How Important Is It To Eat Organic Produce?

This article was originally written for emeranmayer.com

Let’s say you’ve decided to ditch the ultra-processed Standard American Diet (appropriately named by its acronym SAD) in favor of a diet filled with whole foods like fresh fruits and vegetables. You’ve taken a (massive) step in the right direction towards improving your health in numerous ways. Now, you might be faced with the issue of which produce to choose – Are some options healthier? And do you need to buy organic? 

In the United States, organic foods are grown and produced without the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides or chemical fertilizers and are free of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Conventional or industrial farming, on the other hand, uses these chemicals to promote plant growth and increase yield. 

The most commonly used herbicide, glyphosate (better known under the name roundup), is found in abundance in our agricultural system in the production of both livestock and produce. As of 2019 “about 280 million pounds of glyphosate are applied to an average of 298 million acres of cropland annually” according to the Environmental Protection Agency. With the use of increasing amounts of the chemical to overcome resistance of weeds to its effects, increasing amounts of this herbicide are inevitably found in fresh fruits and vegetables that are produced conventionally, and it cannot simply be rinsed off. And while the science is not conclusive on the severity of glyphosate’s toxicity, some studies have shown that it can cause inflammation, impact immune response and potentially increase one’s risk of developing cancer. In May 2019, a California jury ordered Bayer to pay $2 billion in punitive damages in a lawsuit filed by a couple who both developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after using Roundup for over 30 years. Other class action suits against Bayer are pending.

Aside from its potential toxicity, glyphosate (and other herbicides and pesticides) may also reduce the nutrient content of the produce it is used on. Glyphosate is a chelating agent, meaning that it binds to nutrients in the soil, which prevents plants from absorbing them. Additionally, as their names suggest, pesticides and herbicides are responsible for killing weeds, insects, and microbes. Their usage, along with that of synthetic fertilizers, results in the loss of healthy soil that depends on a vast ecosystem to sustain life. This effectively turns living soil into dirt that is depleted of essential minerals and other nutrients. 

Consequently, plants grown in soil contaminated with glyphosate may be less nutrient dense than plants grown organically. Some research has shown that organic varieties do in fact contain higher levels of certain nutrients like iron, magnesium, and phosphorus as well as polyphenols and other phytochemicals. Additionally, these organic varieties are unsurprisingly lower in pesticide residue. 

Considering the likely negative effects of conventional agriculture on both the consumer’s health and on the nutrient content of produce, one might conclude that organic fruits and vegetables are an overall healthier choice. Unfortunately, organic produce typically costs more than conventional options and is often not readily accessible to those who do not live in close proximity to grocery stores.

If budget is a consideration, it is worth noting that some foods in particular are higher in pesticide residue than others and may be prioritized when deciding whether to purchase organic or not. The Environmental Working Group creates a Dirty Dozen and a Clean 15 list each year that highlights the most contaminated and least contaminated produce available. It is often advised to purchase organic produce that you would typically eat the skin of such as tomatoes and berries. Conventionally grown produce with thick skin or skin that you remove, like avocados and melons, may post less of a risk.

So, while not all produce may be created equally, it is important to do the best you can with what you have. Replacing ultra-processed foods, refined carbohydrates and added sugars with more fruits and vegetables is a huge dietary improvement. 

Incorporating more fruits and vegetables into your diet provides both long term and short-term health benefits. One Harvard study found that a higher intake of fruits and vegetables is associated with a reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease. Not only do you reduce your risk of chronic disease, but you also enhance your general well-being by improving digestion and boosting the health of your gut microbiome. A recent study found that fruit and vegetable intake is favorably associated with gut microbial diversity. This diversity plays a key role in brain and immune health as well as minimize the risk of developing metabolic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes.

At the end of the day, fresh fruits and vegetables are a healthy addition to one’s diet, especially when compared to the ultra-processed Standard American Diet. If you have access to organic produce and can afford the extra cost, it is highly advisable to choose those options for maximum health and environmental benefits. But even if you do not have access to organic produce, the benefits of consuming adequate amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables still outweighs the negative effects discussed above.