Are organic fruit and vegetables worth the extra cost?

By | February 17th, 2016

Should you buy organic foods? It’s a timely question, given the inaugural Organic Produce Summit to be held this summer in Monterey, Calif.

The two-day confab is dedicated to the booming $11 billion organic fresh fruit and vegetable industry. It will feature leaders and innovators of organic fresh produce discussing, collaborating and networking on the opportunities and challenges faced in today’s fastest-growing food segment.

Organic foods are a smart priority and certainly much more appealing than eating produce grown with sewage sludge. You are opting for personal and planetary health, and there are many other compelling reasons to choose organically grown produce.

To help consumers avoid the most toxic produce, the USDA’s Environmental Working Group (EWG) has created lists of produce items with highest and lowest pesticides residues. And did you know that there’s a simple strategy for you to get expensive organic produce at the best prices possible?

What does organic mean? It means produce grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or ionizing radiation.

After reading this definition, would you now choose to eat produce grown using these exclusions? I think not.

Specifically, Here are the top reasons to choose organic foods:

1. Avoid chemicals
Eating organically grown produce is the only way to avoid the chemical poisons present in conventionally or commercially grown food. More than 600 active chemicals are registered for agricultural use in America; billions of pounds are used annually. The average application equates to about 16 pounds of chemical pesticides per person every year.

Many of these chemicals were approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) before extensive diet testing. And the National Academy of Sciences reports that only 10 percent of the chemicals applied to foods have been tested for long-term health effects before being deemed “safe.” Further, the FDA tests only one percent of foods for pesticide residue. These findings are surprising, and contradict the soaring consumer demand for food without agricultural chemicals.

Can pesticides be removed from produce by washing or peeling? No, pesticides persist
on fruits and vegetables, according to testing by USDA.

2. Benefit from more nutrients
Organically grown foods have more nutrients — vitamins, minerals, enzymes and micronutrients — than commercially grown foods because the soil is managed and nourished with sustainable practices by responsible standards. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine conducted a review of 41 published studies comparing the nutritional value of organically grown and conventionally grown fruits, vegetables and grains. The conclusion? There are significantly more of several nutrients in organic food crops. On average, compared to their conventional counterparts, organically grown foods provide 21.1 percent more iron, 27 percent more vitamin C, 29.3 percent more magnesium, and 13.6 percent more phosphorus.

3. Enjoy better taste
Organically grown foods generally taste better because nourished, well-balanced soil produces healthy, strong plants. This is especially true with heirloom varieties, which are cultivated for taste over appearance. What does “heirloom” mean? An heirloom tomato, for example, would come from seed that is at least 50 years old and hand-selected by gardeners for special traits. Heirlooms vegetables are pollinated by insects or wind, without human intervention.

4. Avoid genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
If you have a concern about GMOs in our food supply, in the U.S., foods with GMOs do not have to be labeled. Since organically grown food cannot be genetically modified, choosing organic is the only way to be sure that you avoid GMOs.

5. Preserve our ecosystems
Organic farming supports sustainable farming in harmony with nature. Preservation of soil, and crop rotation, keep farmland healthy, and abstaining from the use of chemicals preserves the ecosystem. This includes wildlife, insects, frogs, birds and soil organisms, as well as humans. Pesticide and herbicide use may be a contributor to “colony collapse disorder,” the sudden and mysterious die-off of pollinating honeybees that threatens the American food supply.

6. Reduce pollution and protect water and soil
Agricultural chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers are contaminating our environment, poisoning our precious water supplies, and destroying the value of fertile farmland. Certified organic standards do not permit the use of toxic chemicals in farming, and require responsible management of healthy soil and biodiversity. Cornell entomologist David Pimentel has estimated that only 0.1% of applied pesticides reach the target pests, a shocking finding. This means that just about all pesticides adversely impact the environment.

7. Preserve agricultural diversity
The rampant loss of species occurring today is a major environmental concern. It is estimated that 75 percent of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops has been lost in the last century. Consider that only a handful of varieties of potatoes dominate the current marketplace, compared to the thousands of varieties that were once available. Diversity is critical to survival.

8. Support farming directly
Buying organic food is an investment in a cost-effective future. Commercial/conventional farming is heavily subsidized with tax dollars in America. A study at Cornell University determined the cost of commercial iceberg lettuce, typically purchased by consumers at 49 cents a head, to be more than $3.00 a head when these hidden costs were revealed: federal subsidies, pesticide regulation and testing, and hazardous waste and cleanup.

9. Keep our children and future safe
The USDA’s Environmental Working Group (EWG) points out that there is a growing consensus in the scientific community that small doses of pesticides and other chemicals can have adverse effects on health, especially during vulnerable periods, such as fetal development and childhood.

Spending dollars on organic food is a direct vote for a sustainable future for the many generations to come.

Compelling reasons to buy organic, wouldn’t you say? Now that you know why it is vitally important to buy organic, let’s look at produce items with highest and lowest pesticides residues.

EWG produces a Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce each year to assist people who want to reduce their exposure to pesticides but cannot find or afford an all-organic diet. The Guide helps them avoid or seek out conventionally grown fruits and vegetables that tend to test high (the “Dirty Dozen”) or low (the “Clean Fifteen”) for pesticide residues.

For 2015, the “Dirty Dozen,” with the highest concentrations of pesticide residue, follow. Every effort should be made to buy organic variants of these produce items:

  • Apples
  • Celery
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Cucumbers
  • Grapes
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches
  • Potatoes
  • Snap peas, imported
  • Spinach
  • Strawberries
  • Sweet bell peppers

Some key findings for the Dirty Dozen:

  • 99 percent of apple samples, 98 percent of peaches, and 97 percent of nectarines tested positive for at least one pesticide residue.
  • The average potato had more pesticides by weight than any other produce.
  • A single grape sample and a sweet bell pepper sample contained 15 pesticides.
  • Single samples of cherry tomatoes, nectarines, peaches, imported snap peas and strawberries showed 13 different pesticides apiece.

EWG’s Clean Fifteen lists produce items with few detected pesticides and low concentrations of pesticides:

  • Asparagus
  • Avocados
  • Cabbage
  • Cantaloupe
  • Cauliflower
  • Eggplant
  • Grapefruit
  • Kiwis
  • Onions
  • Papayas
  • Pineapples
  • Sweet corn
  • Sweet peas, frozen
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Mangos

Some key findings for the Clean Fifteen:

  • Avocados were the cleanest: only one percent of avocado samples showed any detectable pesticides.
  • Some 89 percent of pineapples, 82 percent of kiwis, 80 percent of papayas, and 61 percent of cantaloupes had no residues.
  • No single fruit sample from the Clean Fifteen tested positive for more than four types of pesticides.
  • Multiple pesticide residues are extremely rare on Clean Fifteen vegetables. Only 5.5 percent of Clean Fifteen samples had two or more pesticides.

One of the main reasons shoppers do not buy organic produce is that the cost is much higher than conventional, sometimes twice as high or even more. True, organic produce is expensive.

But I have documented that organic is well worth the extra cost. If it’s important to you to buy organic, as it is for me, consider this strategy: Conduct a price survey for the organic items you buy at the markets you shop at. You will be surprised at the variability, and you can then buy the highest quality produce at the lowest price.

For example, for a 5-ounce package of organic baby lettuce, the prices at my local food stores are $3.99 at the Sacramento Natural Foods Cooperative and at Raley’s Supermarket, $2.49 at Koreanna International Market, and $1.99 at Trader Joe’s — the range between highest and lowest price being $2!

I buy some organic produce at reasonable prices, and if you live in a city with a large variety of grocery stores, you can too.

  • Bill___A

    Thank you, interesting article.

  • Steve L.

    Everything else equal, of course people want fewer harmful chemicals. However, not all chemicals are harmful, and everything in life is made up of chemicals, including pure water.

    If everyone in the world consumed only organic food, then there would not be enough food to feed the entire world. In 1964, when the world’s population was only half what it is today, Dr. Raymond Ewell pointed out that, “The world is on the threshold of the biggest famine in history. Not the world we live in, but the underdeveloped world, the three poor continents of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.” The consensus was that, within 10-15 years, the world would be facing starvation on a massive scale.

    The historical event that allowed mankind to avoid this catastrophe is the development of the large scale ammonia plant, making synthetic fertilizer affordable around the world, particularly in areas of the world that had never been able to afford it. Without this breakthrough, a large percentage of the world’s population would not be here today.

    I don’t advocate more and more complex pesticides, causing unknown problems, but sensible application of synthetic fertilizer is a necessity if mankind is going to continue to survive on this planet.

  • sirwired

    Organic does NOT mean pesticide or herbicide-free. It means that whatever ‘cides are used are present in nature. And since there is that limitation, they are generally less narrowly-focused and must be applied with greater frequency and/or quantity.

    Soil used for organic crops is not necessarily any healthier (affecting taste); again, organic crops can deplete the soil just like any other crop, and can be fertilized. (They just have to use something like manure vs. synthetic fertilizer; but the plants don’t really have any idea, or care, where their nutrients came from; Nitrogen is Nitrogen.)

    Crop rotation and soil preservation is not, in any way, shape, or form, limited to organic farming. (Nor are organic farmers immune from messing up and depleting their soil.)

    How does organic produce “preserve agricultural diversity”? You can grow pretty much any species/variety of plant “organically” or with conventional farming.

    And is organic farming unsubsidized? I doubt it.

    I’m not saying “conventional” agriculture in the US is the pinnacle of The Way It Should Be Done, just that most of your supposed advantages for organic farming are simply not true.

  • sirwired

    On the whole, I agree with you, but I’d like to point out that Synthetic Fertilizer on a mass scale was first developed prior to WW I (the “Haber-Bosch Process”.) Naturally, the first use wasn’t feeding people, but rather the production of explosives. But there have been essentially no changes to the process since then.

    Incidentally, Fritz Haber went on to be the primary chemist in Germany’s chemical warfare program for WW I.

  • AJPeabody

    So cherry tomatoes are in both the dirty dozen and the clean fifteen.

  • Grant Ritchie

    Ha! Damn it… I edited this piece, too. Sorry about that. I’ll email Art, and correct it as soon as I hear back. Thanks, AJ! :-)

  • Steve L.

    Agreed – the Haber-Bosch process is over 100 years old. And, with only a few exceptions, today’s ammonia is made using the same process as back then, only more efficiently and safer.

    The big change in the 1960s was the step change in the size of the plants, and the affordability of the plants and the products. While the process had been around, it took application of modern engineering to allow the production in sufficient quantities at an affordable cost.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Interesting article but #8 in particular is problematic. For everybody doing just fine financially, that’s great to go out and buy $3 lettuce but the people out there who actually struggle will continue to buy the 49 cent variety because those subsidies also directly help THEM, not just the big corporate farms.

    And as an aside, the author calls them “commercial” farms but organic farms are commercial, as well. All that word signifies is that the produce is sold commercially. Even the term “corporate farm” is pretty much meaningless any more because many organic farms are also owned by corporations. It’s very common that is the case if you’re buying at a supermarket. In fact, a lot of times you’ll be buying from the same parent company regardless what you buy at the store as large corporate farms frequently also own organic suppliers.

  • Grant Ritchie

    Fixed it. Art said Cherry tomatoes is (are?) in the dirty dozen. It was supposed to be “Mangos” in the clean fifteen, and even though we both proofread the article till we were wall-eyed, we STILL missed it. I blame Chris. He needs to hire better volunteers. :-)

  • judyserienagy

    The topic of organic foods is an interesting one. I’ve never read any info on how I can be sure that the food I’m paying for is really organic. How do I know it’s organic? Do people really think that if the market sign says “organic” that’s it? What did P.T. Barnum say?

  • JewelEyed

    You are right, the part where this article says that organic is pesticide-free is factually incorrect.

  • JewelEyed

    Here is the list of pesticides that can be used under USDA Organic standards.

  • Bob Davis

    A lot of the stuff above is pure nonsense. Organic food are grown with some chemicals. It’s just chemicals approved for use in organics. There’s no evidence that they are more nutritious and taste better. My daughter studied the subject on her way to a degree in animal science. Don’t even get me started on the mumbo-jumbo called Biodynamics.

    Of couse one should avoid chemicals where possible but they are not all bad for your. And spending your extra money organics may not be the way to stay healthier.

    Finally, a lot of our organic food is grown in China. Anyone care to bet that it always makes the standard?

  • CycleAZLindyB

    We eat a mostly whole foods plant based diet and make the decision to spend more for organic produce. Costco has a surprisingly big selection of fresh and frozen organic produce for way cheaper then most grocery stores.

  • Éamon deValera

    No. they’re not.
    Have a nice day.

  • Fishplate

    Isn’t sewage on spinach (and I know the difference between sewage and sewage sludge) responsible for a number of deaths in recent years?

    But it was organic!

  • John McDonald

    last time I looked you can’t get more organic than manure, that’s animal or human. Apparently in China & other places, there’s a lot of food grown with the latter.
    Words organic, natural & healthy don’t mean anything at all these days, as most be food producers use all or some of these words in their advertising, on the worst foodstuffs containing loads of sugar, fats etc.