As a nutritionist, my job isn’t just to help you eat better, it’s also to help you become better informed about the foods you eat. One change my clients often assume they need to make, is to switch to organic fruit and vegetables. It’s often said with a hint of guilt during our first meeting “I know, we need to start eating more organic produce”. It seems obvious to be choosing healthier, better and environmentally friendly produce. Doesn’t it?
As we learn more about the ill effects of modern life on our health, organic food has moved up the priority list of many families. Well, I have some news that may surprise you. I don’t buy organic fruit and vegetables*. Are you surprised? The truth is, organic doesn’t mean healthier.
*Let me be clear, I don’t avoid organic produce – I just don’t prioritize them from a nutrition perspective.
What is organic?
First lets take a quick look at what organic really means. Each country has their own guidelines and certification process about organic farming methods and the criteria varies. In Australia, the word organic is not regulated, meaning anyone can use it on their labels. We have only had guidelines (called a standard) since 2009 (here). The standard isn’t mandated but helps the ACCC ensure that claims made about organic foods are not false or misleading.
Organic-certified produce simply means the food was grown, harvested, stored and transported without the use of synthetic chemicals, irradiation or fumigants. So, organic fruit and vegetables can still be sprayed with pesticides and herbicides, they just need to be naturally occurring and not man-made.
The dirty dozen and safe fifteen
If you’ve ever searched online for information about organic produce, you’re bound to have come across the dirty dozen and clean fifteen. A selection of conventionally grown fruit and vegetable samples are tested each year for pesticide residue, the twelves with the highest pesticide load make the dirty dozen list and the ones with the least make the clean fifteen. The idea is you buy only organic varieties of the dirty dozen and conventional is OK for the clean fifteen.
I have a few issues with these recommendations:
- The recommendations are based on a small sample of produce, grown in the USA. It’s unlikely to be representative of the conventional fruit and vegetables we have access to and that you are eating here in Australia.
- Australian produce (grown and imported) is regularly and closely monitored for pesticide residue by Food Standards Australia New Zealand. They find the maximum safe limits of chemicals, reduce it by a lot (as a safety buffer) and sets these as maximum use regulations for our food supply. Put simply, you’d need to eat more of the dirty dozen than humanly possible to be effected by the residue.
- All farmers use pest control (even organic) and they all use it safely. We are so lucky to have one of the most secure and safe food supplies in the world.
- The benefits of eating as much fruit and vegetables as you can every day, severely out weighs any risk from chemicals. Reducing the amount you’re buying in order to afford organic or avoiding anything on the dirty dozen list is reducing your intake and taking away those benefits.
- It’s just plain bad science and doesn’t hold any scientific credibility (more on that here).
Why I don’t buy organic fruit and vegetables:
1. Organic produce is not nutritionally superior
Organic food gets an undeserved health halo. Most people believe that organic food has higher nutrient content but this simply isn’t true. Reviews of all the available studies consistently show that there is no evidence that organic foods are more nutritious than conventional foods (here, here and here).
Fans of organic foods will often show small studies that have found a difference in nutrients between organic and conventially frown fruit and vegetables. Even if this was the case (remember the studies above) the differences were very, very small, for a very small amount of nutrients. So over your lifetime of consuming organic fruit and vegetables, compared to the same amount of conventional fruit and vegetables, isn’t actually going to leave you any better off.
When looking at packaged foods, the organic label only applies to the fact that the ingredients used have been grown organically. When faced with two similar foods in a packet or jar, many people assume the organic version is overall healthier, but this isn’t always true. Using organic ingredients doesn’t mean it is lower in sugar, salt or other additives. For example, organic baked beans aren’t any healthier than regular Heinz -salt-reduced. They may be made with organic navy beans but they could have even more added salt and sugar. On the other side, my favourite lazy garlic from a jar happens to be organic. Nothing to do with the fact that the garlic was grown organically, it just doesn’t have any added sugar or sodium! Always read the ingredients list and nutrition information panel to see what’s in your food and to compare brands.
2. Organic food is expensive
There’s no doubt that it takes more effort to produce organic food so the const is substantially higher. There is a much smaller range available of organically grown produce at a time, potentially limiting the variety of foods eaten by the family if you were restricted to organic only. If you live in an area with lower house prices (and more blue collar workers) your access to the organic fruit and vegetables is going to be limited too, purely on demand.
I’d rather spend our food budget getting more fruit and vegetables to make sure that we meet (and exceed) our recommended serves which is associated with better health outcomes than spend that finite amount to buy organic which has not been associated with better health outcomes, which limit our intake.
3. Organic does not mean pesticide free
Australian Certified Organic products are free from synthetic pesticides, herbicides, hormones and antibiotics. But they do use chemical products that are naturally derived. Pesticides like pyrethrins, light oils, copper and sulphur. As more research is done on natural pesticides we are realizing that many are in fact dangerous at certain doses, as synthetic versions can be too (note that many natural pesticides tend to need higher dose to be effective). Just because it’s naturally occurring in nature, doesn’t mean it’s safe.
Synthetic chemical use on conventional produce is constantly being monitored and even the items on the dirty dozen list come well within safe limits when compared with the chronic reference dose. If you see the dirty dozen (which is just incorrect) and how most organic purchasing is done as a result of fear, guilt and not informed choice. Everyone wants the best for the health of their families but no-one should be spend extra money (or feel bad about not being able to spend extra money) on organic apples for a health benefit that isn’t actually going to make anyone any healthier!
4. Organic farming is not always the best for the environment
As a nutritionist, my approach to food is always going to be nutrition, it isn’t my job to influence your ethical choices, so I will be brief here! All farming is going to negatively effect the environment. Organic farming produces less yield for the area of land it uses and doesn’t make use of the benefits of genetically modified crops (which require less pesticides). There are certainly benefits to organic farming methods, like hosting more bees and butterflies, crop rotations and mixed plantings. If you’re passionate about the ethical considerations of our food supply, I encourage you to
Here’s what you need to know before you decide to spend your hard earned dollars on organic produce:
- In Australia, eating organically or conventionally grown foods (or a combination of both) is safe and can provide all the nutrients we need.
- Eating a diet based solely on conventionally grown foods isn’t at all harmful, and is a cheaper way of making sure you eat at least 5 serves of vegetables and 2 serves of fruit each day.
- Organic food is more expensive and may limit the quantities of fruit and vegetables you eat
Like most things in nutrition, this issue isn’t black and white. It is not any healthier to eat organic but choosing to isn’t bad either.
I feel comfortable relying on the nutrition and safety of conventional produce to feed my family and you should too. Our priority needs to be at getting the maximum amount of fruit and vegetables in that we can.
Organic supporters often report they prefer the taste. I wonder how much of this is due to the fact that it’s more likely to be locally grown, ripe, seasonal produce. Comparing organic apples from the local farmers market with supermarket apples grown in the Eastern states and left in cold storage for a little while, isn’t a fair comparison!
If you prioritize some of the ethical or environmental aspects of organic farming – then go for it! Just don’t let it compromise the amount of variety of fruit and vegetables that you and your family enjoys. Don’t let ‘organic’ have healthy associations in your mind on packaged foods. It always pays to check the nutrition information of anything that comes in a packet.