, to the use of antibiotics in conventional farming practices, there is 33% greater risk of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in non-organic pork and chicken.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids — those are the good kinds — were found in higher levels in organic milk and chicken.

“Evidence” or observation?

Many media watchers and grocery buyers considered this a definitive answer to the question, “are organics worth the money?” (and that answer, they found, was “no”). But there is a lot more to the question than the simple yes/no. It begins with the studies studied.

Of the 237 studies the researchers chose to include in their survey, none of them were long-term. They ranged in timeframe from two days to two years. There were none of those “longitudinal” studies, that show the benefits or drawbacks of diets over a long time frame. And there has really been a sea change in the way agriculture works in the past 80 years — that’s only the lifetime of one generation of people.

A lot of the concerns about chemicals and pesticides, as they work on the human body, are that they’ll persist and affect our offspring; in other words, that the effects will only become clear after many years, even a generation or two.

Pesticides can affect us in many ways, not just through ingestion but through their presence in the water and soil, and anyone who is eating organic produce and dairy is likely also eating conventional produce and meat and dairy — not to mention breathing the air and drinking the water in which pesticides are floating.

Given the above, it’s really hard to find a control group, one that has no exposure to pesticides. And these studies haven’t really operated in that manner, in any case, mostly simply measuring nutrient levels and not demonstrating any long-term benefits or risks of organic or conventional produce.

So the result is simply one measurement of “value,” the nutritional content vs. the pesticide exposure; slightly better for organic milk and chicken, slightly more scary for conventional produce.

What are you paying for with organics?

If you’re trying to make the decision, “organics or not?”, it’s more helpful to decide for yourself why you’re spending money on organic produce. If you’ve somehow come to the conclusion that organics are for you because you believe there will be more Vitamin A and C and B-12 and no other reason at all, well, it’s kind of silly. But that isn’t why most of us spend more money on organic food.

For me, it’s a complex system of reasons, including that I believe I should spend dollars on farmers and companies and organizations that are operating in line with my values, chief among which is that we should have the lightest possible impact on the environment. It’s quite clear that pesticides are not a light impact on the environment, and I believe that most farms using organic principles are also doing a lot of other things I support.

Another reason is that I worry that the impacts of many pesticides haven’t yet been demonstrated, and we’ll see a lot more about how dangerous they are in the future. Already one study of (admittedly, quite intense) exposure to pesticides shows that children in some populations are far more likely to have pervasive development disorders.

Should you buy organics over conventional produce and other products? For most of you, if you have read this far without rolling your eyes, the answer is likely “yes,” as long as you can afford it; and if you feel you can’t afford it, cooking more from-scratch meals and eating more whole foods could be a route to affordability.

Published on October 30th, 2012
Modified on November 11th, 2012 - 6 Comments
Filed under: Consumer

About the author: Sarah Gilbert, blogger by trade and finance geek at heart, has worked in investment banking, dotcom management, software development, and managing blogs on everything from babies to stocks.

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6 Responses to “Organics for the Win: Why I Still Buy Organic Produce”

  1. 1
    Kurt @ Money Counselor Says:

    I’m too cheap to buy organic across the board, but I do selectively buy organic when the dollars per serving difference is not material. Example: Though organic oatmeal may cost 100% more than non-organic oatmeal, that merely means a bowl of the organic stuff costs 20 cents instead of 10 cents. Though that’s a big percentage difference, the extra 10 cents per bowl isn’t going to impact my finances much. On the other hand, I don’t buy organic meat because it typically costs several dollars per serving more than the standard industrial garbage. Instead, I quit eating meat altogether!

  2. 2
    Fred Says:

    Another aspect which you didn’t cover is the complete lack of studies looking at the short/long term risks of “organic pesticides.” These never or rarely are examined because everyone assumes they are ok because they are organic. In addition most pesticides from produce can be removed with simple washing.

  3. 3
    Christian L. Says:

    Sarah,
    I’m fortunate enough to live in a small city surrounded by farmers. It’s easy to buy local—which I love—and it’s organic.

    Regularly, I buy organic meats. Some produce I purchase is organic, but not always. For some reason, only certain foods concern me.

    -Christian L. @ Smart Military Money

  4. 4
    Hannah Says:

    A recent study showing that organic produce is no more nutritious than conventional did nothing to change my mind. I’m concerned with the presence of pesticide and hormones, that’s why I buy organic coffee and milk.

  5. 5
    Tushar @ Everything Finance Says:

    Organics are substantially more expensive than non-organics. There are certain things that should be purchased organic, though. I don’t know if you’ve ever read any of the “dirty” and “clean” produce lists, but that can give you a good idea of what should be organic. Even though they aren’t that much more healthy, they still have some benefits with the lack of pesticides.

  6. 6
    Dustin Says:

    How can you be sure that the “organic” produce you are buying is actually truly organic. I have spoken with people who work at very big farms, and they are adamant that “organic” is complete BS. They say it all get the same treatment, it’s just packaged differently. One reason I am very skeptical to “buy” into it.

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