Routt County CSU Extension: Is organic produce worth the price?
August 8, 2015
In the produce department, I am often faced with quandary: Should I spring for the organic or save some money and buy the conventionally grown fruits and vegetables? It's a conversation I have with myself weekly, but for many, there is no debate — of course, you'd buy organic. They view the decision as a social statement that defines their relationship with their food and the environment. For them, buying organic is an obvious choice, yet I still struggle spending the extra money for organic carrots or broccoli. Maybe you do, too.
While there may be a variety reasons for buying organic, I decided to focus on a specific part of the conventional vs. organic choice and review current research about the nutritional benefits of each. I'm not alone in my interest. According to the Economic Research Service of the USDA, in 2013, 81 percent of families reported they are purchasing organic products at least sometimes. The Organic Trade Association in 2013 reported that 41 percent of those organic-buying families are new entrants into the organic marketplace. Even in our small mountain town, there are more options for buying organic produce than there used to be. Traditional groceries have expanded their organic produce sections, and we have some great health food store options.
With so many different food choices, why we should care about foods labeled "USDA Certified Organic"? Organic certification is hard to get. Only when a farm or handling facility can verify they meet the requirements can they use the certified organic seal. Their land must be managed without synthetic pesticides, fertilizers or herbicides for three years prior to receiving organic certification. Yet, it is important to keep in mind that, even organically sourced food can be unhealthy. Organic sugar-laden lemonade and organic potato chips are selections that should be eaten only occasionally.
Still, I worry about affording organic produce when the cost of groceries in our community is already high. The 2012 Routt County Food Assessment found that we spend 34 percent more for our food than the national average. Add to that the estimated 30 percent extra organic foods often cost, and going all-in for organics can be a costly decision for a family. As a dietitian, I am concerned when I meet people who consume very few vegetables and fruits because they say they can't afford to buy the organic versions. Let's be clear: It is very important to eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, no matter how they are grown.
Is organic produce more nutritious than conventionally grown produce? To be honest, I would like to see a lot more research in this area. Some studies show more antioxidants are available in organically grown produce, but most studies about the nutritional benefits of consuming organic show mixed results. While there may be no clear nutrient advantage in consuming organic produce, it is clear what you don't get in organic produce — pesticide and herbicide residues. We know these residues impact those more vulnerable. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, pregnant and nursing women, as well as infants and young children, are at greater risk from the negative effects of exposure to pesticides. If you are concerned about pesticide exposure, one research study found adults who ate an organic diet for one week enjoyed a reduction in pesticide levels of almost 90 percent. So you don't have to wait long to experience the benefit of lower pesticide residues from organic produce consumption.
The bottom line for me is that increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables is the most important decision people should be making. Locally grown and seasonal produce will offer the freshest — and therefore, most nutritious — options, no matter how it is grown. Yes, the research about nutritional benefits of organic produce is unsettled, but I am more willing to pay a premium for some types of organically grown produce to reduce my family's exposure to pesticide residues. My preference will always be to grow my own vegetables or buy from a local grower. In the choice between organic and conventionally grown produce, there isn't a single answer that is right for all of us and our individual budgets. Whatever your choice, remember: A healthy diet starts with plenty of fruits and vegetables.
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Karen Massey is a registered dietitian nutritionist and family and consumer science Extension agent with Colorado State University Extension in Routt County. Call 970-879-0825 or email email@example.com with questions.