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The Questions a Nutritionist Hears the Most (And My Answers)

September 11, 2020

It is well documented that fruits and vegetables are good for you, and in any form. But, as a nutritionist, the questions I’m asked the most have to do with organic produce. These are the most common ones I have received, along with my answers.

What Is Organic?

Organic describes items that are grown and produced through natural processes that conserve natural resources and prohibit use of synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering. The National Organic Program (NOP) oversees organic farming, certifying products meet uniform national standards. Certified organic products carry the USDA organic seal, indicating the food has greater than 95 percent organic content. 

Is Organic Healthier?

The debate over organic versus conventional food centers around pesticides. One side admits conventional produce contains pesticide residue, but suggests it’s a minimal amount that dissipates over time, leaving a negligible quantity on the produce once it arrives to the consumer. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regularly tests for pesticides in produce, typically resulting in levels below the benchmark established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

In contrast, organic advocates argue the legal limits set for pesticides are not always safe for all consumers, especially children. They contend the USDA testing does not encompass some pesticides that pose risks to human health and is not comprehensive, because it tests only a small amount of produce, which is washed and scrubbed thoroughly (as the consumer would) before testing.

Both conventional and organic foods can harbor harmful bacteria, resulting in food poisoning. Organic foods contain higher levels of beneficial microbes, which may limit the survival time of unhealthy bacteria. Either way, it is important to fully wash and scrub all produce. This includes fruits and vegetables with peels or skins — like bananas or mangos — that are typically removed.

Deciding if organic is healthier depends upon the definition of healthy. Recent research has found that: 

  • Eating organic foods results in lower pesticide exposure (noting the impact of the low-level pesticide exposure from eating conventional foods is unclear).

  • Organic farming is environmentally friendly

  • Organic foods, produced without the use of antibiotics, minimize the impact of antibiotic resistance.

  • Organic foods deliver higher nutrient content (polyphenols, vitamin C, carotenoids and omega-3 fatty acids) with lower levels of cadmium and pesticides. 

What Should Consumers Do?

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating 2 ½ cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit each day. Unfortunately, Americans fall far short of this amount. Buying organic produce potentially adds another barrier to meeting fruit and vegetable goals with the higher costs associated with organic produce.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) distributes an annual produce list of its Dirty Dozen, which categorizes produce according to the highest levels of pesticides. The list serves to arm consumers with knowledge to make educated decisions to replace high-pesticide produce with organic counterparts. 

The Bottom Line

Choosing organic food is a personal decision. As a mother and cancer survivor, I buy a variety of fruits and vegetables, both conventional and organic. By not following a definitive rule, like only choosing organic, I have the flexibility to select foods based on weekly menu plans, product price and availability. 

If given the option, I do select the organic food if priced within reason. That’s why I recommend buying organic produce within your budget. Follow the EWG’s Dirty Dozen list and choose the organic option for produce on the high pesticide list. However, if price point is a barrier, simply choose to eat fruits and vegetables! 

Fresh, frozen or canned, no matter what form, eat the recommended 4 ½ cups of fruits and vegetables every day. In the long run, both sides do agree on one point — the benefits from eating fruits and vegetables outweigh the risk of pesticide residue.

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