Is Eating Organic Worth It?
The Top Four Questions I Get Asked About Organic Food
Today’s blog post is a pretty hot topic and has been the subject of much debate over the past few years. Since I’ve had so many people ask me, “is eating organic that important?”, I figured it was time to dive deep into this subject that isn’t as black and white as a lot of people make it out to be. The true answer to the question is “it depends.” Read on to learn why.
What does “organic” really mean?
Before we go any further, I think it’s important to actually define what we mean by organic.
The agricultural term organic means that foods are grown without the addition of chemicals to the soil or food- often in the form of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. Oftentimes, organic farmers also emphasize the use of renewable resources and maintaining the quality of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations.
For meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products, organic means that the products come from animals that weren’t given antibiotics or growth hormones.
So as expected, organic pastures paint an idyllic picture. Unfortunately, there are a couple of major misconceptions when it comes to organic food that one must be aware of when entering the great organic vs. conventional foods debate.
The first misconception is that the USDA’s National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances actually makes some exceptions to the rule that synthetic substances cannot be used to grow organic crops. That’s right—your “organic” food may still actually contain some synthetic chemicals. Major bummer, I know.
Another misconception I hear often is that people think that organic food isn’t sprayed with pesticides at all. This isn’t the case- many organic foods (and most organic fruits) are sprayed with “natural” pesticides, which aren’t always better for the consumer or environment.
So, now that we understand what organic actually means, we can begin to explore when we really should be choosing organic (and why) and when it’s not necessary!
Is organic food better for my health?
Simply put, organic food is almost always better for the consumer and environment. It contains fewer pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides and is usually fresher (due to the fact that preservatives cannot be used) which means its nutritional integrity is better preserved. It also contains no GMOs.
Organic animal products are typically richer in certain nutrients as well, due to the animal’s diet being closer to what it would eat naturally in the wild. Organic animals are also typically treated a lot better, which makes them happier and healthier in general.
But why is all of this important? What are the implications and possible risks of eating foods that do contain chemicals (like pesticides) and GMOs or meat that is conventionally raised?
I hate to break it to you, but the vast majority of humans have some accumulation of the chemicals used in pesticides in our bodies, which can affect us in a myriad of ways. Studies have shown that some pesticides increase the risk of certain cancers, like breast and prostate cancer, brain tumours, lymphoma, and leukemia.
In general, the higher our toxic load from pesticide exposure, the more our gut, immune, and hormonal health is compromised. Since all of our body systems are intricately linked, other seemingly unrelated symptoms can occur from exposure like headaches, brain fog, allergies, asthma, and ADHD in children, just to name a few.
Studies have also shown that pregnant women are especially susceptible to the risk of pesticides and the toxic burden they place on already taxed organs. Not only that, but these chemicals can actually get passed the placental barrier and affect the growth and development of fetuses. Once babies are born, pesticides are also passed from mother to baby via breast milk.
Consumption of conventionally-raised meat is best avoided for two main reasons: endocrine system disruption and systemic inflammation in the body, which I’ll explore more in the second part of this blog post series.
So yeah, the risks associated with eating an entirely conventional-foods diet are pretty serious. By now you might be thinking that you’ve heard about these risks a million times, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s incredibly expensive to eat organic. You’re right- it is. But I typically justify it this way: think of eating organic as your preventative measure to getting sick later on in life. If you can spend a bit more money on better quality food now, in theory you won’t need to spend as much on prescription medications and other health procedures in the future.
Does everything I eat have to be organic?
In a perfect world, everything we consumed would be organic like the wild plants and animals our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate. Unfortunately, to eat 100% organic these days would break the bank for most of us! Let’s be honest, in today’s current economic reality, saving money whenever possible is wise. Am I right or am I right, fellow millennials?
So then, if we can’t always choose organic, what should be top priority?
First of all, let’s talk about produce. There are some fruits and veggies that get sprayed way more often than others. These highly sprayed foods are compiled into a list every year by the Environmental Working Group called the Dirty Dozen!
If you can afford to buy organic at all, please make these foods your priority. (You can see a list of the twelve most sprayed fruits and vegetables below)
Secondly, we want to think about choosing organic when it comes to the foods we consume most often- to reduce our exposure to pesticides and lower our body’s overall toxic load. For most people, grains make up a huge chunk of their diet.
Recently, a study found trace amounts of glyphosate in many popular grain products like Quaker Oats oatmeal, Kellogg’s cereals, and many other store-bought dried pastas and breads. What is glyphosate, you ask? Glyphosate is the active ingredient in a lot of weed-killers, most notably, Roundup, which is used everywhere from the farms that grow the food you eat, to the parks and schoolyards you played at as a kid. Glyphosate is a major endocrine disruptor, and has been linked to developmental disorders, birth defects, and cancerous tumours.
So if you don’t already follow a paleo lifestyle, I’d encourage you to begin phasing out your conventional grain products and introducing instead some good quality organic grains. These can be a lot more expensive, yes, but that’s a good excuse to eat a little less of them and focus instead on more nutrient-rich foods like vegetables, fruits, tubers, nuts, and seeds.
Is it ever okay to eat conventional?
Listen, I don’t want you to stress about having to buy everything organic from now on! For some foods, buying organic is overkill. The Environmental Working Group puts out a sister list to the Dirty Dozen mentioned above called the Clean Fifteen. This list contains 15 fruits and veggies that are sprayed very little and can therefore don’t have to be organic!
You can see the Clean Fifteen list below.
What about the other fruits and vegetables that aren’t on either list? Should you buy conventional or organic for say, blueberries or zucchini?
I would say that this is entirely up to you. If you do have some health issues, especially gut or hormone-related, and you can afford to buy organic, get organic. But if you feel relatively healthy and don’t want to spend an arm and a leg every week at the grocery store, go for conventional!
If you choose conventional produce, remember to always give it a good soak. Filling up your clean sink with cold water, the juice of a lemon (if you want), and either ¼ cup baking soda or ½ cup vinegar and allowing produce to soak for 15-20 minutes, is enough to remove a lot of the pesticides on the surface. Rinse thoroughly with cold water and let them air dry and voila, your conventional produce is ready to be eaten or cooked with!
So you now have a pretty good idea of what you should be buying when it comes to produce and grains. But what about animal products? Is organic the way to go? What about beverages like coffee, tea, and wine?
These are all really good questions that I’ll address in next week’s blog post! In the second part of this post, I’ll explore when buying organic isn’t enough and whether buying local from small farms is better or worse than buying organic from the supermarket. I’ll also give you some tips for buying the best possible food you can without breaking the bank!
In the meantime, if you found this blog post interesting, let me know in the comments below! And if you know of anyone who’d be interested in reading this, why not send it along to them?