The choices we make every day about our food are varied, complex, and challenging. GMOs? High-fructose corn syrup? Workers' rights? Farm subsidies? Hydrogenated fats? There are thousands of factors that we could consider in making just one food purchase, but most of us can't judge that many variables. So we rely instead on shortcuts, looking for quick ways to make the best choices for our health.
One of those shortcuts many of us use is organic food. If we buy organic produce it's probably better, right? (Remember the Dirty Dozen?) Well, I appreciate writing and research that can dig deeper into the facts and real data, and I just read a really fascinating article about organic produce.
At Slate, Melinda Wenner Moyer takes on organic produce (fruits and vegetables only, not milk, eggs, or meat) and comes up with some surprising conclusions. I appreciate how clearly she lays out her ground; this isn't a piece attacking a straw man or making overly sweeping statements. She looks closely and carefully at one piece of the picture, asking: "Is organic produce better, especially for kids, because it is pesticide-free?" In other words, how much will pesticides in conventional produce harm us, and is it a grave enough risk to justify the extra effort and price of buying organic produce.
Her conclusions, formed from looking at the data and talking with scientists working in this area, is that organic foods can actually have a higher residue of pesticides (yes, organic farming allows for some "natural" pesticides that are often actually much more toxic). But overall, the pesticides actually left on fruits and vegetables, according to some fascinating studies, are not only minuscule, but much lower in risk compared to the toxins found naturally in fruits and vegetables. For instance, one scientist's work found that:
Americans consume about 1,500 milligrams of natural toxins from plants a day, which is approximately 16,000 times more than the 0.09 milligrams of synthetic pesticides we get from food every day. These natural toxins are for real, too: According to Ames’s work, the natural chemicals that are known to cause cancer in animals and are found in a single cup of coffee are about equal in weight to a year’s worth of our exposure to synthetic pesticide residues that are known to cause cancer.
Now, there are still a lot of reasons, which the author fully acknowledges, to favor organic farming, such as environmental factors and overall awareness of what chemicals we're putting into our bodies. The author's point, far from diminishing the role of organics in our food, is instead to promote the idea that really, any fruit or vegetable is a good vegetable, relatively speaking. When it comes to long-term health benefits, eating more fruits and vegetables is almost always a very, very good thing.
Indeed, if the research literature is clear about anything regarding fruits and vegetables, it’s that eating more of them—conventional or organic—does good things for the body. One review concluded that the quartile of Americans who eat the most fruits and vegetables, organic or not, are about half as likely to develop cancer compared to the quartile who eat the least.
But people can get so hung up the organic question that they veer away from produce, as the author says:
“If you don’t feed your kid the ‘right strawberry,’ what do you feed him?” I’ve walked into markets with a hungry kid and been so afraid to buy the conventional apple that I’ve gotten him a snack pack of Annie’s Crackers instead. And I know there are parents who buy the Peter Rabbit Organics Fruit Pouches at Starbucks because they don’t know whether the bananas on display are organic.
These aren’t smart moves. It is far, far better for your kids’ long-term health to get them in the habit of eating whole fruits and vegetables, regardless of what type of farm they came from, than to give them pretty much anything else to eat, no matter how organic or all-natural it may be.
The full article is worth a read. I love reporting like this that helps expose the facts and data behind the shortcut choices that we make. Those shortcut choices are really necessary, as we are so bombarded by so many messages of what is right and good in our food today. My takeaway here is that the shortcut I should be taking is less about organics, and just about fruits and vegetables — in any way I can get them.
Did you read this whole article? What did you think of the author's conclusions?
(Image credits: Baloncici/Shutterstock)