Is Buying Organic Produce Worth It?

It depends. For many, it can make sense to selectively purchase organic. For example, a banana with a thick skin that you peel and throw away absorbs fewer pesticides than a strawberry, which acts as a virtual chemical sponge.

The lab tests of the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that even after washing certain vegetables and fruits, they contain high levels of pesticides. The highest, and perhaps the best items to buy organic, are: apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach, and strawberries. Some of the lowest concentration items were: asparagus, avocados, bananas, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet corn, kiwi, mangos, onions, papaya, pineapples, and sweet peas.

Anytime you buy organic produce you are supporting the use of fewer pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals being used and put into the environment, including the ground water. In these cash strapped times, however, that may not always be reason enough for a family to increase their food budget. Many people decide to buy organic because they want to limit their ingestion of potentially harmful chemicals and they believe organic is generally healthier.

Sorting through the data on the harmful effects of different chemicals can be overwhelming and sometimes contradictory. One problem is that although we know some potentially carcinogenic pesticides and chemicals build up in our bodies over time as we consume them, there are almost no studies looking at the very long term effects of this. However, since 1996, when a new federal law required pesticides to meet safety standards for children, more than a dozen formerly widely used pesticides have been banned, restricted, or voluntarily withdrawn by manufacturers.

Children’s developing immune, central-nervous, and hormonal systems are especially vulnerable to damage from toxic chemicals. Contrary to previous scientific belief, a 2005 study found that pesticides in a woman’s bloodstream can be passed to a fetus in the womb. The Red Cross collected the umbilical-cord blood of children and after they tested it for pollutants it showed that 21 pesticides had crossed the placenta. Looking at current data, then, it seems to be especially prudent for children and pregnant women to limit their chemical consumption by eating organic.

Currently there are protracted fights over banning additional pesticides in America that have been shown in studies to have harmful effects and have already been banned by the European Union. Many other countries are much worse, however, such as Mexico. Mexico frequently irrigates crops with sewage water and uses many chemicals which have been banned in America. When buying conventional (non-organic) produce, it is a good idea to stick with vegetables and fruits grown in the United States. In fact, the closer either a conventional or organic product is grown to you, the fresher and better it’s likely to be. A great way to both support local farmers and significantly save on organic produce is to shop at farmers markets. Farmers markets also feature almost exclusively produce that’s in season, which should be both fresher and tastier.

Besides reduced chemical exposure, several recent studies have found organic produce to be higher in nutrients and antioxidants. In the largest study of its kind, a 2007 European Union study found that organic produce had 40% higher antioxidants than conventional produce. Scientists believe this is likely because organically raised plants are more stressed without pesticides and chemical fertilizers to depend on and as a result create higher levels of antioxidants as a defense mechanism.

Everyone must make their own decision as to how much of their produce should be organic, if any at all. It seems though that it may be an especially good idea for pregnant women and children. It also makes sense to try to buy the most easily contaminated produce as organic and to support local farmer’s markets whenever possible. Lastly, when you do buy conventional produce it can be a good idea to avoid items from third world countries with lax regulations regarding pesticide and chemical use.

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About The Author, Ethan Mantle
As a gourmet chef, Ethan Mantle uses a high level of seasonal and organic ingredients in his San Francisco catering dishes. He currently co-owns Componere Fine Catering, known as one of the top gourmet catering companies San Francisco.