The Pros and Cons of Organic Foods

Medically reviewed by Peggy Pletcher, MS, RD, LD, CDE on July 28, 2016Written by Mandy Ferreira on July 28, 2016
Pros and cons of organic food

The organic food industry is booming. Demand for organic food is higher than ever, according to the Organic Trade Association’s recent report. American’s spent a whopping $43.3 billion on organic food in 2015, an 11 percent increase over last year’s record. And yet 5.6 billion pounds of pesticides are used around the world each year.

Organic food is made without:

  • synthetic fertilizers and pesticides
  • genetic engineering
  • sewage sludge
  • radiation
  • preservatives

In order to be certified USDA organic, the product or produce has to contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients. If an item is said to be made with organic ingredients, they must be at least 70 percent organic. Organic food has to be produced and processed according to strict USDA standards and be inspected to be certified.

The pros

The pros

  • Organic foods are free of harmful pesticides, antibiotics, GMOs, and additives.
  • They have less of an environmental impact than conventional farming.
  • The nutritional value is typically higher in organic foods.

Avoid pesticides

One of the main reasons to buy organic food is to avoid possible exposure to pesticides. Over 1 billion pounds of pesticides are used every year in the United States alone, according to a study in Reviews on Environmental Health. These chemicals are designed to be toxic. They are used in an attempt to prevent damage from insects, weeds, rodents, and fungus. However, their long-term safety in low doses is not fully understood.

While there are no current long-term studies about the potential impacts of pesticide residue on human health, there is growing evidence that concentrated pesticide exposure is related to increased rates of chronic diseases like diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s, according to a recent study. Experts believe that the amount of pesticide residue on produce is not in high enough concentrations to be harmful.

Pesticides are known to be especially dangerous for children and pregnant women. They have been linked to attention and learning problems, low birth weight, abnormal brain and nervous system development, and pediatric cancer, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

While children are most often exposed to pesticides at home through bug sprays and other household chemicals, studies show that an organic diet can greatly reduce children’s pesticide exposure. This is also true for adults. A study from the CDC and two universities found that pesticide levels in the urine drop to undetectable levels when children switch to an organic diet.

Conventional crops are four times as likely to have pesticide residues on them than organic crops, according to a study in the British Journal of Nutrition. The study also found that conventional crops contain higher concentrations of cadmium, a toxic metal that is sometimes found in conventional chemical fertilizers.

Environment

The environmental impact of conventional farming is staggering, and rapidly becoming more apparent. From the recent toxic algae outbreak in Florida to the Gulf of Mexico dead zone, pollutants from agriculture cause widespread environmental damage. In the Gulf of Mexico, conventional chemical fertilizers have created massive algae blooms that use up the oxygen in the water and make it so marine life can’t survive in the area.

In many agriculture areas, the groundwater is polluted with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, says the United Nations. Organic farming practices significantly reduce the risk of water pollution and also prevent damaging soil erosion.

Safer meat

Organic meat is raised without antibiotics, hormones, or food treated with pesticides. Eating organic meats may reduce your exposure to pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are becoming increasingly common in conventionally raised meat.

More nutritious

Organic crops have higher concentrations of antioxidants and other nutrients, according to a 2014 study that analyzed 343 peer-reviewed published articles. Many of the antioxidants that are found in higher concentrations in organic foods have been shown to protect cells and reduce the risk of some cancers, cardiovascular disease, and Alzheimer's disease.

Similarly, organic milk has more than twice as much omega-3 fatty acid as nonorganic milk, according to a recent study. The researchers believe the difference in nutrients is from the organic feed. This boost in heart-healthy omega-3s is also found in yogurt and cheese made with organic milk. However, organic milk and milk products are not a major source of omega-3. You would have to drink 11 quarts of milk to get the same amount of omega-3 that is in 4 ounces of salmon.

Avoid GMOs and food additives

Since genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not required to be labeled in the United States, eating organic food is one of the best ways to know you are eating GMO-free. Organic foods can’t be made with any genetically engineered ingredients. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, the potential impacts of GMOs on our health and the environment are not fully known yet.

Organic certification rules also ban or severely limit the use of food additives like preservatives, colorings, flavorings, MSG, and artificial sweeteners. Many of these ingredients don’t have be labeled on nonorganic products.

The cons

The cons

  • Organic foods are more expensive.
  • All foods, including organic, are prone to food-born illnesses like E. coli and salmonella.
  • Organic fruits and vegetables may have a shorter shelf life.

Organic is expensive

Organic food is notorious for being expensive. Some organic foods cost nearly twice as much as their nonorganic counterparts, according to Consumer Reports. High demand for organic foods combined with lower yields than conventionally farmed crops creates a recipe for high prices. For many crops, organic yields are lower than those conventionally farmed because they do not use the pesticides nonorganic farmers use to help more of the harvest make it to market. Organic foods are also typically more expensive to produce because they often require more labor. Organic produce is frequently 10-40 percent more expensive.

No difference in food-borne illness

Outside of antibiotic resistant bacteria in meat, organic food is not inherently safer and has the same risk as nonorganic foods for food-borne bacteria contamination. Fresh produce of all varieties are prone to listeria, E.Coli, salmonella, and other bacteria. Organic food recalls have risen in recent years, but they still only account for less than 10 percent of all food recalls. However, with less organic food produced than nonorganic foods, the amount of recalls is in line with the total percentage of organic food sold.

Shorter shelf life

Organic fruits and vegetables may spoil faster than conventional produce because they are not treated with waxes or preservatives that keep them on the shelves longer.

The takeaway

Most experts agree that the small amounts of pesticide residue found on vegetables and fruits pose a small risk. However, there have not been long-term studies on continued low-level exposure to pesticides, and new pesticides are constantly being created and used.

Choosing organic food can help you reduce your exposure to pesticides, and it also helps keep chemicals out of the environment. But you don’t have to eat 100 percent organic to get the benefits.

The amount of pesticides applied to each crop can vary greatly. Produce like avocados, sweet corn, and asparagus are the least likely to have pesticide residue, according to the Environmental Working Group. They also found that leafy greens and hot peppers are the most likely to be laced with especially toxic pesticides. With careful shopping you can avoid pesticides on both sides of the isle without the steep bill.

Whether you buy organic or not, be sure to properly wash all of your produce. Proper washing helps to remove dirt, chemical residue, and bacteria. The FDA recommends washing fruits and vegetables in just water without soap or commercial produce wash. Even if you won’t be eating the peel or the outside of the fruit or vegetable, be sure to wash it thoroughly so you don’t transfer dirt and bacteria with a knife or peeler.

But do keep in mind that washing cannot remove all pesticide residue. The University of Maryland Medical Center recommends removing the outer leaves of leafy vegetables and peeling hard-skinned produce to help protect against pesticide residue after washing. If you opt for conventionally raised meat, remove the fat and skin before cooking to prevent potential pesticide residue stored in the tissues.

Don’t forget, just because the package says it’s organic doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Read food labels carefully and look out for organic products that are high in salt, sugar, or calories. Organic or not, the USDA recommends that half of the food on your plate be vegetables and fruits.  

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