Is organic food worth the extra cost?

The Pediatric Insider

© 2011 Roy Benaroch, MD

For November, I’m concentrating my writing chops on National Novel Writing Month. Fun! So I’m re-running revised versions of some classic posts. And by classic, I mean “old.” This one was originally from July, 2008. Enjoy!

“What’s the benefit of organic foods? Are they worth the expense?”

In my opinion organic products are not worth the extra cost. I don’t buy them.

It’s often unclear what “organic” means. You’d think that would be a promise that the food had no chemicals, additives, or other artificial things; but these standards have historically been set by voluntary panels from industry groups, and the definition may vary depending on what kind of food it is. Some organizations are more picky about the organic label than others, and in many cases enforcement is entirely voluntary.

Even if a product really is “organic,” is that a guarantee that it’s safer or more nutritionally sound? Nope. Organic products have been linked to outbreaks of disease, as have conventional foods. And the nutrition content of organics is just about identical to that of conventional foods—and in some cases, it’s inferior.

What about pesticides? Organic produce that’s tested at independent labs does have less pesticide residue. What’s unclear is if the small amount of residue on conventional foods is harmful to people or to the farm environment. There really isn’t any data that has shown ill effects from the chemicals in conventional foods, but I would agree that eating chemical residues is probably not a good thing. So rinse and peel your produce—even organically grown produce—to remove both chemicals and microbial contaminants. The amount of pesticide residue varies considerably depending on the kind of produce; for instance, even conventional asparagus, broccoli, and corn rarely have any detectable chemical residues. Consumer Reports published a table of fruits and veggies explaining which are most likely to contain pesticides.

Some people are concerned about hormones given to some dairy cattle to increase milk production, called “BGH” (sometimes abbreviated rBGH, BST, or bST.) I am unconvinced that this is something to worry about. The amounts of hormones in the final milk product are very similar to the milk from untreated cows, and no clinical study or plausible theory supports any genuine health risk from this.

What’s the downside to organic products? They cost more to produce; or, put another way, you get less food per acre. With food prices increasing throughout the world, careful and judicious use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides are necessary to get enough food produced for as many people as possible. Though individual consumers should be able to choose organic alternatives, clearly the world food supply would be even more scarce if farmers were unable to take advantage of modern, conventional agricultural techniques.

While I’m skeptical of organic products, that’s not to be confused with “whole foods.” There are tremendous, easily demonstrated benefits of eating a diet rich in fresh whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, and avoiding processed chemicals such as high-fructose corn syrup. In fact, there is much more evidence of the harm of trans-fats and high-fructose corn syrup, both of which are found in organic foods, than of the harm of chemical residues on food.

Choosing organic products may reduce some chemical exposures, but at this time there is no evidence that this is going to lead to better health. With my money, I’d rather buy more fresh fruits and veggies overall than choose the ones from the organic section. Or save the extra money for the college fund, or a Wii Fit!

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2 Comments on “Is organic food worth the extra cost?”

  1. Tara Says:

    Great post. One thing I would like to add that is often overlooked when discussing organic vs. conventional foods is the issue of organic pesticides. Organically grown foods often use so called “natural pesticides” that may be just as poisonous as synthetic fertilizers. These pesticides (rotenone and pyrethrum to name a couple) are often times used in greater quantities due to not being as effective as natural fertilizers and are hardly examined when determining food safety. Many organic fertilizers are carcinogenic or otherwise toxic. I think it is a wide misconception that organic foods never use pesticides. Thanks

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  2. anthony Says:

    I know that more and more exceptions are added as far as artificial things in organic food are concerned but this is just the recent initiative of some organizations whose only goal is to increase their overall profits. For me organic food is always worth the higher cost and I think people will always prefer it to the unhealthy food even though it is sometimes advertised more. So, for example, if you are concerned about the treatment of animals you’ll have little alternative but to visit one of the farms that offer high-quality, healthy meat like Toronto’s two biggest marketsat the Evergreen Brickworks and the Wychwood Barns in spite of the fact that the cost of these products will be higher.

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