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Many concerned shoppers fill their carts with organic fruits and vegetables, worrying they will put their family at risk if they buy conventional produce. Other shoppers skip the produce altogether because they worry about pesticides and can’t afford organic varieties.
Unfortunately, in the hype of organic foods, many of us have forgotten that simply eating produce is much more important than worrying about organic versus conventionally grown fruits and vegetables.
The risks associated with low fruit and vegetable intake are far more dangerous than the risk of eating fruits and vegetables grown conventionally.
In this article, I’ll review what you need to know about organic fruits and vegetables, including if they’re worth the investment.
Eat your fruits and vegetables!
It is well-accepted that fruits and vegetables reduce the risk of heart disease and some cancers, lower blood pressure, help to regulate blood sugar, and promote good digestive health. The fact that many people feel that they must eat less produce because they can’t afford organic produce puts them in a very bad position.
On the other hand, some people spend hundreds of dollars buying organic produce with limited evidence that they are receiving a benefit. As a dietitian, my biggest concern is fruit and vegetable consumption. Even the Environmental Working Group (EWG) acknowledges that eating fruits and vegetables of any kind is far more important than organic versus conventional.
It’s all about balance and dosage
Now, consider this. Many essential nutrients in our diets have the potential to be toxic. One example is potassium. Potassium is extremely important and most people recognize it as a good electrolyte found in many fruits and vegetables. Did you know that too much potassium in the body is lethal? In fact, potassium can be given as a lethal injection. Yes, it is highly unlikely that your body would reach lethal amounts of potassium from eating too many bananas. However, people who are in kidney failure and cannot clear out extra potassium are at risk.
Have you ever heard of water intoxication? Drinking large amounts of water without balancing your intake with electrolytes will lead to hyponatremia, which is also fatal. This has happened to marathon runners, unfortunately. On the other hand, we think of sodium as being harmful. Most Americans do get way too much sodium in their diets; however, it is still pretty darn important. It’s all about balance and dosing.
The risk of pesticides
In a study performed to determine the risk of pesticides on produce, Winter and Katz compared the average daily dose of pesticides found on various fruits and vegetables to the chronic reference dose developed by the Environmental Protection Agency. The chronic reference dose indicates the upper limit of a pesticide that could be consumed daily for a lifetime without any observable difference. On all of the fruits and vegetables examined, the ten most common pesticides were more than 1000 times lower than the chronic reference dose.1 I don’t know about you, but that makes it hard for me to justify the extra cost to purchase organic produce.
Keep in mind that organic does not mean pesticide-free. Pesticides are often used, but they are naturally derived rather than synthetically derived2. The word “natural” does not guarantee that it is healthy. After all, remember that plain water is natural and essential, but could become poisonous in a dose that is too large.
What about the nutrient content of organic versus conventionally grown produce? A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine examined 17 human studies and 223 studies that looked at nutrients and contaminants in fruits and vegetables. During this deep dive into the data, some differences were found in urinary pesticide levels in children who consumed organic produce, but those differences were not found in adults. The nutritional content of organic versus conventionally grown produce was largely similar. The conclusion of this study stated that there was not enough of a difference between the two groups to state that organic foods are more nutritious. However, they did report that consumption of organic foods would reduce the intake of pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria3.
Some experts believe that organic produce may contain higher levels of antioxidants. That would certainly be a benefit. Is that benefit worth the higher price tag? That’s up to you.
Ways to reduce your pesticide consumption
The main idea is to eat more fruits and vegetables, be it conventional or organic. Whether you decide to shop organic or not, you can take some steps to reduce the number of pesticides you are consuming. According to the National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC), you should wash your produce under running water and dry it with a clean cloth towel or paper towel. Firm vegetables, such as potatoes and melons, should be scrubbed well. Eating a variety of fruits of vegetables is also a great way to ensure that you aren’t getting too much of one particular pesticide4.
Have you ever wanted to grow your own garden? This could be a fun teaching tool for kids and you can control exactly what is being sprayed on your fruits and vegetables. If that doesn’t sound doable for you, the NPIC suggests visiting a farmers’ market so that you can discuss what is used on the produce with the farmers3. This is also a great way to decrease the carbon footprint needed to ship fruits and vegetables across the country.
The real tragedy is that only 1 in 10 adults get the recommended 1 ½ – 2 cups of fruit and 2-3 cups of vegetables per day5. That means that 90% of American adults are NOT getting enough fruits and vegetables. There is an upward trend of children eating whole fruit, which is awesome news, but vegetable intake isn’t getting any better6.
Overall, the important takeaway here is to simply eat more fruits and vegetables. Choose whatever farming technique, conventional or organic, is best for your budget!
Author bio: Erin Kesterson is a registered dietitian with a bachelor of science degree in food and nutrition sciences and a bachelor of music in bassoon performance. In addition, she obtained a master of science degree in exercise science. She is also a certified running coach with the RRCA. Erin loves working with others to help them achieve their goals in nutrition and fitness, which is why she founded Fuel Your Sport, LLC. She is a seven-time marathon runner with four Boston Qualifying times. In 2019, she completed the Boston Marathon. Erin and her husband are the proud parents of five thriving kiddos.
- Winter CK, Katz JM. Dietary exposure to pesticide residues from commodities alleged to contain the highest contamination levels. J Toxicol. 2011;2011:589674. doi:10.1155/2011/589674.
- Organic Pesticide Ingredients. National Pesticide Information Center. http://npic.orst.edu/ingred/organic.html. Updated October 18, 2018. Accessed January 21, 2020.
- Smith-Spangler C, Brandeau ML, Hunter GE, et al. Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review. Ann Intern Med. 2012;157:348–366. doi: https://doi.org/10.7326/0003-4819-157-5-201209040-00007
- Minimizing Pesticide Residues in Foods. National Pesticide Information Center. http://npic.orst.edu/health/foodprac.html. Updated September 18, 2019. Accessed January 21, 2020.
- Only 1 in 10 Adults Get Enough Fruits or Vegetables. cdc.gov. https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2017/p1116-fruit-vegetable-consumption.html. Updated November 16, 2017. Accessed January 22, 2020.
- Children Eating More Fruit, but Fruit and Vegetable Intake Still Too Low. cdc.gov. https://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpao/division-information/media-tools/dpk/vs-fruits-vegetables/index.html. Updated June 5, 2019. Accessed January 22, 2020.