by Ilana Muhlstein, R.D.
Registered Dietician in Private Practice and at UCLA.
One of the questions I am frequently asked is whether it is worth splurging on organic produce. When organic foods cost 20% -100% more than non-organic foods, we must prioritize and decide whether it’s worth the extra ticket price.
A Stanford University study conducted a meta-analysis of organic produce and found no significant difference between the nutrient profiles of organic and conventionally-grown produce. Aside from slightly more phosphorous and vitamin C in a few fruits and vegetables, there was no significant benefit of purchasing organic produce when considering nutrition alone.
Interestingly enough, the reason why there is slightly more vitamin C in organic produce, such as dark leafy greens and potatoes, is because organic plants have to defend themselves against pests and diseases without the use of manmade chemicals which forces them to amp up their defense system and thus boost their antioxidant power.
Although this study unsettled organic food purists, it was an important eye opener for those who believe an “organic” label guarantees a greater healthiness. This is not necessarily true. Organic labelling refers to the farming mechanism used in the growing or manufacturing of the product. An organic cookie, for example, will likely have just as much sugar and calories as a non-organic cookie.
Even though there is insignificant difference in nutritional content, there are still endless benefits of purchasing organic foods. First, organic produce is far more environmentally conscious and sustainable by lowering carbon emissions. Also, according to the USDA, in order to be labeled organic, foods need to conserve biodiversity and producers are forbidden from using synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and radiation. Research has found organic produce to have 7% pesticide residue versus 38% in conventionally grown produce. Although, 38% pesticide residue is still considered “acceptable” by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), studies have shown overwhelming benefits of lower pesticide exposure.
Buying organic is a great way to avoid excess toxins, promote environmentally friendly farms, help support small and local farmers, avoid genetically modified foods, and involve yourself in the overall world of clean, green produce. Additionally, the EPA and National Institutes of Health found that pregnant women who had lower pesticide exposure during their pregnancy, had birthed children who have higher IQ scores.
So how do we choose how to partake in the benefits of organic produce without breaking the bank? We need to refer to the Dirty Dozen list below. The Environmental Working Group classified produce into the twelve fruits and vegetables that have the highest pesticide residue, and named these key vegetables as, “The Dirty Dozen.” At the same time, the fifteen cleanest fruits and vegetables that aren’t so clearly impacted by pesticide exposure, are categorized as, “The Clean Fifteen.”
An easy way to remember the details of the chart pictured below, if you don’t have the information with you at the grocery store, is to use some common sense. As you can imagine, the dirty dozen tends to consist of fruits and vegetables that come directly from the ground and are directly exposed to fertilizers and chemicals. The list includes celery, spinach and kale, and certain fruits that can’t be scrubbed clean so easily, such as strawberries and grapes.
Apples are also on the dirty dozen list, because apples like to cross pollinate and create their own varieties, however, consumers tend to choose specific varieties of apples, such as Pink Lady, Macintosh or Fuji. Therefore, conventional farmers need to heavily spray apple trees with chemicals to prevent the trees from cross-pollinating.
By way of contrast, the clean fifteen tends to consist of produce that has thick smooth, protective and somewhat inedible shells that you can clean and easily remove, such as corn, onions, avocados, mangoes, papaya and grapefruit.
Despite these lists, please note that it is still always better to eat fruits and vegetables than not eat them! Non-organic Kale is a far better choice than fried plaintain or potato chips. Too often people tell me that they go someplace where they become hungry, perhaps an airport. In lieu of finding an organic apple, they purchase a highly processed chocolate brownie!
In conclusion, if you cannot afford to purchase all your food organically, please refer to the list below and let it help guide you through the best choices in the organic produce aisle.
Ilana Muhlstein, R.D., is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with a Private Practice in Los Angeles. She also works at UCLA where she meets with patients and leads a weekly seminar on weight loss and health promotion. ilanamuhlstein.com