Organic food is a recent addition to the market that is quickly becoming a large portion of all food sold. In 1990 in the US, the sales of organic food and beverages netted $1 billion. By 2010 it had jumped to an impressive $26.7 billion. Organic fruits and vegetables also experienced an 11.8 percent increase in sales between 2009-2010. While these numbers are impressive, what is more impressive are the reasons for these consumer choices. In short, consuming a diet of organic fruits and vegetables have many benefits over the traditional diet comprised of fruits and vegetables grown with synthetic pesticides, fungicides, genetic modifications, and/or synthetic food additives.
What is Organic Food?
Interest in organic food has been around since the 1940s when the Green Revolution started. The term “Green Revolution” refers to the period of time when agriculture was industrialized between the 1940s and late 1960s. The Green Revolution is credited with saving over a billion people from starvation. It did this by improving agricultural techniques, but also by introducing the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
It wasn’t until 1990 that organic food had a legal definition (in the US). The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990 decreed that a product could not be labeled organic unless its production and processing met a set of standards (current standards can be found here). The Organic Trade Association currently defines organic as:
Organic production is based on a system of farming that maintains and replenishes soil fertility without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers. Organically produced foods also must be produced without the use of antibiotics, synthetic hormones, genetic engineering and other excluded practices, sewage sludge, or irradiation. Cloning animals or using their products would be considered inconsistent with organic practices. Organic foods are minimally processed without artificial ingredients, preservatives, or irradiation to maintain the integrity of the food.
5 Benefits of Eating Organic Food
1. One benefit of eating organic fruits and vegetables is that they tend to have higher levels of nutrients than their conventionally grown counter parts do. This is most likely because organic farming creates healthier soil, which in turn creates healthier fruits and vegetables. Take a look at these studies that verify this claim:
- This study led by Reganold of Washington State University compared 13 organic strawberry fields to 13 conventionally farmed strawberry fields. The study found that strawberries grown in the organic fields had significantly higher antioxidant activity, higher ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) content, longer shelf life, and more dry matter.
- Another study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry showed that “blueberry fruit grown from organic culture yielded significantly higher sugars (fructose and glucose), malic acid, total phenolics, total anthocyanins, and antioxidant activity (ORAC) than fruit from the conventional culture”
- This report assembled by The Organic Center and professors from University of Florida and Washington State university also verified the higher nutrient content of organic fruits and vegetables. In the studies that were used in compiling the report, differences of 25-300 percent in nutrient density were noticed in comparing organic foods to conventionally grown foods. It should be noted that due to the simple laws of plant physiology, certain nutrients are higher in conventionally grown foods, but organic foods on average have a higher total nutrient density.
2. A second benefit of eating organic fruits and vegetables is that they have far lower concentrations of harmful pesticides. The most studied class of pesticides are called organophosphates. This class of insecticides work by irreversibly inactivating a compound in the brain that is essential for the function of the nervous system. The nerve agent sarin, which has been in the news recently because of its use in the Syrian Civil War, is an organophosphate like these insecticides. This becomes frightening to the public when these compounds are detected in food and drinking water (albeit in small amounts).
While finding compounds related to nerve gas in your food and water is quite a public health concern, there are some studies that show that consuming an organic diet will quickly eliminate these compounds from your body. A study published in Environmental Health Perspective was “able to demonstrate that an organic diet provides a dramatic and immediate protective effect against exposures to organophosphorus pesticides that are commonly used in agricultural production.” Another study done by researchers at Washington State University corroborates this and suggests that “consumption of organic fruits, vegetables, and juice can reduce children’s exposure levels from above to below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s current guidelines, thereby shifting exposures from a range of uncertain risk to a range of negligible risk. Consumption of organic produce appears to provide a relatively simple way for parents to reduce their children’s exposure to organophosphate pesticides.”
3. A third benefit that you will notice instantly after biting into an organic fruit or vegetable is taste. If a consumer is going to pay a premium price for food (as one often does for organics), they generally expect them to taste better than the cheaper option (conventionally grown fruits and vegetables). A study done by The Organic Center found that 43 percent of the consumers they surveyed that were buying organic foods did so because of the taste. They also reviewed other studies on the differences between conventional and organic apples, strawberries and tomatoes. All of these were found to have better flavor when grown organically than their conventionally grown counterparts.
4. There is a fourth benefit from eating organic fruits and vegetables may not be immediately apparent to the average consumer. However, you can guarantee that the farmer growing your organic food notices these benefits. United States national organic standards include practices that help preserve the quality of the soil and the soil itself. These standards are quite important to the future of agriculture because currently worldwide we lose 75 billion tons of fertile topsoil with 6.9 billion tons being lost in United States alone. These losses are not sustainable contribute to the ever increasing use of fertilizers and soil amendments. However, by choosing to eat organic foods, you are indirectly helping to save a very important finite resource: soil.
5. Having cleaner water is yet another benefit of eating organic food. Organic food systems typically do not create nearly as much water pollution from nutrient runoff caused by rain and fertilization. This is because in organic farming, there is not as much run off due to various soil characteristics (soil aggregate size and percentage organic matter in the soil) and due to the fact that the natural fertilizers such as manure, compost, or worm castings release nutrients much slower than synthetic fertilizer. While this means that the farmer’s plants may not get a quick injection of nutrients, it mimics natural cycles more and also means that far more nutrients end up in the soil and the plants rather than in our waterways.
Best Foods to Buy Organic
If you’re shopping for groceries and you want to start eating organic fruits and vegetables, which foods should you start with? Popcorn is one to start with. Though popcorn isn’t exactly a staple of the average person’s diet, microwaveable popcorn bags can contain a compound called Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). According to this study, PFOA can cause cancer, liver disease, developmental problems, immunological diseases, and it can also alter the levels of thyroid hormone levels. Though research isn’t solid enough yet for the FDA to ban this compound outright, more research is currently being carried out. In the meantime, it’s probably best that you buy organic popcorn and pop it yourself.
Some other foods you should always buy organic for the reason that they consistently contain the highest amounts of residual pesticides if grown conventionally. This can be due to more difficult pest problems, higher surface area on the fruit or vegetable, and/or the modern consumer’s desire to only have fruits and vegetables that are as close to perfect as possible i.e. without blemishes or defects. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) comes out with a yearly list called “The Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen” which alerts consumers to which fruits and vegetables have the highest concentrations of residual pesticides (Dirty Dozen) and which have the lowest and are likely safe to eat as conventionally produced food (Clean Fifteen). Let’s take a look at the list (which can be found here).
The Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen
The Dirty Dozen (plus 2 in the 2013 edition):
- Cherry tomatoes
- Hot Peppers
- Nectarines – Imported
- Sweet bell peppers
- Kale/collard greens
- Summer Squash
The Clean Fifteen:
- Sweet corn
- Sweet peas – frozen
- Sweet potatoes
This list gives a pretty good indication of which foods are best to buy organic, and which foods should be safe to eat if conventionally grown if you’re on a budget or for other reasons. If you’re trying to eat organically on a budget try buying fruits and vegetables when they’re in season and are cheapest and freezing some for later. There are many tips that can be found online that help eat organically and still keep afloat.
If you already eat all organic foods, great! If not, it’s something you should surely consider. With all the benefits to you and the world around you, why not? After all, it is rather hard to think of anything that is more important than your health and the planet you live on.