by Monica Reinagel, M.S, L.D/N.
Perhaps you saw the headlines a few weeks ago: British researchers announced that organic vegetables were no more nutritious than regular ones. I think a lot of people were shocked and disappointed to hear this. If you’ve been shelling out the extra dough to buy organic produce, you might wonder whether you’ve been wasting your money. This week, I’d like to talk about why organic vegetables may still be worth the extra money, as well as some tips on how to get the most nutritious produce.
Are Organic Vegetables More Nutritious?
There have been a lot of studies looking at organically-grown produce and whether it contains more nutrients than conventionally-grown produce. But the results were confusing. Some studies found higher levels of nutrients in organic vegetables; others found that organic produce was no more nutritious than regular vegetables. A few even found that conventional produce had more nutrients.
In this situation, scientists will often do a meta-analysis. That means they pool all the data from previously published studies and reanalyze them as if they all came from one big study. You see, large studies are generally more reliable than small studies because they minimize the effects of outliers or errors.
Let’s say you’re measuring the amount of vitamin C in six tomatoes. If just one of those tomatoes is really high in vitamin C for some reason, it’s going to pull the average up and make the rest of the tomatoes look a lot more nutritious than they actually are. If you’re testing a hundred tomatoes, on the other hand, one over-achieving tomato is going to have a much smaller impact on the average.
So, in an attempt to get to the bottom of this mystery, British researchers looked at 162 different studies on the nutritional content of organic versus conventional produce. And, as you already heard, they concluded that organics are, in the big picture, no more nutritious than regular vegetables.
Should You Buy Organic Vegetables?
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that buying organic is a waste of money. Producing food organically means growing it without chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, drugs, or hormones. That means fewer toxic chemicals in the food, the environment, and, ultimately, in you.
Producing food organically means growing it without chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, drugs, or hormones.
Organic food is produced using methods that sustain not just the food being raised but the entire ecosystem in which it grows, including the soil and its microorganisms, beneficial insects, birds, and other pollinators. Personally, I think all of this is important enough to justify the extra cost of buying organic--even if it’s got the same amount of nutrition as conventionally-raised food.
Because we place a high value on doing things “naturally,” we somehow expect that organics should be more nutritious. But when you think about it, why would growing foods without chemicals make them more nutritious? Anyone who has ever used Miracle-Gro on their houseplants or vegetable garden knows that chemicals can produce some darned healthy plants.
When baseball players take steroids, baseball as a whole suffers. But the guys taking the steroids sure do hit the ball further! If anything, maybe it’s a little surprising that organics fared as well as they did.
Fresh Produce is the Most Nutritious
At the end of the day, however, I think this study is completely irrelevant to consumers looking for the most nutritious foods, and here’s why: The nutritional quality of fruits and vegetables starts deteriorating the moment it is picked. In other words, how fresh the produce is has a much bigger impact on the nutritional content than whether it is conventionally or organically raised. And that’s something that is rarely, if ever, taken into account when comparing organic and conventional produce.
A conventionally-raised tomato that you buy at a roadside stand the day after it is picked is almost certain to contain more nutrients than an organically-raised tomato that was picked two weeks ago and shipped to your grocery store from another continent.
So, if reducing your exposure to pesticides and other chemicals and preserving the environment is important to you, buy organic. If getting the most nutritious produce is your priority, buy local.
In an ideal world, we’d all be able to eat nothing but local, organic food. Most of us have to settle for doing the best we can. And there’s no denying that organic food comes at a premium that not everyone can afford to pay.
Last year, I did a show on how to get the biggest bang for your organic buck and I discussed the Dirty Dozen—the twelve fruits and vegetable with the highest pesticide residues. I'm putting a link to the British study in the show notes below with another thoughtful response to it. For more on getting your fruits and vegetables clean of those pesticdes, check out this Quick Tip.
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Have a great day and eat something good for me!
Comparison of composition of organically and conventionally grown foodstuffs (British Food Standards Agency)
So what if organic isn’t more nutritious? (Marion Nestle for The Atlantic)
How to get the biggest bang for your organic buck. (Nutrition Diva podcast #11)