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Fresh produce has been the top-selling category of organically grown food since the organic food industry started becoming available in retail, with almost half of all fruits and veggies sold in the United States being organically grown. And although organic produce tends to cost more than conventionally grown options, the demand doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.
But is organic produce truly healthier than conventionally grown produce, or are you better off saving your money and skipping the organic options altogether? Here’s what you should know.
Organic doesn’t always mean free from pesticides
Many people lean on organic produce to avoid pesticide exposure because it is known that increased environmental exposure to these chemicals is linked to some unsavory side effects, including an increased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. But although intuitively it seems that eating organically grown produce will help you avoid pesticide exposure, the truth is that this idea isn’t entirely the case.
Organic growers can lean on natural substances to be used as pesticides, herbicides and fungicides that are on a list approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture instead of synthetic options. And while the word “natural” may sound safer, we can’t always make this assumption. One example of this is the use of copper sulfate, a fungicide that is used in certain organic farming practices. While it is considered to be natural and organic, it can be much more toxic compared to its synthetic alternatives.
So contrary to popular belief, organically grown produce does not necessarily mean it’s pesticide-free. Rather, pesticides found on organic foods are not synthetic, which doesn’t automatically mean safer. And while it is true that studies have shown that people who eat more organic produce have less pesticide metabolites in their body and these food options have fewer overall pesticide residues, experts agree that there is insufficient evidence to show whether this outcome has any major impact on human health.
Organic produce may have slightly more nutrients
Although there appears to be little differences between organic and conventional produce in terms of macronutrient value (i.e., protein, fat, carbohydrates and dietary fiber), other differences have been seen. Specifically, certain varieties of organic produce have been shown to have slightly higher antioxidant concentrations — particularly polyphenols — versus conventionally grown options. And organic foods in general, including produce, have been shown to have greater levels of vitamin C, iron, magnesium and phosphorus than non-organic varieties of the same foods, depending on variables like farming practices.
So while some experts argue that these nutritional differences are so small that in the grand scheme of things they don’t make much of a difference, technically speaking, opting for organic food may give your body a slight edge in the nutrition department.
Organic may contain fewer heavy metals
Heavy metals include lead, cadmium and other compounds that may pose a risk to our health when consumed in large quantities over an extended period. And while there is no surefire way to avoid heavy metals in our produce, thanks to natural occurrences like rain and wind that bring these factors to crops (regardless of whether they practice organic or conventional farming practices), it appears that organic farms produce food that contains less potentially harmful metals. In one study, results showed the levels of cadmium, an extremely toxic metal, were 48 percent lower in organic produce versus conventionally grown.
So, should you only choose organic produce?
The answer to whether you should only stick to organic produce isn’t a simple one. While on one hand opting for organic won’t guarantee a pesticide-free food and it does come with a rather hefty price tag, on the other hand, sticking to organically grown choices may give you a slight upper hand in the antioxidant department. And when it comes to heavy metal exposure, organic produce seems to have the edge.
Ultimately, it is a matter of personal preference.
If you have access to and can afford organic produce, leaning on organic choices certainly won’t cause any harm. But if you are one of the 90 percent of Americans who are not meeting the recommended amounts of fruit and vegetable consumption every day and cost and/or access is a barrier to accomplishing this goal, grabbing any produce you have available is better than avoiding produce simply because it is conventionally grown.
In other words, the potential negative effects of choosing conventional foods on health should not be used as an argument for reducing fruit and vegetable consumption.