Organic fruits and vegetables are often touted as being better for our bodies. That's all well and good — until purchasing the pricey produce feels totally alienating for those of us who don't have the budget for it.
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That's why we talked to experts to find out what the organic label really means, how risky it is to buy non-organic alternatives to save money and whether there are any conventional fruits and veggies you should skip for your health.
First, What Does the Organic Label Really Mean?
Though organic farming has roots dating back to the 1940s in the U.S., it wasn't until the '60s and '70s that environmental awareness and a consumer push for organic practices expanded.
Even so, the Organic Foods Production Act, which set national standards for organic farming and labeling practices, wasn't actually passed until 1990, per the Harvard Library.
Today, the term "Certified Organic" is defined by the USDA as foods that "are grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing, among many factors, soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives."
There's a lot more to it than that, but here are some highlights:
- Organic produce must be grown in soil that hasn't been treated with any off-limits materials (like synthetic fertilizers or pesticides) for at least three years before it's harvested.
- Organic processed products with multiple ingredients (think: a box of organic cookies) can't include synthetic colors, flavors or preservatives.
- Organic livestock must be fed 100-percent organic feed and cannot be treated with any antibiotics or hormones.
What Happens When You Don't Eat Organic?
You'll Eat More Pesticides
"Studies have found that organic produce has lower levels of potentially harmful pesticide residues than conventional produce, so for those looking to reduce their exposure to pesticides, organic produce is a better alternative," says Maya Feller, RDN, a Brooklyn-based dietitian and author of The Southern Comfort Food Diabetes Cookbook.
What exactly makes them potentially harmful?
"Researchers link chemical pesticides found in food and water, especially atrazine and DDE, with increases in body mass index, or BMI, in children and insulin resistance in rodents."
A March 2012 study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, for example, found that moderate prenatal exposure to the organochlorine DDE was associated with an increase in weight status in boys aged 6.5 (the association didn't hold for girls).
Organic foods aren’t necessarily pesticide-free: They can still contain pesticide residue since certain chemicals are actually permitted in organic farming, per the Mayo Clinic. Plus, pesticides used on nearby conventional crops can also find their way onto organic fruits and vegetables.
You Might Get Fewer Nutrients
While there appears to be clear benefits to reducing our exposure to pesticides, there isn't a ton of consistent information showing that organic produce is nutritionally better than conventional produce.
For example, one June 2017 field study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that onions grown under organic conditions had higher concentrations of antioxidants compared to onions grown under non-organic conditions.
But a September 2014 review in the British Journal of Nutrition reported that some organically grown foods were found to have higher concentrations of carbohydrates and lower concentrations of proteins, fiber and the toxic metal cadmium compared to conventionally grown foods.
A September 2009 review in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported no significant differences in the nutritional quality of organic and conventional food products, including produce and livestock. According to the study, differences in the nutrient makeup of organic and conventional produce are "unlikely to be of public health relevance."
Dr. Hyman begs to differ. "Organic produce has a higher nutritional content than conventionally grown [produce since] the practices used to grow organic food encourage healthier soils and ecosystems while avoiding the pollution of our land and waterways. This sets up future generations for successful harvests and a cleaner food system." Happy body, happy planet.
What about organic meat and dairy? Organically raised beef, poultry and lamb were found to have a 47 percent higher concentration of omega-3 fatty acids, on average, compared to their conventional counterparts, per a March 2016 meta-analysis published in The British Journal of Nutrition.
Quick refresher: Omega-3s are the anti-inflammatory polyunsaturated fatty acids that support heart health, immunity and genetic function.
Organic dairy has also been shown to be higher in omega-3s. So there's that. Organic dairy is produced without growth hormones. That may be a plus, since ingredients like rBGH (recombinant bovine growth) have been linked to an increase in the hormone insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) in the blood.
Some studies have linked elevated levels of IGF-1 with increased risk of breast, prostate and colorectal cancers, though the connection remains unconfirmed, according to the American Cancer Society.
What Should I Do if I Can’t Afford to Buy Organic Produce?
"If our only choice is non-organic produce or no produce at all, we should choose the former," says Dr. Hyman. After all, meal plans devoid of fruits and vegetables are bound to be missing critical nutrients that our bodies need in order to thrive.
Feller says she also wants clients to focus first and foremost on eating more foods in their whole and minimally processed form. "When finances are of concern, I always encourage continuing to eat fresh produce regardless of the conventional label," she tells LIVESTRONG.com.
- Buying conventionally grown produce isn't the only way to cut costs on fresh fruit and vegetables. "Purchasing food in season is a great cost-saving mechanism, since produce is generally more competitively priced when it is more abundant," says Feller.
- "Community-supported agriculture, or CSA, programs where a group of people come together and purchase directly from local farmers at a reduced price are another fantastic way to have access to affordable produce during the growing season."
- Buying produce in bulk bags (and splitting the goods with a friend) or opting for frozen fruits and veggies over their fresh counterparts may also help drive down numbers on your supermarket receipt.
If you do have the financial freedom to be a bit choosy, follow the Environmental Working Group's Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen lists, which highlight the fruits and vegetables that are the least and most contaminated with pesticide residue.
"We can use these lists to limit toxic exposures and consume nutrient-rich food, organic or not," says Dr. Hyman. "So if you love eating berries, which are safer to buy organic, spend the money on organic berries one week and then try some other conventional fruits from the Clean Fifteen list the next week."
Added benefit: Incorporating more variety into your diet is a great way to expand your nutrient intake.
If can't swing buying organic, don't take that as a cue to do away with fresh fruits and veggies. In general, experts recommend eating conventional produce instead of skipping it altogether if your wallet can't accommodate an organic price tag.
One potential exception, in Dr. Hyman’s opinion, are strawberries.
“Strawberries are one of the worst offenders of conventional produce and are often labeled number one on the Dirty Dozen list,” he says. “Strawberry samples show an average of 7.8 different kinds of chemicals — in extreme cases up to 23 chemicals — compared to 2.2 in other types [of fruits and vegetables], which have been linked to cancer, reproductive and developmental damage, hormone disruption and neurological problems.”
Try opting for conventional blackberries if you can’t buy organic strawberries. “These could be a healthier and more affordable alternative.”
So, Is It Really That Bad to Not Buy Organic?
"Organic is a health benefit, not a health necessity," says Dr. Hyman. "Being a conscious consumer can help you make the best choices for your health, your wallet and the planet — and that can be done without buying 100 percent organic." Phew.
- Harvard University: “The History of Organic Food Regulation”
- USDA: “Organic 101: What the USDA Organic Label Means”
- Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry: “Higher Antioxidant Activity, Total Flavonols, and Specific Quercetin Glucosides in Two Different Onion (Allium cepa L.) Varieties Grown under Organic Production: Results from a 6-Year Field Study”
- British Journal of Nutrition: “Higher Antioxidant and Lower Cadmium Concentrations and Lower Incidence of Pesticide Residues in Organically Grown Crops: A Systematic Literature Review and Meta-Analyses”
- Mayo Clinic: “Organic Foods: Are They Safer? More Nutritious?”
- Environmental Health Perspectives: "Prenatal Concentrations of Polychlorinated Biphenyls, DDE, and DDT and Overweight in Children: A Prospective Birth Cohort Study"
- The British Journal of Nutrition: "Composition Differences Between Organic and Conventional Meat: A Systematic Literature Review and Meta-Analysis
- American Cancer Society: "Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone"
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Nutritional Quality of Organic Foods: A Systematic Review"