Mythbusting: Is Organic Always Best?
One question I get frequently is about whether it’s necessary to buy organic foods. Are they worth the higher cost? Is organic necessary to safe, healthy diet? Let’s examine some of the most common myths.
Myth: Organic food means the food has no pesticides on it.
Fact: When people buy organic, they assume that there are no pesticides used. This just isn’t true. Organic pesticides are derived from natural sources and minimally processed before they are applied to the crops. The USDA maintains a list of approved organic pesticides. Some of them are “natural” versions of synthetic pesticides that you might find in conventionally grown foods. For example, a common pesticide found on strawberries is found in nature and made in a lab. It is the same pesticide—just comes from a different source.
Myth: Organic food has fewer pesticides on it.
Fact: The problem with many organic pesticides is that you have to use more of them to get the same effect as regular pesticides. For example, copper is a frequently used fu
ngicide in organic farming. However, you have to use large amounts of copper to get the same effects, which can be harmful to plants and worms. While it sounds better to use copper than some strange chemical, it’s worse for the soil.
Myth: Organic pesticides are safer than regular pesticides
Fact: Some organic pesticides come with health risks. For example, Rotenone was an approved organic pesticide for decades. It is a natural pesticide, but the exposure was found to cause Parkinson’s disease symptoms in rats. A study from 2011 linked use of this organic pesticide to Parkinson’s disease in farm workers.
Myth: Organic food is more nutritious than conventionally grown food.
Fact: Research has not found this to be true. There is no difference nutritionally between organic and regular foods. What is important is the shelf life of fruits and vegetables. For example, by the time a head of broccoli is picked in California and shipped to Ohio, it loses significant levels of vitamin C. Organic spinach that has been on the grocery store shelf for a week loses 50% of its folate content.
Myth: Organic food tastes better
Fact: Studies have also found this not to be true. A study that had a side by side blind taste test of different fruits and vegetables found that people could not tell the difference. Many things affect how something tastes—personal preference, variety, and storage conditions.
Interestingly, an organic label often makes consumers think the choice is better and healthier, and they are willing to pay more for it! For example, one study had people buy organic-labeled cookies and chips, and they stated that they were 20% fewer calories than regular cookies and chips. They also said they’d be willing to pay up to 23% more for the organic version.
Bottom Line: There are no differences in calories, fat, and sugar between organic and regular foods. An organic cupcake is still a cupcake!
Myth: Regular produce tests extremely high for pesticides.
Fact: A 2015 study of almost 11,000 foods found that 99% of these foods had pesticide levels so low they couldn’t even be measured. Of the 1 % that did test high, most were only a little higher and were often from older, banned pesticides that are still in the environment. Some of these were from organic produce!
Myths: Organic foods are less likely to give me food poisoning.
Facts: Unfortunately, organic food is 4-8x more likely to be recalled. A 2004 study found E. Coli in 10% of organic farms, as opposed to 2% of regular farms. This is possibly due to manure being the primary fertilizer. A CDC study found similar issues with more food recalls of organic foods.
Myth: Eating only organic produce lowers my risk of getting cancer.
Fact: A large study of over a half a million women found no differences in cancer rates for those who ate organic produce and who ate regular produce.
Myth: Organic farming is better for the planet.
Fact: While it may seem that “natural is better” on the planet, there are issues with organic farming that are not good for the environment. For example, more applications of pesticides, more soil tilling/disturbance, less effective fertilizers, more fuel, more greenhouse gasses, and lower yields.
Myth: Organic milk is grown without antibiotics, so it’s healthier choice.
Fact: Organic milk is produced without antibiotics, and so is regular milk. Raw milk is checked for antibiotics, and if it tests positive, then entire tanker is rejected. The farm it came from is then also tested. The FDA tests for drug residues, and finds that 0% of milk contain them.
Myth: Organic farming supports my local farmer and other “green” companies.
Fact: Big companies grow a large percentage of organic foods. For example, General Mills, Kraft, and Kellogg’s all own organic brands.
However, buying produce in your community is a great thing to do. Know your local farmer, buy in season, and ask questions about how they grow their produce. Buying at a Farmers Market may also be more nutritious, as produce is often picked and at the market within the same day.