Is organic produce really worth the money?

I have been getting a lot of questions lately about whether organic produce is better for you than conventional produce. For me, until I see something that might change my opinion, I will continue to get my fruit and veggies from the supermarket!

People often argue that organic is better for you than non organic produce because of the lower levels of pesticides and the higher nutrient content.

This is a very controversial topic but when we look at the scientific literature and put aside all of our fear mongering/hype, we can come to a midline approach that is logical and sustainable.

Here are 15 points about why you should not pay extra for organic produce.

1) Fruit and veggies (FaV) found in the supermarket are mostly sprayed with synthetic pesticides. Which means that they are made with synthetic chemicals in a laboratory.

Organic FaV are still sprayed with pesticides, however they are organic, which means they are synthesised from naturally occurring compounds. Just because something is “natural” does not mean it is harmless or good for you. Some of the most toxic things in our world are “natural” (e.g. ricin and snake venom). Based on this, why is it that organic can label their food “chemical free?” It is false advertising appealing to people chemical phobia as a way or marketing.

2) Most studies done on pesticides look at the harmful effects of synthetic pesticides and not the organic ones. However, organic pesticides have been shown to be just as harmful and toxic as synthetic ones. Also, they are just as harmful to the environment and linger/bio accumulate in our environment for just as long.

3) These chemicals are harmful. No doubt. In the right amounts they can cause things like cancer. However, all pesticides (organic or not) exposed to humans are well below safety limits. The poison is in the dose.

The safety limits are set by taking animals like rats, exposing them to high levels of pesticides and see at what amounts these pesticides cause diseases like cancer. Once this is found, they expose humans to levels of these pesticides well below the toxic doses on our FaV, which are in amounts that the body can detoxify. Furthermore, in these animal studies, researchers inject the animals with the pesticides, which initially bypasses liver detoxification, however humans are exposed to pesticides via our gastrointestinal tract.

On this note, this is why pesticides have been linked to diseases like cancer, because the researchers expose animals to toxic doses of these chemicals, which no doubt are harmful in high doses, the animals then develop cancer and then the media wrongly say that these pesticides cause cancer in humans. But like I said before, humans are exposed to much lower levels on our food.

While some studies may be able to detect blood, urine and breast milk levels of these chemicals in humans, it does not mean that they cause disease in the same way. It is no surprise that these chemicals are found in our bodily fluids because when we eat them, they have to go somewhere. However, this does not mean that they cause disease. If they did cause disease, since synthetic pesticides will accumulate in the body the same way as organic and are just as toxic, it would make sense to not pay extra for organic.

4) It is unlikely that they cause disease because no study has ever shown that organic eaters are healthier than non organic eaters. Rather, people who eat more fresh produce, regardless if it is organic or not, tend to be healthier than those who don’t. Also, we would expect to see higher levels of cancer rates in conventional eaters when compared to organic eaters, but we don’t.

Lastly, those who argue that even though the pesticide levels that we are exposed to are set below toxic limits, it is the accumulative effect of these pesticides from repetitive exposure, which is the most damaging. However, the pesticide load is so low that it would require a person to consume FaV in amounts that they are not able to consume in order to feel the toxic effects. Also, even if these chemicals did have an accumulative effect, why is it that we see lower disease rates in people who eat more fruit and veg?

5) 85% of toxicologists who specialise in this stuff say that organic is no more healthier than non organic. Turning people away from non-organic produce does more harm than good, as most people can’t afford organic produce, which leads them to decrease their overall intake of FaV, which is not good!

6) Most of our pesticide exposure these days doesn’t actually come from our food, they come from our environment. Pesticides are used in our buildings, paints, walls, plastics, carpets and cleaning products in order to protect us from deadly pathogens. It is to stop things like bacteria and other microbes from destroying our walls and houses etc. They are sprayed in supermarkets to keep harmful pests and microbes from contaminating and destroying our food.

7) 70% of diseases related to chemical exposure is due to air pollution, not our foods.

8) Studies that show pesticides are harmful in humans are epidemiological in nature, which means they can only draw associations (not causation) between pesticide exposure and disease rates. These correlations are often weak due to many confounding variables which we know can also contribute to disease. The only studies show a strong correlation between pesticide exposure and disease are studies that look at people with high environmental exposure. e.g. farmers who spray pesticides on their own crops. But obviously not everyone is a farmer and exposed to the same levels.

We forget that pesticides play an important role in our food supply. We have been reaping the rewards of pesticide use for decades. Pesticide use increases the amount of crops we can grow and therefore feed more people in the ever growing population. This is because it leads to less crop destruction from pests and microbes. Pesticides also help protect us from fungal and bacterial contamination of our food which could potentially be very dangerous to us/kill us. They help increase FaV shelf life, which decreases food wastage. They help lower the prices of FaV making good food more accessible. They help protect our food from pests that carry deadly diseases.

9) Studies that show organic FaV are healthier than non organic are usually funded by organic companies.

10) Organic food and fresh produce that you find in health food stores have a certified organic logo. Now in order to get certified, the food has to follow certain guidelines in its production. This does not mean that it is necessarily healthier. An organic chocolate bar is NOT healthier than a non organic one. At the end of the day sugar is sugar, vegetable oil is vegetable oil and processed food is processed food, regardless if it is organic or not, it will still function in the body the same way. Once again organic/natural does not mean it is healthier for you or harmless.

11) Studies consistently show that eating whole food that is minimally processed, is far better than eating processed food regardless if it is organic or not. This is because these large scale population studies do not differentiate between organic and non-organic produce.

12) We must understand that the organic food/whole-food industry is a HUGE, 85 billion dollar industry and people make a lot of money off it! It is a business at the end of the day, trying to maximize profits. Therefore the industry instills unsupported fear in people to buy their products, which is their strongest marketing tool. People believe the hype because through fear mongering, the media and unqualified “health gurus,” they have been lead to believe that “chemicals’ ‘ are harmful and “natural” means harmless. What people forget to realise is that EVERYTHING is made of chemicals. A chemical named in its scientific terminology can sound scary to anyone. Some of the naturally occurring chemicals in apples are a mouthful! However, the complexity of a chemical’s name and whether it is natural or synthetic has nothing to do with its safety profile. And like I said before, any chemical/substance (yes, even water) in the right dose can cause health issues. The poison is in the dose. If a chemical in your food has made its way to consumer shelves, it has gone through rigorous testing for its safety profile in the amounts that you will be exposed to it. Organic or not.

13) In regards to nutrient content. To put it simply, as soon as you harvest produce, the nutrient content starts to degenerate by enzymatic reactions. Therefore conventional FaV and organic FaV grown far away will show little difference in nutrient content. This is even when the full nutrient spectrum is considered (including phytonutrients). The studies that do show organic produce is more nutrient dense than conventional produce are usually done on FaV that are immediately plucked from the ground. Therefore, for the best nutrient content, farmers markets or growing your own is best. But still, the supermarket will do you just fine!

Moreover, large meta analyses that show organic food has higher nutrients than non organic usually include studies that are quite poorly done and the studies are usually funded by organic farming companies. Meta analyses are only as good as the research studies being reviewed. Whereas meta analyses looking at independently funded studies show that organic produce and non organic have a similar nutrient content and if there were differences, this was due to environmental growing conditions.

Good examples include, a 2012 systematic review concluded that the 17 studies in humans and 223 studies of nutrient and contaminant levels “lacked strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.” Similarly, a 2009 systematic review found “no evidence” in a difference between nutrient content of organically and conventionally grown food.  Furthermore, a 2011 meta analysis, the most comprehensive of its kind, found “no strong evidence” that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventionally grown food.

14) Buying organic FaV is not necessarily more sustainable. Organic farming, while better for the overall health of soil, requires more land and produces less crops than conventional farming. This also means more pesticide use, more water and more fossil fuels burned. However, if we were to feed the whole world organically, we would only be able to feed 4 billion people at most. We would need 7-8 billion more cattle to produce enough manure as fertiliser and 28 million more hectares in Europe. This would then require more land to feed these cattle.

While conventional farming practices are quite intensive and can lead to decreased soil fertility and increased salinity, it has higher yields for less space. Especially with use of GMO, it allows us to produce more food, with less space, less pesticides that bioaccumulate, less water, less crop damage and increased shelf stability of produce that will decrease food wastage. This is an important fact to consider, when experts predict that the world’s population is set to boom to over 9 billion by 2050 and there is currently 750 million malnourished people in the world and the numbers are increasing. If we were to move to organic farming, we would see these numbers rise into the billions.

Moreover, GMO farming is also helping us decrease nutrient deficiency related diseases in third world countries by enriching the foods. Like organic, there is unnecessary fear mongering over GMOs as they have been proven to be safe by SCIENCE. The labelling of non-GMO products is also a marketing scheme using fear to sell itself.

15) Just because a celebrity or self proclaimed “health guru” with no formal education says that GMO and non-organic is dangerous, it doesn’t mean you should listen to them. The majority scientific consensus on these issues are well established and proven to be safe. People that discredit this scientific consensus, do it on the basis of a google search and a few propaganda/dogmatic/fear mongering videos. When you oppose these issues, you are saying that the life work of many scientists are for nothing. Now I am not saying don’t be critical, but don’t be illogical.

Lastly, the organic, whole food and “health guru” industry uses fear and pseudo-science to market their products in order to make large profits. Ironically, they do this by demonising business like large supermarket chains, drug companies and other large corporations as being evil and greedy.

Wrap up

Eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Based on the current evidence, it is not worth paying extra for organic. If you are concerned about pesticides, wash, peel or cook your vegetables, which can degrade both organic and conventional pesticides.