The age-old debate of whether we should eat organic continues, and although there is much to consider in terms of the nutritional value of organic versus conventional foods, as well as the effect of pesticides on human health; from a practical point of view, we also need to consider the cost of eating organically, which understandably, may not always be possible. As a nutritionist, it’s important that I highlight the pros of organic foods but also encourage people to eat whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, meat, and fish, regardless of whether they are organic or not.
Why eat organic?
Firstly, some studies show organic produce is more nutritionally superior than conventional, particularly the levels of vitamin C, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and omega-3 fatty acids in organic animal products. When possible, I also recommend organic food because it is free from synthetic pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones, which research shows can pose a severe risk to human health.
Lastly, there are the environmental benefits to consider with organic agriculture leading to long-term sustainability, more biodiversity in crops, less water contamination, reduced fossil fuels, and improved soil quality. Soil quality determines the nutritional value of the food that ends up in our mouth and is highly underestimated in ensuring our product is of the best quality and is most nutritious. However, I also know reality dictates it’s not always possible for Australians to eat 100% organic 100% of the time.
When should you splurge?
Those who are more at risk of exposure to toxins should choose organic when possible, such as children, pregnant women, and those with compromised immune activity. For everyone else, it’s a good idea to have a budget that you are willing to spend on organic food each week.
1. Fruits and vegetables
Vegetables and fruits should make up a large proportion of everyone’s diet. The Environmental Working Group has an excellent guide for which foods contain the lowest and highest pesticide residue when it comes to these. The ones with the least – nicknamed the ‘Clean 15’ – include avocados, sweet corn, pineapple, sweet peas, onions, papayas, eggplants, asparagus, kiwis, cabbage, cauliflower, cantaloupe, broccoli, mushrooms, and honeydew. These foods are the best foods to buy conventional if you can’t afford organic. Simply rinsing and scrubbing these before consuming them can be helpful. On the other hand, the products with the most pesticide residue – the ‘dirty dozen’ – include strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes, and chilies. These are best bought organic.
2. Animal products
Another thing to note: Some pesticides are fat-soluble, meaning they will accumulate in foods with higher fat content, such as animal products, nuts, seeds, and oils. Also, animal products can have higher pesticides due to the potential accumulation of pesticides in the food they are eating. Therefore if you consume a lot of these (chicken, meat, milk, cheese, yogurt), I recommend opting for organic. Shopping at farmers’ markets and local farm gates and buying food that is in season can make organic produce much more affordable. We need to consider the bigger picture when it comes to eating organic because ensuring your diet is full of whole foods. Also, food diversity is essential for overall health, so making sure this is a priority, regardless of the organic label, should not be ignored. Steph Geddes is a nutritionist and the Head of Nutrition at Sam Wood’s 28 programs. She is also the founder of Body Good Food.