Eating organic - yay or nay?

It’s a question I am often being asked - should we eat organic? There is a lot to consider in terms of nutritional value of organic versus conventional foods and also 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 be 100% accessible or affordable for all Australians. As a Nutritionist I do highlight the pro’s of organic foods and encourage it where possible but also remind people of the importance to eat wholefoods such as vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fish, meat and dairy regardless of organic labels.

Well I can tell you that yes, although results are mixed, there are studies that have proven organic food is more nutritious, and in particular it can be higher in antioxidants, vitamin C, iron, phosphorous and omega 3 fatty acids. But what I think is more important is the reduced toxic load organic food has on your body. As we know organic farming is the practice of farming plants and animals without the use of synthetic pesticides, anti-biotics and hormones. It is well documented that these synthetic chemicals in conventional food can pose serious risks to human health and although more tightly regulated in Australia, overseas we are seeing more and more cases of farmers who have been consistently exposed to these chemicals over the years now suffering very serious health issues such as cancer. And let’s face it, these chemicals are used in the first place to kill pathogens, so it makes sense that there is potential harm in us ingesting them. 

One aspect of organic farming that is not often considered however is the environmental benefits with organic agriculture leading to long term sustainability, more biodiversity in crops, less water contamination, reduced fossil fuels and improved soil quality. Soil quality is what determines the nutritional value of the food that ends up in our mouth and is highly underestimated in ensuring our produce is of the best quality and is most nutritious.

So yes I do recommend eating organic, but knowing that cost is a big factor for many Australian families, here are my suggestions for the best way to tackle it;

Firstly, due to the toxin exposure from conventional food, some population categories that are particularly at risk and who should definitely choose organic when possible are children, pregnant women and those with compromised immune activity. 

For everyone else, have a budget that you are willing to spend on organic food each week. The next step is to work out what your families consumes a lot of. Hopefully somewhere at the top of your list is vegetables and fruits (and if it’s not then perhaps it’s time to consider this more). Other items might be chicken, milk, yoghurt or bread.

Some pesticides are fat soluble meaning they will accumulate in fatty products such as animal products, nuts, seeds and oils. Also organisms higher up in the food chain, like animals, can have amplified levels of pesticides due the potential accumulation of pesticides in the food they are eating (ie organisms lower in the food chain). Therefore if you consume a lot of these products (chicken, meat, milk, cheese, yoghurt) then you will want to opt for organic.  

Vegetables and fruits should make up a large proportion of everyone’s diet and when it comes to these, The Environmental Working Group have a great guide for which foods contain the lowest and highest pesticide residue.

The ones with the least are called the Clean 15 and include avocadoes, sweet corn, pineapple, sweet peas, onions, papayas, eggplants, asparagus, kiwis, cabbage, cauliflower, cantelope, broccoli, mushrooms and honeydew. These foods are your best foods to buy conventional if you can’t afford organic.

The produce with most pesticide residue called the Dirty Dozen and include strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes and chillies. These are best bought organic. Although The Environmental Working Group is US based it’s still a good guide for us to use.  

For any conventional fruits and vegetables you purchase that didn’t fit into your organic budget simply giving them a rinse and scrub before consuming them can be helpful. Note, many might tell you to peel the skins but they are a super nutrient dense part of many foods so washing is a better option (helps to reduce food waste also).

Shopping at farmers markets and local farm gates, as well as 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 also because ensuring your diet is full of wholefoods, and also food diversity are very important for overall health so making sure this is a priority, regardless of the organic label should not be ignored.