You may have found yourself in the grocery store, holding an item that is organic in one hand and a conventionally farmed item in the other, weighing the pros and cons. You’ve heard that organic foods are better for you but as you stare down at both items, they look pretty similar — except for the price tag.
As more and more people have started questioning how their food is farmed and produced, the terms “organic,” “free-range,” “pasture-raised” and “non-GMO” have skyrocketed in popularity. While these foods are grown without fertilizers, pesticides or other synthetic additives, does their nutritional value match up with a higher grocery bill, and what’s behind that price?
We spoke to Vanessa Abbood, a clinical dietitian on the clinical staff at Texas Health Huguley, to find out if there’s truly a difference between organic or conventionally farmed items, and if you should increase your grocery budget to include them in your diet.
The term “organic” isn’t taken lightly by the United States Department of Agriculture. For an item to carry a “USDA Organic” seal, it must meet strict standards. The soil where crops are grown must be inspected and shown to be free of most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and the crops cannot be grown using genetically modified seeds. Also, animals raised on organic farms must be given feed that has been grown organically, cannot receive any antibiotics or growth hormones and are allowed to roam freely outside.
“The USDA Organic classification includes 95 percent certified organic ingredients, no GMOs (genetically modified organisms) used in the creation of the food item, non-organic ingredients comply with the National List, and certification is required,” Abbood explains. “Items that are designated ‘made with organic ingredients’ or ‘contains organic ingredients’ will not possess the USDA Organic seal but may still contain organic ingredients.”
Labor, demand, cost of environmentally-friendly fertilizer, cost to maintain the living conditions of the animals, and acquiring the USDA organic certification are just a few of the factors that affect the cost of organic foods.
Organic agriculture aims to preserve natural resources, support animal health and welfare, and avoid most synthetic materials. So they’re arguably better for the animals and the planet, but Abbood notes that while organic foods make it easier for people to avoid contaminants, they don’t appear to have a nutritional advantage over conventionally grown foods.
A review published in the journal Environmental Health in 2017 studied the health implications of organic food and concluded that while human exposure to pesticide residues is higher with conventionally grown foods, the nutrient composition of organic crops versus conventional crops varied only marginally.
Abbood notes that most people transition to an organic lifestyle to avoid food contaminants such as synthetic pesticides, heavy metals and solvents, but conventionally grown produce can be prepared to limit the risk of ingesting these contaminants as well.
“A great way to help remove contaminants and lessen this risk is to wash all produce prior to consumption,” she explains. “You can spray produce with a vinegar and water solution, then rinse or use a clean produce brush to remove many potentially harmful products and debris.”
As for foods with soft skins or foods in which the skin is consumed, such as strawberries, grapes, tomatoes, apples and potatoes, she does suggest purchasing organic if you’re financially able. Otherwise, rinsing and scrubbing the skin to remove debris is the next best option to eliminate the risk.
At the end of the day, Abbood understands that cost is the main deterrent to purchasing organic food items, admitting that she purchases both organic and non-organic based on price, availability and quality. But thankfully, with proper cleaning, handling and cooking, non-organic produce and animal products can be incorporated into daily meals without any significant health effects.
“Determining whether organic produce is worthwhile for individuals and families is a personal choice based on health beliefs and finances,” she adds. “I always encourage the consumption of fruits and vegetables regardless of the label. So, if families designate $20 of their grocery budget to produce, I encourage purchasing as much fresh produce as possible within that budget, which often means going for the non-organic options, and that’s okay.”
“If you need a bit more help navigating the myriad of options at the grocery store or making mindful food choices, Texas Health is here to help with nutrition services. Learn more about nutrition services available at a Texas Health location near you.”