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Is Organic Food Actually Safer For You and Healthier?

Pesticide use and organic food

Pesticide use and organic food

Is organic food an overpriced, over-hyped new fad followed by people that do yoga and have lots of money?

It’s much more expensive, but is it really any better?

For example, a pound of chicken where I live (that’s non-organic) costs $2-3. A pound of organic chicken can be 2-3x that price at $7-9.

If you add up how much extra money I would spend each month eating organic meats, that’s almost $150 extra. So is it worth it?

Just the other day, as I came out of the gym, I told someone I was heading over to the local market. Most days I go to a local organic market when I can afford it, but on this one particular day it was so late that only one of the local supermarket “chains” was open – meaning, no organic food.

“Ew, you’re going to that place?” the person said to me.

“What do you mean, what’s wrong with it?”

“That stuff’s gross… they don’t even stock organic food there,” she replied.

I merely smiled, laughed, and kept walking back to my car, but the memory stuck in my head: the truth is that people judge you based on whether or not you eat organic… but few people truly know any of the science behind it. What’s fact, and what’s fiction? And is it really worth buying?

What Does “Organic” Actually Mean?

Organic simply means that the food has been produced by organic farming methods, with minimal or no synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or irradiation.

While many people claim that organic food has more nutrients or tastes better, scientific studies tend to have mixed results on the topic.

For example, one pretty large study at Stanford found that “the published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.”

A different study found that organic strawberries had significantly higher levels of antioxidants and polyphenols (like Vitamin C), more minerals and better shelf life.

Why Organic Food In the First Place?

What’s the deal with organic food? Where did this revolution come from and since when did people start caring about this?

There are several main reasons why organic produce has popped up in the past few years:

  1. Chemical and pesticide use;
  2. Environmental issues;
  3. Animal treatment

According to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in Sweden, 9/12 of the most dangerous and persistent of chemicals are present in pesticides.

Regarding the environment, almost 100% of pesticides go “somewhere else” other than just the area in which they are sprayed, so they lead to contamination of water, air or the soil. Some of these pesticides actually contribute to global warming and the destruction of the ozone layer. (source)

And in regard to animals, organic means that the animals are not regularly treated with antibiotics, growth hormones, or other additives to enhance the meat or get the animals to grow larger, faster.

Environmental Impact of Eating Organic (& Avoiding Pesticides)

Since the earth is a system (where everything is interrelated) the use of pesticides as well as hormones and antibiotics in animals (and humans) has some pretty interesting, related effects.

For example, some pesticides are sprayed on large crop fields aerially by planes which then are spread over large areas (including places that were outside the spray zone).

In one study done in the United States, pesticides were found in 90% of every water source (every stream and well) in the country!

Other parts of the environment are contaminated as well, including the soil which loses some of the variety of plants and animals that exist deep in the soil.

So the use of pesticides does damage to more than just your health – it also damages other plants, animals, the environment, etc.

What The Science Says About Organic Food (& Pesticides)

When food and crops are grown, there sometimes are little critters that eat the plants as their food source. We tend to call them “pests.”

Now, logically, the next step is to spray something to repel the pests, so that the farmers have more food that they can sell to feed their families. No problem.

But the big problem occurs when people haven’t thought about what happens when these pesticides are consumed by humans later.

Pesticides Should Worry You

They can (and do) cause a whole host of adverse health effects: ranging from irritation of your skin & rashes, severe nervous system effects, changes in your reproductive hormones, and even potentially cancer. (source)

There is also evidence that pesticide consumption is linked to neurological problems, birth defects, fetal death (aka a forced miscarriage), and neuro-developmental disorders (autism, down syndrome, ADD). (source)

One of the big problems is that we have no idea what might happen to us after consuming low levels of pesticides for an entire lifetime. Even the American Medical Association states: “Particular uncertainty exists regarding the long-term effects of low-dose pesticide exposures.”

So yes… if cancer, autism, fetal death, and down syndrome are serious to you, you should take pesticides seriously.

There’s One Big Problem Though…

…Sometimes shifting to an entirely organic diet means your grocery bills may go up 100%. That’s a big deal.

I went from spending $40 a week on food to over $80 on some weeks. That’s spending $160 a month versus $320.

Or $2080 versus $4160 over a year. That would be $2,000 extra, per year, possibly per person in your family if you are American or European and buy organic foods.

So how do you avoid spending that much?

Foods You SHOULD Get Organic

Like everything I suggest here, follow the 80/20 rule. Just focus on a few key actions, rather than obsessing and working for perfection.

Without you having to break the bank in order to eat healthier, here are the foods you should focus on getting organic:

1. Meats

One of the main reasons why I eat only organic meat when I can afford it (it’s almost twice as expensive as normal meat), is because conventional meat often has antibiotics that have been given to the animals, as well as growth hormones.

Obviously these exist to give the farmers a better yield for their meat, and to keep the animals healthy, but nothing exists in a vacuum. These compounds are then passed onto us in the animal meat.

There is a whole host of health issues associated with consuming antibiotics / growth hormones from your meat, and interestingly, the reverse is true: because of the rampant use of birth control pills in humans, we then pass on these hormones through toilet water and they can literally change the gender of fish! (More on that here).

The other reason to buy organic meats is that organic companies often encourage the ethical treatment of animals. Many of these companies have “free range eggs” (definition varies based on the company), which people sometimes prefer over seeing thousands of chickens in cramped living conditions.

So, yes, you do pay a premium price, but you are benefiting more than just yourself – the animals themselves as well as the environment.

2. “The Dirty Dozen”

The dirty dozen is a phrase used to help remind people what the most pesticide-filled plants and vegetables are. Often the fruits and vegetables that are the most popular (so farmers grow them more) have the most pesticides, so it’s pretty easy to remember.

Here’s the list of fruits you should be in their organic form:

  1. Apples
  2. Celery
  3. Strawberries
  4. Peaches
  5. Spinach
  6. Nectarines
  7. Grapes
  8. Sweet Bell Peppers
  9. Potatoes
  10. Blueberries
  11. Lettuce
  12. Kale/Collards

My suggestion for these is two things: A. If you can, buy this list of items in their organic form. B. If you can’t, follow the four steps below to rinse off pesticides as best as you can:

  1. Wash and scrub everything; you can also soak fruits like grapes in water for 10 minutes before eating them
  2. Remove the outer layers of lettuce or vegetables
  3. Remove peels
  4. Remove some of the fat from meat because pesticides can accumulate in the fat of animals

Pesticide Use Varies By Country… So Check When in Doubt!

America has some of the worst pesticide usage, while in Europe, some of the pesticides are completely banned. These rules may apply more to countries with a history of serious pesticide usage.

Some countries may be totally “organic” naturally in certain areas, so just buying local vegetables means you will get the best stuff.

The WHO has a free powerpoint on pesticides if you want to learn more here.

Is Organic Worth it?

So after all of this, is eating organic worth it? Yes! It is absolutely worth it. And unfortunately, like many of the health crises in the United States, we sometimes don’t know the harmful negative effects of medicines, chemicals, and pesticides over 20, 50, or 75 years of people consuming them. Until then, your best bet is to avoid them.

Personally, when I can afford it, I buy all organic groceries. But when I can’t, I avoid the dirty dozen, buy “regular” vegetables, and focus on organic meats.

The next best? Grow your own!

Have any questions or comments? Ask me below !

– Alex

Image: Freedigitalphotos.net

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7 comments… add one

  1. Here in Costa Rica, we have a Blue Zone, in the Nicoya peninsula. Costa Rica is also the #1 country in the world, in regards to the most pesticide usage per hectare.

    1. Hey Steve,

      Beautiful country 🙂 Was just there myself a few months back.

      What I would like to know is this: is the pesticide usage mostly for the EXPORT crops (since CR has a huge export business, coffee, bananas, etc.), or do the locals consume lots of pesticide crops too?

      Worth investigating.

      1. Hmm, that’s a good point, and one that I hadn’t thought of. Of course our export crops have heavy pesticide usage, and most locals also consume these same fruits (bananas, papaya, mango, pineapple and coffee).

        The difference that I would assume (I haven’t checked into this), is that most of the large farms do not sell to the local public. Small farms grow/sell their food at the local farmer’s markets (ferias). I have no clue about the level of pesticide usage by the small farmers, but I’m intrigued enough to ask a few of them when I go to the feria this Saturday morning.

        1. I’m really curious about this too!

          I spent a few weeks there for a bit of a family reunion a few months ago and it was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.

  2. You are correct in noting that all of the antibiotics and hormones in meat are bad for you. Still, buying organic meat won’t prevent you from taking in a lot of other toxins. The reason is that the higher up the food chain you eat, the more concentrated are the environmental toxins. So pollutants in the air, water, and soil, are far more concentrated even in organic meat than in plants. Anyway, I am sure you get where I am going with this. 🙂

  3. Thanks for the list of the most heavily sprayed foods! I try to be very conscious of buying foods that have the least amount of spray on them as I can’t find anywhere local to buy organic produce from 🙁
    This type of information is useful and I’m pleased you are educating people about why organics are important. I was raised organically and so many people dismiss it as a waste of money but its not. It’s truly better for your health and it’s hard to grow up dealing with uneducated opinions on why your lifestyle isn’t necessary.
    Good job

    1. Thanks Juju 🙂 Glad it helped.


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