When you’re grocery shopping, chances are that you still eye the two categories of berries and wonder: “Should I buy organic?” While the hype surrounding organic food may seem so 2010, new data released by the Organic Trade Association found that organic foods are in 82.3 percent of American households.
While organic is lauded as the "healthier" way, that label isn't as simple as you might think (and we're only covering fruits and vegetables because of the complexities of this category alone!). Here are four things to know about organic veggies before you hit the store.
01. ‘Organic’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘pesticide-free.’
In February, The Wall Street Journal's Jacob Bunge wrote that U.S. imports of organic corn and soy have multiplied up to eightfold from countries like Turkey, Ukraine, and Argentina since last year. But, "The rules and laws for what qualifies as 'organic' . . . vary in different countries and states," says Hartje Andresen, a nutritionist living in NYC who is certified by the German Nutrition Society. "There are organic pesticides that are legal to be used in the U.S.," she adds, such as soaps, lime sulfur, and hydrogen peroxide, which are naturally occurring.
Bunge notes that U.S. organic farmers worry "their harvests are held to stricter standards than foreign-raised crops." When shopping for organic produce, be aware that fruits and vegetables grown in other countries won't necessarily meet the USDA's Organic Standards, while others like the European Union's standards—which holds the highest rate of recognition in the world—surpass them. A bell pepper from Denmark, upon which the EU's exceptional organic standards are based, might be worth buying over the conventional one grown in a country with less regulated crops.
02. There isn’t enough long-term research to prove that organic produce is safer than conventional.
Each year, the Environmental Working Group releases their 'Dirty Dozen' and 'Clean Fifteen', consumer guides for produce with the highest and lowest pesticide residue respectively. But critics argue that "It's the dose that makes the poison," as the old toxicologist adage goes.
Bloomberg's Deena Shanker reports that one critic, Carl Winter, director of the FoodSafe Program at the University of California, Davis, "co-authored a study concluding that the level of pesticides consumers were exposed to via the Dirty Dozen was negligible. What’s more, they found that organic produce had some pesticide residue, too. And finally, they reported, EWG’s methodology “does not appear to follow any established scientific procedures.”
Nevertheless, Andresen strongly believes "that pesticides and GMOs affect our bodies in more ways than we can prove scientifically. Any chemicals, preservatives, colorings or artificial flavorings added to our foods mean additional work for our immune systems . . . The nutritional field has seen an unprecedented rise in (food) allergies and intolerances [which] could be connected with the increasing amount of additives in our foods."
03. Processed organic food is not better than whole foods.
Andresen says, "In terms of purely nutritional value, studies have yet to prove that organic produce is healthier than conventional produce when it comes to the basics like protein, fat, and carbohydrates." Yet some consumers will choose to buy more processed foods labeled organic over fresh conventional produce simply because it's a more affordable way for them to eat organic. In fact, a study published in late 2016 that surveyed more than six hundred low-income household shoppers in the greater Chicago area found that "fear of pesticides can drive people away from fruits and vegetables in general," Shanker writes for Bloomberg.
Unfortunately, just because the apple sauce is organic doesn't mean it's better for you than eating an apple. "Healthwise, your dietary choices are the ones that matter most," says Andresen. "A conventionally grown apple will still be healthier for you than a bag of organic potato chips or an organic double chocolate brownie."
04. Go organic if you’re pregnant . . . or buying berries.
What about those organic versus conventional berries you’ve been eyeing?
Dr. Candice Seti, aka The Weight Loss Therapist, is a licensed clinical psychologist and certified nutrition coach who works with people on lifestyle changes so they no longer need to worry about dieting. There are two occasions when she recommends always going organic: to feed pregnant women and babies and when buying berries.
"Pregnant women and infants are more at risk from pesticide exposure . . . [It] can affect early childhood development, so this is definitely an area where you want to play it safe." Dr. Seti says. "[Berries] are often on the Dirty Dozen list, but whether they are or not, you probably want to go organic. Non-organic berries are subjected to much higher levels of pesticides than most produce. And organic berries have higher antioxidant levels than non-organics since they develop as a result of having to fight off the environment naturally. Hint: Smaller berries tend to have higher antioxidant levels."
Have your organic berries, and eat them, too.
Photo Credit: Huckle and Goose