Picking Produce: Organic or Conventional- Does it matter?

Social media is great for making connections. I’ve followed Dr. Nicole Keller, a pediatrician who is passionate about sharing information about farming and food production. After several “conversations” I asked if she’d be willing to write a post for this blog to explain organic versus conventionally grown foods and she agreed. I learn a lot from her and others who share the science behind the foods. I hope you do too! ~ DrS

Raising kids is hard. There are so many decisions all the time. One of those daily choices comes in the form of what to feed your kids – and that happens 3 times every day (if not more)! Food choices are very personal decisions and with all the information (and misinformation) out there about food, picking the right options seems impossible.

As a pediatrician, I have a vested interest in kids’ health. But when I’m not a pediatrician, I’m also a farmer’s wife. My connections to agriculture and medicine have helped me navigate the food labels craze and I would like to help you do the same. I’m writing here to help you feel good about what you feed your kids based on sound evidence – no matter what the labels may say.

Organic versus conventionally grown foods. Does it matter?
Is organic food really healthier?

What type of produce should you buy?

Eating plenty of fresh produce is an important part of our diets – fruits and veggies should make up a large portion of our diets if we want to stay healthy.

The short answer to what type of produce you should buy is whatever you can afford and what looks good to you and your family – no matter how they were grown.

Lists like the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty dozen” take data and skew results to unnecessarily and wrongly  scare consumers away from healthy produce options. There is no need to avoid any produce even if it makes one of these highly publicized lists.

For example, organic produce can only use certain growing methods and certain chemicals to be approved as organic (yes, organic can use pesticides – read on to learn more!).  Even so, a food can still qualify as organic if it has less than 5% of the EPA’s tolerance level for that pesticide (ie. if the tolerance level is 100, a level of 5 can be acceptable). In 2016, the EWG’s #1 dirtiest conventional produce (strawberries) met this 5% rule in 76% of samples where residues were detected. So 3/4 of the samples they claimed as “dirty” actually met measures to be considered organic.

The point here is that skipping produce because you fear its safety is much more harmful than eating even the “dirtiest” of these produce options on a regular basis.

Even so, it is hard to not to go to the store and look at the options and wonder if something that has a healthier looking label or a higher price tag is better.

So, do higher cost, fancy labeling or buzz words (i.e. “all-natural”, “organic”, etc) equate to more nutrition or safety? Read on to find out.

“What is organic? What is non-organic or conventional?”

Organic and conventional (non-organic) foods tell you how a product was grown.

Each type of farming has to meet standards for safety of their own.

Both organic and conventional farmers can use chemicals to help control pests. Pests come in the form of bugs, weeds, disease, or other things that negatively affect a crop.

Organic has their own list of approved pesticides as does conventional farming. Traditionally, conventional farming is allowed to use synthetic (lab created) chemicals where most organic pesticides are classified as natural (naturally occurring).

“Aren’t natural pesticides healthier because they already occur naturally?”

Not necessarily.  This “appeal to nature” or the “naturalistic fallacy” assumes if something is natural it is good. If it is unnatural it is bad. This is a common misconception.

Many natural things in our world can be dangerous: belladonna, poison mushrooms, cyanide, etc. These naturally occurring substances can cause great harm (or death) even though they have not been made in a lab.

What makes the difference is the dose.

With any chemical, natural or synthetic, dose makes the poison. Water can be deadly in the right amounts, yet it is necessary for life as well.

Additionally, pesticides created in a lab may be more fine-tuned – they can be made potent for the appropriate purpose but safe in other aspects.

We don’t get to dictate that with naturally occurring chemicals.

Less pesticide in organics

“Organic products have less pesticide though, right? And less pesticide residue must be better, right?”

Again, not necessarily.

In truth, 99% of the pesticides we consume in our diet are made by plants themselves! This means we consume a HUGE amount of naturally occurring pesticides made by plants on a regular basis.

Additionally, these naturally occurring compounds show similar (and sometimes worse) potential for toxicity when consumed.

Testing for all pesticides wouldn’t be helpful as plants make them as part of their typical life cycle and they can’t be avoided no matter how the plant was grown.

In regards to pesticide residue testing done by the USDA, traditionally, organic produce has shown to have less pesticide residue compared to conventional. The catch here is that those results only account for what the food was actually tested for.

At this time, many organic pesticides aren’t tested for the same way synthetic ones are tested for because they are assumed to be safe.

So does this mean synthetic occurring chemicals are assumed to be unsafe then because they are not natural? No, but, because of their synthetic creation they are held more accountable when testing is done. This increased accountability makes sure the synthetic pesticides created are being applied safely and leaving safe levels (if any) of residue.

Why use synthetic pesticides at all?

“If plants produce their own pest control naturally why can’t we just rely on that and not use synthetic pesticides at all?”

Sometimes the plant’s natural defenses just aren’t enough to combat certain pests.

When you have millions of people to feed around the world that is a big gamble to take.

One of the ways to help achieve a better guarantee of good crop yields is use of synthetic pesticides that were created to deal with specific crop-destroying pests.

How do we know the chemicals are safe?
How do we know the chemicals are safe?

This is where many consumers get nervous – “how do we know the chemicals we are creating won’t harm us somehow?”

Well, remember above we talked about being able to fine-tune chemicals by creating them in the lab?

This refinement is done with the help of expert scientists testing how the synthetic chemical works on the plant, breaks down, and what happens when ingested (by humans and even by other species like insects and pets).

Fine-tuning of chemicals in the lab allows us to adjust a couple things: effectiveness, dose needed, and side effects.

By being able to refine all these aspects, the result is a very effective chemical that can be used in small quantities while also having low toxicity.

For example, when glyphosate is sprayed on a crop, it is effective at very low doses – a volume of less than 2 pop cans diluted in water are applied on an area the size of a football field. The chemical also breaks down very quickly into non-harmful components (it is less toxic than baking soda!) leaving no harm to the crop, the soil, and no harm when ingested.

In contrast, an organic (naturally occurring) pesticide many times needs several exposures to achieve effects because it is not as “finely-tuned” as the synthetic version. Additionally, they may have more side effects that are out of our control.

Think of it like a sharpened razor versus a dull knife. Both may eventually cut, but with the sharp razor you can achieve your goal with one swipe and have clean edges where the dull knife needs several strokes and may also leave you with tattered edges.

Reducing chemicals

“I still don’t like that conventional produce has more pesticide residues. I want to reduce my chemical intake, period.”

The question to really ask yourself here is, “What do those residues mean in regards to my health?” Especially since you now know you’ll be ingesting residues whether you eat organic or non-organic foods.

For example, there are more carcinogens in a cup of coffee than in a year’s worth of produce consumption. So what makes the chemicals in coffee acceptable but the chemicals in produce so scary?

“Why am I afraid of these chemicals in particular?”

After all, everything in our world is a chemical – water is dihydrogen monoxide. Add an extra oxygen to that formula and it becomes dihydrogen dimonoxide which is commonly known as hydrogen peroxide.

Small change in the above mentioned chemicals means big changes if you tried to drink a glass of each! Both sound scary when using their chemical names too, but, when used appropriately, both can be used safely no matter how scary their scientific formulations sound.

We need not fear chemicals outright.

We should of course be careful of what we put in or on our bodies. The residues found on all types of produce are tested for annually by the USDA. These levels have been repeatedly shown to be well below that would cause harm in short or in long term exposures in your diet.

Dose makes the poison

The presence of small chemical residues below margins of safety mean consumption is safe.

Think of it like taking Tylenol for a headache. If you take the appropriate dose, you can help your pain but not cause harm.

You may find Tylenol residues in your blood or urine but the presence of those residues don’t mean your dose was harmful. Your body breaks down the medication and leaves no residual harm in the body.

Again, dose makes the poison and the “dose” of pesticide residues we may ingest in our diets have consistently been shown to be well below levels that will cause any harm.

All produce should be washed before eating (no matter how it was grown) to remove dirt, bacteria and other contaminants. But in regards to chemical ingestion, our food supply has been repeatedly shown to be safe no matter the option you choose to buy at the store.

Care of land and animals

Taking care of our earth is important.
What about the earth?

Some consumers may believe that organic farmers respect their land and animals more than conventional farmers – they buy organic to ensure products were raised responsibly and respectfully.

The truth is, farmers of all types want the best for their land, their crops and their animals. Not only is it their livelihood, it is also what is feeding their own families!

Badly cared for land produces poor crops.

Unhealthy or unhappy animals do not produce good meat, eggs or milk.

Additionally, the large majority of farms (over 95%!) are family owned and family run – these are real people with real investments in their products and their work.

Organic and conventional farmers alike want what’s best for their farms and the products they raise.

Hormones in cattle
Hormones in cattle from bestfoodfacts.org

Health and safety

“But organic raised meat, eggs and milk have been shown to be healthier and safer, right?”

In regards to hormones, antibiotics and nutrient content, organic and conventionally raised animal products are equal.

The labels you see regarding hormone and antibiotic use in animals are fairly pointless.

These labels help sell a product.  The consumer assumes the non-labeled product is somehow lesser.

Truth is, it is illegal to use hormones in chickens and pork. Hormone use in beef is rarely done nowadays and even when given there are no residues of this added hormone in the products we eat.

Naturally occurring hormones will always be in certain foods – meats are one of them – but not because a farmer added hormones while the animal was being raised.

To put this into perspective, there’s thousands more hormones in a serving of nuts (over 45,000 nanograms) as compared to a hormone implanted steer (3 nanograms) – both being in ranges that are safe to consume regardless.

Antibiotics are allowed to be used in conventional farming but not in organic. Even so, when an antibiotic is used, it is used with the animal’s best interest in mind (to treat an illness) and only when needed (when confirmed illness is present that the medication can treat).

Antibiotics are expensive and using them needlessly would be of no benefit. Beyond this, once an animal is given an antibiotic, they must go through a withdrawal period and tested prior to using that animal again.

Additionally, many farmers feel it is unethical to not allow an animal to get a medication when it is sick. So if we’re talking about responsible treatment of animals, this is a big point to consider. Ultimately, appropriate use of antibiotics only when needed in humans and animals is important goal for doctors and farmers alike.

In the end, ignore the labels about antibiotics and hormones in animal products. They are all safe and healthy and all must pass the same standards to be able to be sold in stores.

“What about the environment – is one type of farming better for mother earth?”

Great question.

Turns out both types of farming have their merits and both have their pitfalls.

You see, farming in itself isn’t natural, but, it is necessary to feed our population. If we didn’t work the land, it would just go back to what it was prior (grasses and weeds).

But, since we have to work the land, it is important for all farmers to take care of their land.

And guess what, farmers do care for their land – it is in their best interest to do so! If they didn’t take good care of their land, they wouldn’t get good crops.

At this time, with typical methods of farming, there isn’t one clear winner in regards to the environment.

In conventional farming,  modern technology has made farming so much easier and better for the earth. The use of refined synthetic chemicals (remember this allows us to use less chemical with less side effects) along with GMO crops (see below for more on this) allow conventional farmers to have more yield for less – this is great for responsible use of resources and guaranteeing enough product to feed the masses. Also, since conventional farming uses no-till farming more, there is less soil loss and run-off (organic typically needs mechanical weed control requiring tillage).

Organic farming on the other hand does tend to take more land to achieve the same yields as conventional farming. It therefore use more resources as well – these facts put organic farming at a disadvantage in regards to environmental impact.

Both types of farming can use crop rotation and integrated pest management to be conscious of the environment.

“I’ve heard GMOs are bad. I should avoid them, right?”

This is a myth that is SO important to debunk.

GMO Lettuce? www.foodinsight.org
GMO Lettuce? www.foodinsight.org

GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are products grown that were altered in the lab in some way.

This process is done with the help of expert scientists and takes time to perfect and test before it is brought to the public.

What it has allowed is for is helping crops to resist disease on their own, use of less pesticides, and making crops more hearty to survive harsh growing conditions.

GMOs are an amazing advancement in food technology and have already saved certain foods from existence – look up the rainbow papaya if you’re curious.

Currently, certain foods are facing extinction secondary to disease – such as banana wilt in bananas – but, if we can find a way to alter the plant’s genetics in the lab to resist this disease, we may continue to save these crops – and our food supply.

Additionally, in countries around the world many conditions could be prevented or halted with certain nutrients that may be hard to come by.

By adding nutrients to foods with genetic engineering, we can prevent disease. An example of this is added vitamin A in golden rice to prevent blindness.

So, in reality, GMOs are something to be celebrated, not feared. So please ignore the scary headlines and pesky “made with non-GMO ingredients” labels – GMOs are safe and should be supported.

“Which is more nutritious: organic or non-organic (conventional) food?”

This is pretty easy to answer actually: they are equal!

There are no nutritional or health benefits to either type of food. Research has shown this.

Some foods that are genetically modified can have added nutrients into them but if you don’t count these, conventional and organic foods are equally healthy. An example of this GM type of crop would be golden rice that has added vitamin A to help prevent blindness from nutritional deficiency.

Why is organic more expensive?

“So you’re telling me that the organic label is no healthier, can still use chemicals, doesn’t mean something was raised more responsibly and isn’t better for the Earth – then why the higher price tag?”

Organic farming traditionally requires more land and resources – this costs more.

Additionally, the organic label is what people perceive as better so they can charge a higher premium for those products.

In the end, in regards to nutrition, safety, the environment and respectful farming, the label doesn’t mean anything other than how it was grown.

The bottom line:

The next time you’re at the store wondering whether it’s worth the extra 30% cost (or more) to pay for organic products, you can feel better knowing what the label means.

Make sure to keep your family healthy with multiple types of foods in moderation with a diet rich in fruits and vegetables that you can afford and that look good to you.

Skip the label worry and buy what is fresh and tasty!

Wash all your produce prior to consumption.

If you still are concerned, talk to your farmers about their products or ask your grocer who they buy from.

You’ll likely find a family farm behind the choices at your grocery store who wants what is best for their family and yours too.

Happy eating!

Learn more about GMO and organic versus conventionally grown foods:

General buying considerations

Safety of Pesticide Use and Regulations

Hormones

Environment

GMOs

Health