Is Organic Food Worth the Money?
Is organic food worth it?
This is a question I get a lot in my practice. For good reason — Whole Foods didn’t earn the name “Whole Paycheck” for nothing. And while GMO giants like Monsanto will always be the biggest offenders when it comes to putting money before the public’s best interest, the organic food industry isn’t exactly an angel in this department, either.
It used to be that you could only snag organic produce from small, family-run farms through local markets. But needless to say, those days are long gone. During the past few decades, the organic food industry has exploded — from just over $3 billion in the late 90s, to a whopping $30 billion as of 2012. And it’s still growing.
Tighter USDA labeling regulations are all part and parcel of this growth. When a food is labeled organic, it has been deemed so through a federal approval process. This certifies that the food has no genetic engineering (No GMO), no synthetic pesticides or fertilizer, no antibiotics or growth hormone, and has not been irradiated.
Which — don’t get me wrong — is a good thing, in principle. Organic foods cost 10-40% more than non-organic foods. And if you’re going to fork over extra hard-earned money for organic produce, you want to know that you’re getting what you pay for...
Because in most cases, yes — it is worth it.
Conventional non-organic foods are 30% higher in pesticides. And conventionally-raised chicken and pork have a higher risk for antibiotic-resistant bacterial contamination.1 We know this. And I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not roll the dice on pesticides, herbicides, hormones, and antibiotic byproducts.
Minimizing your consumption of these harmful chemicals just makes sense. Independently, they fuel cancer, disrupt hormones, and contribute to antibiotic-resistant superbugs.
Yet, admittedly, research reveals no major benefit in eating organic.2 But this isn’t a good reason to stop shelling out for organic food. Because we’re still only talking about small studies conducted over short periods of time. In other words, the danger here may be dose-dependent. But who can say what a truly safe dose of farming chemicals is?
The answer is no one — at least not yet. Because conclusively proving the dangers of pesticide- and herbicide-laden, conventionally-grown GMO food is a near impossible task. And here’s why...
Such a study would require more than 500 people consuming organic food, compared to another 500 people consuming conventionally-grown, non-organic food. These two groups would have to be followed for over 10 years to assess whether or not organic food protects against cancer and other maladies.
It would take a Monsanto-sized pile of cash to fund a study like that. And I think it’s fair to say that company won’t be bankrolling any research of the sort anytime soon. But it’s not as if this is the only way that money has been muddying the organic waters.
Buying into the organic regulatory system is costly on the farmer’s end, too. And this forces a lot of small, locally owned operations that can’t afford to jump those bureaucratic hurdles out of the game — at least where the all-powerful “USDA Organic” label is concerned.
This is a huge problem. Because if that organic food you’re buying and eating has spent weeks on a truck shipped from Mexico — and a lot of it has — you won’t be getting any of the bad stuff with your produce. But you won’t be getting as much of the good stuff, either.
The fresher your fruits and veggies, the bigger the benefits — this is Nutrition 101. A plant plucked straight from the ground or tree is full of all the live enzymes and intact nutrients that make food your best medicine. And the time it takes to get from farm to table cuts into that surplus considerably.
Simply put, “local” is every bit as important as “organic” when it comes to your health — often times more so. But now more than ever, they’re not one and the same, despite the persistent public tendency to conflate the two.
So what should you do? I’m glad you asked...
- Get familiar with the “Dirty Dozen” and the “Clean Fifteen.” The Environmental Working Group comes out with this essential shopping guide every year. Eat strictly organic when it counts. Buy everything else organic when you can. And save your money on the cleaner choices.
Organic milk is a cut above regular milk. But this only means the cows eat organic corn. Cows are meant to eat grass — not corn. Which is why the best dairy to consume comes from organic and grass-fed cattle. It’s considerably higher in healthy fats and other nutrients.3
Organic meats are one cut above as well. But once again, grass-fed beef (and pasture-raised pork, chicken, and eggs) is far superior in nutritional content. As always, there’s a difference. It matters, and it’s worth paying extra for.
Don’t be fooled. Just because something is organic, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for you. Organic potato chips are NOT a health food and they never will be. Same goes with cereal, bread, crackers, etc. (Not to mention the fact that packaged foods are not required to be 100% organic. In fact, for products to be “made with organic ingredients,” they only need to be 70% organic.)
With fruits and vegetables, organic is certainly better. But don’t use this as an excuse to avoid non-organic vegetables. If for whatever reason you don’t have access to organic vegetables, non-organic vegetables are always better than no vegetables at all. This is just common sense.
Eat mostly fruits and vegetables from nearby farms or farmers' markets — even if the food isn’t organic. (And if you want to find out, just ask. You’re not likely to find any USDA Organic labels at your typical local farmers' market. But the vendor may still use organic farming practices.)
The bottom line: Local and organic produce will always be the holy grail of good nutrition. And if you really want to guarantee that you’re getting both (without going broke in the process), the best way will always be to grow your own. Farm-to-table doesn’t get fresher than that.
Stay tuned and stay well,
Geo Espinosa, N.D., L.Ac, C.N.S., is a renowned naturopathic doctor recognized as an authority in integrative management of male and urological conditions. Dr. Geo is the founder and director of the Integrative Urology Center at New York University Langone Medical Center (NYULMC), a center of excellence in research and integrative treatments for urological conditions.
1. Smith-Spangler C, et al. Ann Intern Med. 2012 Sep 4;157(5):348-66.
2. Dangour AD, et al. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010 Jul;92(1):203-10.
3. Benbrook CM, et al. PLoS One. 2013 Dec 9;8(12):e82429.