This blog post was written by Victoria L. Freeman, Ph.D., CHFS, CMH.
Your choices at the grocery store have a profound influence on your health, and they also directly impact the health of our home planet. This statement is no exaggeration. It’s true. We’re not referring to choices between nutritious food and junk food, although those are critical decisions, too. Instead, in this piece, we’re going to talk about choosing between organic and non-organic foods. When faced with this decision, which do you pick?
Let’s first address a common reason why many people don’t select organic foods - cost. In many cases, organic is more expensive than non-organic foods, but for good reasons. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, there are more costs associated with producing organic foods.6 For example, labor costs are higher in planting, growing, and harvesting organic crops. Additionally, post-harvest handling of relatively small quantities of organic foods results in higher prices because of the mandatory segregation of organic and conventional produce. Finally, the marketing and distribution chains for organic products are relatively inefficient compared to conventional products, and costs are higher because of comparatively small volumes. Other reasons organic foods cost more include environmental enhancement and protection of soil fertility, higher standards for animal welfare, and assuring a fair and sufficient income for producers.6
This cost difference, whatever the cause, may lead some to choose the less pricey non-organic alternatives. If you truly don’t have sufficient money to buy organic, that’s understandable. But consider this: Is saving a little money at the checkout worth supporting practices that compromise your health and the planet? Is it possible to tighten your budget in another area that doesn’t have such detrimental implications?
Let’s explore some of the reasons why spending a little more money on organic foods may be worth it.
Benefits of Going Organic
One of the benefits of organic farming is the preservation of soil microbes that assist plant life in extracting valuable nutrients from the ground, thus making that plant food more nutrient-dense. In contrast, non-organic farming methods rely heavily on pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, among other harmful chemicals (more on these practices in the next section). An unfortunate consequence of using these chemicals is that not only do they potentially harm the people exposed to them, but they also harm important microbes that nurture the soil and support plant-life’s extraction of minerals and other healthy nutrients that then yield more nutrient-rich food for us. According to functional medicine expert Mark Hyman, M.D., the nutritional density of plant foods is half of what it was 50 years ago, and that’s largely due to the conventional farming practice of using harsh chemicals like pesticides and fertilizers on our crops and soil.8 Without using these chemicals, Hyman says, a “thimbleful” of rich, healthy soil should contain more microbes than there are humans to ever exist on the planet!
The non-organic practice of over-tilling the soil, thus not giving it a chance to rest and recuperate, is another factor leading to nutrient-deficient soil and food. Hyman explains that this practice is “like ripping the skin off somebody every day.”8 We’re essentially stripping the nutrients out of the ground and expecting our food to be healthy and sustain us. An additional related point: If soil is healthy, the chemical fertilizers used on conventional farms become unnecessary since the dirt can provide the required nutrients on its own.
Do organic foods actually contain more nutrients than their conventionally grown counterparts? Some research says “yes,” and some says that the evidence is not strong enough to conclude one way or the other. However, a 2014 large-scale meta-analysis of 343 peer-reviewed publications published in the British Journal of Nutrition reported: “…statistically significant and meaningful differences between organic and non-organic crops/crop-based foods.” For example, this meta-analysis stated that a wide range of antioxidants were found to be an average of 40.5% higher in organic foods.1 That, indeed, is significant and meaningful. As is the finding from a 2017 study that organic dairy products, and most likely organic meat, have a 50% higher level of omega-3 fatty acids than conventional alternatives.4
Lower pesticide, antibiotic, and hormone exposure and no GMOs
Carrying the “USDA Organic” label means that foods must pass strict standards in terms of growth, production, and distribution that restrict the use of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), hormones, and antibiotics. Certain natural pest control and fertilizers are approved for organic agriculture, whereas non-organic farming uses synthetic chemicals. Additionally, USDA Organic foods must be completely GMO-free.
Science has shown us that these organic standards reduce the chemicals in your body, particularly those from pesticides and antibiotics. Authors of a 2017 comprehensive meta-analysis published in the journal Environmental Health concluded that consumers of organic food have significantly lower exposure to pesticides than those eating conventionally grown food. Detrimental pesticide exposure also extends to those producing conventional crops, i.e., occupational or drift contamination from spraying. The significance of this pesticide contact is evident in the associated increased risk for diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancers such as non-Hodgkin lymphoma and childhood leukemia, lymphoma, and cognitive deficits (from maternal pesticide exposure during pregnancy or early childhood exposure).4
Moreover, a high rate of prophylactic antibiotic use in conventionally raised farm animals is “… an important factor contributing to increasing human health problems due to resistant bacteria.”4 Furthermore, the risk for containing bacteria that are resistant to three or more antibiotics was reportedly 33% higher in conventionally grown chicken and pork when compared to organically grown counterparts, according to authors of a 2012 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.7
Organic farming methods are better for the planet
Organic farmers grow food in a way that protects both people and the Earth. As discussed earlier, organic farming restricts the use of pesticides that destroy healthy soil microbes that assist plants in extracting nutrients and promotes restorative periods that enable farmland to rest and recuperate. Instead of synthetic chemicals, organic farmers rely heavily on integrated pest management practices that utilize a plant-positive approach. A plant-positive approach focuses on making the plants and soil healthier through natural means, which makes them more resistant to disease and pests, as opposed to a pest-negative approach. A pest-negative approach instead goes after the diseases and pests themselves using synthetic chemicals. Organic farming methods also protect wildlife, encourage biodiversity, and help improve and maintain native ecosystems.
Organic foods have a higher salvestrol content
Plants have immune systems, too, and like us, their immune systems become more robust when challenged occasionally. The widespread use of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides on non-organic crops means that those plants’ immune systems don’t have much to do because the chemicals fight the battles for them. In the case of organic crops, however, the immune system phytonutrient “soldiers,” known as “salvestrols,” do battle against intruders. Since organic plants don’t have the cover of chemicals to protect them, they contain much higher levels of salvestrols than their non-organic counterparts. The amazing thing scientists have recently discovered is that when we eat plants with robust immune systems (high levels of salvestrols) that heightened immune function is passed on to us!2
It’s important to note that non-organic farming methods are not the only reason salvestrols are limited in today’s plant foods. Salvestrols taste bitter, and with the modern trend toward sweet favors, salvestrol-rich plant sources are often shunned in place of sweeter-tasting varieties. The additional trend toward producing foods without added sugars and sweeteners has also resulted in salvestrols being removed in many manufacturing processes to curb the bitter taste they carry.5
There are about 20 different types of salvestrols. The word “salve” in Latin means “to save,” and, in a sense, that’s what salvestrols do for organic plants. When we eat those plants, we benefit from them, too. Something to consider: If you consume a predominantly organic plant-based diet, you’ll ingest around 300 points of salvestrols (they’re measured in points rather than the more familiar milligrams or micrograms). For predominately healthy folks, that’s probably enough, but if your immune system faces a significant disease challenge, your need for salvestrols can rise to 2,000 or more points.2 Thankfully, salvestrols are available in supplement form. Another way to boost salvestrol intake is through organic whole-plant juicing. Whole-plant is better than juicers that extract out the pulp because the pulp adds fiber, which feeds your good gut bacteria (also critical for immune function) and supports blood sugar balance by off-setting the concentrated fruit sugar in extracted juices. Good vegetable sources of salvestrols include green vegetables like artichokes, asparagus, cabbage, celery, and cucumbers, while good fruit sources include berries, grapes, avocadoes, and olives.2
The Dirty Dozen and The Clean 15
As you can see, choosing organic carries many health benefits, but if money for or accessibility to organic foods is limited, then the following two produce reports compiled by the Environmental Working Group from USDA data each year3 can help prioritize your organic purchases.
The 2021 Dirty Dozen
The following 12 foods (rank-ordered) are the ones that, as of 2021, typically contain the highest level of pesticides, so these would be the most important to buy organic if you can.
3. Kale, collard, and mustard greens
10. Bell and hot peppers
The 2021 Clean 15
These 15 foods (rank-ordered) are the ones that, as of 2021, have the lowest level of pesticides, so if you need to save money by buying non-organic, these are the ones to consider.
2. Sweet corn
6. Sweet peas (frozen)
14. Honeydew melon
1. Baranski, M., et al. (2014). Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: A systematic literature review and meta-analyses. British Journal of Nutrition, 112(5): 794-811. DOI: 10.1017/S0007114514001366
2. Chischilly, L. (Host). (July 2021). Organic Foods and the Anti-Cancer Benefits of Salvestrols [Audio podcast] with Ronald Hunninghake, MD. Real Health Podcast by The Riordan Clinic. https://realhealthpodcast.org/2021/07/organic-foods-and-the-anti-cancer-benefits-of-salvestrols/?mc_cid=8de28f86f7&mc_eid=7754791466
3. EWG Science Team. (March 17, 2021). “EWG’s 2021 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.” Environmental Working Group: Washington, DC. https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary.php
4. Mie, A., et al. (2017). Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture: A comprehensive review. Environmental Health, 16: 111. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12940-017-0315-4
5. No author. No date. “The Power of Fruit, Beyond Antioxidants: About Salvestrols.” Salvestrol Website. http://www.salvestrol.ca/aboutsalvestrols.asp
6. No author. No date. “Why is organic food more expensive than conventional food?” Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations Website. http://www.fao.org/organicag/oa-faq/oa-faq5/en/
7. Smith-Spangler, C., et al. (2012). Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives?: A systematic review. Annals of Internal Medicine, 157(5): 348-366. DOI: 10.7326/0003-4819-157-5-201209040-00007
8. Wachob, J. (March 3, 2020). Broccoli Was Twice as Nutritious 50 Years Ago — A Doctor Explains Why. MindBodyGreen Website. https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/broccoli-was-twice-as-nutritious-50-years-agoheres-why
About the Author:
Victoria L. Freeman, Ph.D., CHFS, CMH has traveled a long and winding professional road that includes working as a teenage fine artist, later a personal trainer and wellness coach, a college professor and administrator in exercise science and education, a freelance natural health and fitness writer for national magazines, a property manager and interior designer for vacation and executive rental properties and most recently returning to the natural health arena while attending Trinity School of Natural Health to become a Certified Holistic Fitness Specialist and a Certified Master Herbalist.