Much like the octane rating of the fuel we fill up with affects our vehicle’s performance, we know that what we choose to put into our bodies matters. Here we try to nail down an answer to a question many of us wonder: Are organic foods superior to conventional versions?
Joanna Lipp, oncology dietitian at URMC’s Wilmot Cancer Center, and Yvonne White, clinical nutrition specialist of URMC’s Food and Nutrition Services, helped us sort the issue through.
Health Matters: The conclusion of a systematic review of findings comparing organic and conventional foods, originally published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, is that there’s a lack of “strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.” Does that surprise you?
Lipp/White: Not really. Vitamin levels are similar between the two types of produce, and some research suggests that organic produce may have higher mineral content. We should add that compounds naturally found in produce, “phytochemicals,” protect against cancer and other chronic diseases, and some evidence suggests there may be more of these in organic produce than non-organic. These compounds aren’t traditionally called nutrients, but they influence our health, so maybe they should be! Otherwise, we just don’t have the data needed to draw further conclusions.
Where you buy is key. Freshness is a big factor in nutritional value. Any produce from the grocery store could have travelled a huge distance—hailing from South America, or China—translating to a decline in the food’s nutritional value. In other words, if you can buy local—regardless of organic or non-organic—what you’re eating may be more nutritious, because many local farmers pick at the peak of ripeness and get their produce to market the same day, or the following day. (Note that, since it’s picked and frozen rapidly, frozen produce is actually very high quality.)
Health Matters: Is that chance of reducing exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria worth going organic?
Lipp/White: It depends on your budget and personal values (some folks go organic for environmental reasons, or to protect our resources). Organic food is prohibitively expensive for a lot of people. Rather than limiting people to organics, we’d like to see them eating fruits and vegetables of any kind.
That said, pesticides have been linked to some cancers, and have been shown to alter our ecosystem. But since most pesticides are on the surface of the produce, if you can’t buy organic, using a veggie brush and wash can scrub off some of the pesticides. And washing is better than peeling, because so many nutrients (and those phytochemicals) are in, or just under, the skin.
Health Matters: Is there any aspect of organic or conventional food you feel strongly about, for example, any organic foods that are consistently more beneficial than their conventional counterparts, etc.?
Lipp/White: Across the board, the less processed food is, the better it’ll be for you. If it doesn’t have packaging (or if its packaging is natural—like a banana), chances are you’re doing yourself a favor. Pick the oats, legumes, the orange—conventional or organic—over the granola bar, even if the granola bar is “organic.” Highly processed foods made from 100 percent organic ingredients are still processed foods, and we really ought to be aiming for more whole foods in our diet.
Health Matters: The Food and Drug Administration has an official regulation defining “gluten-free” as related to food labeling. Is there any comparable, official definition of “organic”? When we buy a pint of berries from a roadside stand, and we’re assured they’re organic—is there a lot of wiggle room in this label?
Lipp/White: Actually, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has pretty strict requirements in place for organic certification. Their labeling can be confusing, with its different tiers of “organic.”
You’re on your own with the roadside farmer, though. (Some orgs are exempt from certification, including organic farmers who rake in $5,000 or less in sales.)
Health Matters: If we’d like to introduce at least some organic food to our diet, which areas of the grocery store do you recommend we try for maximum health? Or are there specific items to aim for?
Lipp/White: You asked for it! Starting with the most pesticide/herbicide residue-riddled produce:
- Sweet bell peppers
- Nectarines (imported)
- Cherry tomatoes
- Hot peppers
This list, revisited annually, comes by way of the Environmental Working Group, an environmental health research and advocacy organization. Since these fruits and veggies are the dirtiest, if you seek an organic foods-adventure, just start at the top of the list and work your way down.
As for other types of food (meat, dairy): An ideal diet emphasizes plant-based food and plays down the animal products. Theoretically, then, you’re eating more produce, so it might be wise to concentrate your efforts a bit more on your produce.
Joanna Lipp, MS, RD, is an oncology dietitian at the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Wilmot Cancer Center. Lipp likes to be active outdoors, and enjoys cooking. She has an interest in plant-based (a.k.a.: vegetarian) diets and how they affect health.
Yvonne White, clinical nutrition specialist of the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Food and Nutrition Services, has been a URMC employee for five years. She currently covers the Wilmot Cancer Center inpatient units. White enjoys cooking, eating (especially her own cooking—maybe too much, she says!), and is interested in staying healthy and helping others do the same.