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To eat organic or not?

May 31, 2018

 

How many of you stand in the supermarket staring at a bag of organic carrots trying to make the decision of whether you can justify paying that much when the normal carrots are much cheaper for what looks like a larger bag?  

 

Buying organic food typically involves paying a hefty premium. Do we get enough bang for our buck in return and is it really worth the money?

 

Is organic really more nutritious than conventionally farmed produce?  

 

The honest answer is that it is hard to get a definitive yes or no on this.  That's because the nutritional quality of all fresh food varies widely, regardless of whether it's organic or not.Quite simply even if you picked two pieces of fruit from the same tree they would not have an identical nutritional profile.

 

So some organic produce may indeed pack a bigger nutritional punch than certain conventional foods but the problem is that is that it isn’t applicable to all nutrients or all organic foods. Dr Tim Crowe, a nutrition scientist at Bond University argues that differences in climate, soil and how the food is processed will naturally mean that there are inevitably nutritional variations in the food we buy. He also says that there is next to no research to prove that organic food is more nutritious and that if you are already eating fruit and vegetables switching to organic versions of these would make little nutritional impact.  However, a 2014 review in the British Journal of Nutrition found that organic fruit had higher levels of antioxidants than conventionally farmed fruit. However these increased antioxidant levels were found to only be significant in fruits, not in vegetables or cereals.

 

One way round this is to focus not on farming methods but on eating produce that is farmed locally as much as possible.  This is because, according to Dr Liza Oates, who teaches Food as Medicine at RMIT in Australia  food that has been harvested more recently will undoubtedly have more nutritional value that food that has been in cold storage for long periods of time.  

 

The 'dirty dozen' and the Clean 15? 

 

Every year 48 foods are tested by the United States Food and Drugs Administration for their pesticide residue and the results are published by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an American non -profit organisation . The Dirty Dozen are those with the highest pesticide residue whilst The Clean 15 are those with the least.

However before you load up on the organic versions of the dirty dozen you should bear the following in mind:  

  • Firstly there are different pests and pesticides in different regions therefore these levels measured in the US aren’t always reflective of produce coming from different regions of the world. This is particularly interesting in Singapore where we import all our fruit and vegetables from multiple different countries.  

  • Furthermore even for the Dirty Dozen the levels of pesticides detected on these items are well within the American legal limits. A 2011 study 2 concluded that the commonly detected pesticides don't pose serious risks to human health and that consuming the organic options doesn't significantly reduce any health risk, and that the methods used by the EWG lack scientific rigour.

However, if you are worried about pesticide levels, there is regulation make sure  that any pesticide levels detected are below the maximum residue limits and not a threat to our health.

 

Rather than trying to navigate the minefield of levels of pesticides a top tip is to bear in mind that some fruits and vegetables naturally retain more pesticides. Specifically pome fruits [apples and pears], berries, and some of the leafy greens and broccoli that have a large surface area and more space for pesticides to make their way in.

 

Still confused?  Well one thing that is often missed in the debate about organic produce is the bigger issue that the vast majority of us simply aren’t eating enough fruit and vegetables.  Dr Crowe again says  "Rather than focusing on getting a few extra antioxidants from organic produce, we should be trying to eat a lot more fruit and vegetables to begin with," If you do want to be a more sustainable fruit and vegetable consumer here are The Nourished Tribe's top 4 tips:

 

1. Wash Your Fruit and Vegetables

Washing your fruit and vegetables is a great way to reduce pesticide exposure. There is no need to buy expensive fruit and vegetable washes. All you need is water and some apple cider vinegar (ratio 4 parts water:1 part vinegar). Soak for 20 minutes, rinse and dry before storing.

 

2. Buy Organic Frozen

Like for like fresh and frozen have the same pesticide residue. It is worth looking in the freezer section of your supermarket for organic options. Organic frozen fruits and vegetables tend to be much cheaper than fresh and are very cost effective as you only use what you need so there’s no wastage.

 

3.Buy Local

It may not be officially certified organic but it is possible to source out local producers who employ sustainable farming practices. Other benefits include reducing your carbon footprint and supporting your local community.

 

4. Grow your own

The only true way of you knowing that your food is organic! It’s also the cheapest way to eat organic. Even if you do not have a huge garden, you could start by planting some herbs in window boxes or growing some tomatoes on your balcony.

 

In summary: As much as possible you can get more nutrients and reduce food miles by buying local, in-season produce.And, if you can afford to buy organic produce and you want to, then go for it!

 

References

1. Baranski M et al, 2014.Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses.  Br J Nutr. 2014 Sep 14;112(5):794-811. doi: 10.1017/S0007114514001366. Epub 2014 Jun 26.

2.Winter C,  Catz J. 2011.  Dietary Exposure to Pesticide Residues from Commodities Alleged to Contain the Highest Contamination Levels. J Toxicol. 2011; 2011: 589674

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