When it comes to organic, people are all over the map. Some buy the organic version of anything. There’s even organic apparel now (and I’m not talking about edible underwear, man). Others suspect it’s at least partly a price-raising, fad-exploiting scam.
And in science and food industry circles, there’s debate—and contradictory studies and claims—on several topics. Whether organic is more nutritious. Or meaningfully safer (in normal, human-consumed quantities) because it’s free of pesticides, antibiotics and GMOs. And how much better it is for the environment or even society, because of better organic farming practices.
This week’s OlderBeast Web Pick is to help you “cut through” all this. Here’s a prioritized view on where organic is most important, and three useful articles you can check out to learn more.
ORGANIC OR NOT? ASSESSING POTENTIAL REASONS
Let’s briefly consider each potential reason to buy organic.
Nutrition Value. I especially mean vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants – “micro-nutrients.” Based on my reading of mainstream research, I don’t think the “organic has more/better nutrients” rationale is compelling.
Antibiotics. You can avoid antibiotics in meats, eggs and dairy by looking for “no antibiotics” on the label. Whether it’s full-organic or not is less important.
GMOs? This is a near-religious subject for some. I won’t pretend to be an expert. But for my own food choices, this isn’t important to me. Human horticulture over thousands of years has been improving on what “naturally” grows. I don’t seek out GMOs, but don’t view “GMO-free” on a label as independently compelling, absent other benefits.
*** Pesticides. This is by far the most important reason for organic. Pesticides are known to be bad for people. Especially children and those with lowered immunity (and bugs, of course). But for anyone, why would you want to ingest known toxins, even if some claim they’re low-strength and safe in low quantities?
Environmental/societal value. I’m not as educated here, but feel there are benefits that are nice to have. If the other, physical-health benefits can meet or approach the “organic is justified” point point for any given food, then this group of benefits further pushes organic into “yes” territory for me.
PRIORITIES FOR ORGANIC
So, if the logic above makes sense to you, here’s the game plan it suggests:
1. If price is similar, buy organic for any/all potential reasons. You may as well. Very often too, the organic version is healthier in other ways – e.g. less added sugar and more likely to contain whole grains.
2. Organic animal products have no downside (see rule #1 above), but “raised without antibiotics” is the most important benefit to pay for, and you don’t need full-organic for that. I’m also a fan of cage-free and free-range because I love animals, and products of “grass-fed” animals may have nutrition benefits. But to keep focused on organic-or-not in this article, it’s the no-antibiotics feature you should care most about.
3. Pesticide concern is real, and so the most important area to go organic is fruits and vegetables. Within this large category, though, there’s a wide range of pesticide risk and thus a clear “highest priority to be organic” list. See the “Dirty Dozen” section below.
Here’s a Huffington Post article with a pretty comprehensive and thoughtful look at the Organic-or-Not question.
THE DIRTY DOZEN
Each year, the Environmental Working Group identifies a “Dirty Dozen” fruits and vegetables which tests reveal to have the most residual pesticides in their consumable form. As you’ll see, they’re all things you don’t peel or skin. You just eat the whole thing, including the part that was sprayed with pesticides.
Here’s the 2017 list. I’ve highlighted ones I consider to be “go-to” elements of good OlderBeast nutrition.
Fruits: Apples, strawberries, pears, tomatoes, grapes, nectarines, peaches, cherries (note, blueberries were on the 2016 list, so you should think of them this way, too).
Vegetables: Spinach, bell peppers, celery, potatoes (broccoli has been on the list in the past, too).
Additional note: there are reports of high pesticide levels in peanut butter. And peanut butter is another great food – solid protein, good-for-you fat, filling, and super-tasty. But consider buying organic butter. Here’s advice on how to deal with the PB / oil separation in organic/natural peanut butter (and a recipe for the “famous” peanut butter, jelly and banana burrito).
By the way, EWG also publishes a “Clean 15” list – produce with the least pesticides, which thus have the least rationale to buy organic. You can review that list at the link below, but I want to especially flag avocados, cauliflower and grapefruit from that list. These are super-nutritious OlderBeast staples!
Here’s the EWG Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 report.
BUT IS ORGANIC TOO EXPENSIVE?
Major supermarket chains have rolled out organic in a big way. In addition to price competition this creates with Whole Foods and similar retailers, this trend also raises overall organic sales volumes, which improves cost-efficiency in organic farming. For both of these reasons, my sense is the conventional/organic price gap continues to narrow.
The gap that does exist varies wildly depending on the product, though. Sometimes the organic version is twice the price or more; sometimes it’s less than the conventional one.
Here’s an unscientific sampling of a few “dirty dozen” products via Safeway’s online grocery store. Prices vary by season, among different retailers, and even week-to-week given various promotions, etc. But this gives you a general sense of the organic vs. conventional price gap as of today.
- Strawberries: Organic 20% more
- Fuji Apples: Organic 30% more
- Bell peppers: Organic 50% more
- Pre-washed/packed spinach for salads: not much difference
- Small “salad” tomatoes: not much difference
If you’re interested in a broader view of pricing differences, including for non-produce products, here’s a Consumer Reports study. It’s from 2015, but that’s the most recent quality source available (USDA analysis of this uses 2010 data, which is forever-ago in this world).
While I encourage buying organic for some things, let’s ensure this stays in the right frame-of-reference, so that “conventional” doesn’t become a synonym for “bad for you.”
Your shouldn’t conclude, for example, “well these apples aren’t organic, so I’ll have a Big Mac instead.” Conventional fruits and vegetables, even those on the Dirty Dozen list, are key parts of a healthy diet. Actually, some of the ones on that list are among the very best in terms of nutrition. You SHOULD eat them if organic ones aren’t available, or if the organic price premium just seems too much.
But where organic is available and the price is within reason, especially for Dirty Dozen foods, go organic.
“Said, I’m going down to Yasgur’s Farm, gonna join in a rock and roll band. Got to get back to the land and set my soul free.” (Crosby, Stills & Nash, Woodstock – click to listen)
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