Is Going Organic Really Better for You?

More Natural, More Expensive Produce May Offer Little Additional Health Incentive


July 7, 2007 —

The foodies have been arguing about organic versus conventional foods for years, but now the topic is hotter than ever.

The traditionalists say that it's all the same, while the naturalists dig in their Birkenstocks and swear that organic reigns supreme.

But what qualifies a food as organic?

Strictly speaking, organic food is that which is grown without added pesticides, fertilizers, sprays or chemicals -- and the soil cannot contain them either (though organic versions of these additives are OK).

For years, all government agencies and pretty much most of the scientific research have found little or no nutritional difference between organic and traditionally grown produce, meat, milk.

Now comes a study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry that finds otherwise.

Organic tomatoes were found to have nearly twice the level of two compounds, quercetin and kaempferol, as traditionally grown tomatoes. These compounds, part of a group called flavonoids, which are just a subclass of antioxidants, have been linked to a reduction in heart disease risk, so higher levels in food would seem to be a good thing.

The Greenest Greens

Of course, fans of organic produce have always felt that it was healthier, but that's not the only reason that many of them eat organic foods.

Often it's a green thing -- and I'm not talking about broccoli. They like the environmental concept of eating food that is grown without pesticides. They feel that fewer chemicals on the farm can mean less polluted groundwater, cleaner rivers, soil.

So, given this new study, is organic food better for our health? Best you can say right now is, maybe. Is it better for the planet? Probably. But there's an interesting twist here, too.

Say you're truly interested in saving the planet, and that you live in Massachusetts. You insist on buying only organic broccoli. The problem is that it may be grown in California and have to be trucked or shipped cross-country.

Now you're talking about 3,000 "food miles." A lot of fossil fuel has to be used to get that organic broccoli to your neighborhood, when you could get broccoli that is grown conventionally and much closer to home, thereby saving a lot of transport fuel.

In that sense, organic may not be much better for the environment than local food that's conventionally grown.

Organic or Not, Any Veggies Will Do

If you're like most people, you're not eating much in the way of produce either way.

We need about 4½ cups of produce daily, and we're only getting about half that much. Leave out the fries (the feds count them as a veggie, even if I don't) and our vegetable intake plummets.

If you really want to go organic, great -- but understand what you're getting into.

First, if you're a stickler for your fruit and vegetables having to look perfect -- symmetrical, apples and pears, evenly colored oranges -- let it go. Organic produce is imperfect looking. That's OK -- you're eating it, not bonding with it.

Second, organic food may not last as long, so buy a little less at a time but buy a little more often. If you are the type to go to the store only once every 10 days to two weeks, you're probably better off with traditional produce.

One option is frozen organic produce. It's picked and frozen usually on the same day, and the nutrients really hold. Just remember to forget the stuff that's packed in "butter sauce" and like that. It runs up your calories and your food bill -- those "enhancements" take labor and costly packaging.

Budget accordingly. Organic produce, milk and meat are usually much more expensive. It's getting a little better, though. Even Wal-Mart now sells organic produce, so that tells you that organic is no longer a fringe movement and is now part of mainstream America. Even most large supermarkets have an organic section.

Organic for All?

Should all of America go organic? Well, we couldn't, even if we all wanted to.

We probably wouldn't be able to feed as many people as we do if we limited ourselves to growing only organic food because organic farming often yields less per acre and it's labor intensive. Farm land is shrinking (not really, but it's becoming land for condominiums), and we have to get more out of every acre.

From the scientific perspective, here's what I tell my patients, most of whom have neither access to organic food nor the money to purchase it: There is a mountain of support for eating more fruit and vegetables. The benefits are very clear, and the solid science is absolutely overwhelming.

Diets high in fruits and vegetables are associated with better heart health, lower risk of diabetes, several cancers and stroke, lower blood pressure, the list goes on and on.

The research that demonstrated these benefits looked at consumption of conventional produce, not organic. So relax; traditionally grown fruits and vegetables are quite healthful, and there's plenty of research to prove it.

Your biggest risk? Avoiding eating fruits and vegetables just because you can't get organic. That would be a mistake, and down the road it could cost you big.

True, this latest study on the higher flavonoid level of organic tomatoes is important.

Then again, we're eating only about half the fruit and vegetables we should, so if we ate nonorganic produce but ate the amounts we should, we'd be getting a whole lot more antioxidants and other good stuff than we do now, for sure.

Tips for Going Organic

On the environmental front, if you rally want to do the max, here are a few hints:

Buy locally whenever you can.

Buy seasonally. No sense buying raspberries in January, when they have to be trucked in from Chile. They don't taste as good, and it takes a lot of oil to get them here. On the other hand, eat a lot of them when they are in season.

Hit the farmers' markets. Most major cities have them, and they're worth a trip. They can be educational for kids, too, and you'll get to meet the people who grow your food. Can't do better than that.

If you can get local food that's also organic and at a reasonable price, congratulations -- you hit the trifecta.

Grow something. If you have a backyard, it's easier than you think. In a sunny spot, tomatoes are a snap. Plant some collards or other greens, and you'll have something from the garden from summer through the fall. Besides, to get your kids to eat something, give them a hand at growing it. They're way more invested and more likely to taste what they helped to grow.

Keith-Thomas Ayoob is an associate professor in the department of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.