Organic vs. Conventional Produce: How Should You Choose?
Published Jul 16, 2014
Through all the years I’ve been in practice, the most frequently asked questions include: “Should I eat before or after exercise?”, “When is the best time of day to take vitamins?”, and “How long should it take me to lose 5 pounds?” But the one question that is still challenging for me to answer, is whether it’s worth making the switch to organic produce. It’s no wonder that people are confused.
The uncertainty lies in whether organic food is actually healthier and worth paying a premium for. Just because a food is labeled “organic” doesn’t mean it gets to wear an automatic neon sign glowing with the words “healthiest option.” There are organic foods that are wholesome and nutrient-rich, and there are others with as much sodium, fat, sugar, and calories as their conventional counterparts. Organic candy is still candy. When buying organic, we shouldn’t cast aside all other principles of healthy eating.
To add to the confusion, there are other terms like “local” and “natural” that seem like they should fall under the organic umbrella, yet they could all be quite different. Organic food can be free of harmful pesticides, yet get shipped from across the globe — not exactly local. Local food could have greater vitamin and mineral retention because it doesn’t have to travel far, but could be laden with pesticides. The term “natural” doesn’t even have a formal definition; still, it’s the most popular term on food labels worldwide. All three terms wear health halos and bring comfort to consumers.
Buying organic food is more than just about nutrition — this class of food touches upon consumer emotions. Organic sales jumped nearly 12 percent in 2013 in part because shoppers feel organic food is safer, especially for children and pregnant women, and that it tastes better. But again we face that question: Is it healthier?
A study published this week in the British Journal of Nutrition showed that organic fruits, vegetables and cereals provided higher levels of antioxidants than conventional produce (depending on weather conditions and soil), as well as reduced exposure to toxic heavy metals. There are conflicting studies, however, that showed no strong clear nutrition-related differences between the two.
So what’s the bottom line? If you choose to switch or organic produce, perhaps the best place to start is with the Dirty Dozen, a list of 12 fruits and vegetables that were found to contain the highest pesticide levels. According to the Environmental Working Group, consumers can reduce their exposure to pesticides by 80 percent by avoiding the most contaminated produce. You might be able to save some money and find peace of mind in buying conventional produce that’s on the Clean 15 list, displaying produce that has little or no pesticide residues.
Moreover, in my book, Read It Before You Eat It, the only sentence that I wrote in CAPS is the following: IT’S BETTER TO EAT FRUITS AND VEGETABLES THAT MAY CONTAIN PESTICIDES THAN NOT TO EAT FRUITS AND VEGETABLES AT ALL. You don’t need a food label or a scientific study to tell you that filling half your plate with fruits and veggies is the key to good health, optimal weight, and the best eating choices. In fact, some of the best foods in the store don’t even wear labels!
And if you missed my #HealthTalk twitter chat with @EverydayHealth, you can get the scoop on how to read food labels like a pro and how to shop for the healthiest food in the store right here.
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