What does eating organic produce do for you? And what does eating conventionally grown produce do to you? Those questions are not so cut and dried and raise other questions about which is healthier.

Nowadays, organic produce is widely available around the United States. People generally accept the idea that food grown without pesticides is “healthier”, and they increasingly want to buy organic food to take advantage of the purported health benefits. However, the word “healthy” is extremely ambiguous and doesn't offer a lot of information on the difference between organic and non-organic. What does eating non-organic produce do for you? Is organic produce inherently full of more nutrients? Does food grown without the aid of pesticides magically reach its full potential every time? Do pesticides destroy plant biology, and cause our produce to become withered, sickly, defective?

According to the EPA, a pesticide is any substance or mixture of substances intended to prevent, destroy, repel, or migrate any pest. Of course, many pesticides have been linked with toxicity in humans. Many insecticides, for example, target the brain and nervous system of insects, and can also have neurotoxic effects in humans. Pesticides are divided into “classes”, the most common of which are carbamates, organophosphates and organochlorines. Carbamates and organophosphates typically act on the nervous system, and can be highly neurotoxic. Most organochlorines are banned today, but many are still present as residues in the environment, because they break down very slowly. The ones still in use tend to act on the endocrine system.

One thing is for sure, pesticides are not something you want to ingest regularly. Conventionally grown fruits and vegetables are required to run under certain levels of contamination, but many pesticides can build up gradually in the body over time. In addition, some newer research suggests even small levels of some pesticides may have neurotoxic effects or increase the likelihood of developing illness. So in that sense, organic produce is considered healthier.

Are there more nutrients in organic fruits and vegetables, though? That's a question that is a little more difficult to answer. Farming methods vary widely, and location, weather, and soil quality all affect the nutrient quantity of the harvest. Several research groups have attempted to illuminate trends by examining hundreds of existing studies on the subject. One meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Nutrition found higher rates of antioxidants – and specifically, polyphenols – in organic foods, and lower concentrations of the toxic metal cadmium.

Another study done at Stanford claimed that no significant difference in nutrients exists between organic and conventionally grown foods. However, another meta-analysis, published by researchers at Newcastle University, found 12% higher concentrations of secondary metabolites in organic fruits and vegetables compared to conventionally farmed fruits and vegetables. This study examined the presence of nutrients the Stanford researchers didn't include in their analysis. Even within these meta-analyses, however, there are dramatic variations in methodology and there is still a lot of disagreement on whether or not the findings can be considered significant.

Even if there are more nutrients in organic produce than in conventionally farmed produce, some researchers are unsure whether our bodies would actually absorb and use the extra content. For now, it's safe to say that buying organic produce is a great way to reduce one's exposure to pesticide residue, which is still a pretty healthy thing to do.

 

-- Produce Buzz Staff

The Organic Question

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