Should You Buy Organic Fruits and Vegetables?
Buying organic versus conventional food – it’s a topic many clients are uncertain about, and it's definitely an important question! I will tell you my approach and my "why" in hopes of making your decision easier next time you shop.
Studies show organically-grown food contains higher amounts of certain nutrients because the soil is healthier and more nutrient-rich. This is important to me.
An even more important reason to buy organic, in my opinion, is for what the organic food does not contain:
Synthetic Pesticides and Herbicides
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
Non-organic fruits and vegetables are significantly higher in pesticides compared to organic versions. In my private practice, I tell people to eat 3+ cups of fruits and vegetables every day, and if those foods are high in chemicals and pesticides, the negative cumulative health effect adds up fast, and the body can't handle that level of toxic load.
My "Why" for Switching to Organic. Find Your "Why."
When it comes to major changes in life, I truly believe finding your "why" is extremely valuable for making a change and sticking with it. My "why" was my first pregnancy. I switched to organic while pregnant because I knew my little babe's developing body would absorb all those toxins and chemicals before he was even born, which I obviously didn’t want.
I have since discovered that babies and kids are most vulnerable to pesticide exposure because their nervous system and internal organs are still developing and maturing, and their brains are growing rapidly.
9 Ways Synthetic Pesticides, Herbicides, and Fertilizers Impact Health
I think it goes without saying…why would you want to eat fruits and vegetables covered in pesticides? Here are 9 ways pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers impact health.
1. Pesticides are metabolized in the liver and excessive amounts is linked to liver toxicity and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
2. Inhibition of the liver's cytochrome P450 enzymes, which are crucial in liver detoxification.
3. Decimates the gut microbiome by disrupting the shikimate pathway, causing a decrease in the ratio of beneficial to harmful bacteria.
4. Disruption of sulfur metabolism, glutathione deficiency, and impaired methylation pathways.
5. With the pesticide glyphosate, it binds to important minerals so the body can’t utilize them (iron, cobalt, manganese). FYI, glyphosate was patented as a mineral chelator. Manganese deficiency leads to impaired mitochondrial function and glutamate toxicity in the brain.
6. Many pesticides are endocrine disruptors in human cells (aka: xenoestrogen).
7. Interferes with the synthesis of aromatic amino acids and methionine, which leads to shortages in critical neurotransmitters and folate.
8. Inhibition of pituitary release of thyroid-stimulating hormone (aka: hypothyroidism).
9. Elevated levels of chemicals in the gut and in the body are linked to a higher risk of all types of diseases, such as reduced fertility (particularly in men), immune suppression, autoimmune disease, and bladder, breast, and other cancers.
2021 EWG's Dirty Dozen Results
Organic produce is often more expensive, so the best way I've found to navigate these choices is to refer to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen shopper’s guide. The EWG analyzes data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to identify which fresh fruits and vegetables are most and least contaminated with pesticide residues.
I recommend buying only organic for the fruits and vegetables listed on the Dirty Dozen list. If a food is on the Dirty Dozen but conventional is the only option, I do not buy it. The health of your gut microbiome is so important, so I want to protect all those beneficial gut bacteria from big killers (aka pesticides, herbicides, fungicides).
Here are some of the EWG's key findings for the Dirty Dozen List:
The USDA’s tests found potentially harmful pesticides residues on nearly 70% of the non-organic fresh produce sold in the US, and this is after being washed, scrubbed, and peeled, just like a consumer would do.
A single sample of kale, collard, and mustard greens had up to 20 different pesticides.
The pesticide most frequently detected on collard greens, mustard greens, and kale is DCPA, sold under the brand name Dacthal. The EPA classifies DCPA as a possible human carcinogen, and in 2009 the European Union banned it. Other problematic pesticides on greens include the potentially neurotoxic neonicotinoids and pyrethroids.
Hot peppers and bell peppers had the most pesticides detected, 115 pesticides in total and 21 more pesticides than the crops with the second-highest amount – kale, collard, and mustard greens.
Over 90% of non-organic citrus contain fungicides linked to cancer and hormone disruption. Conventional oranges, grapefruit, lemons, mandarins were tested. This means the orange juice you or your children drink contains harmful pesticides, specifically glyphosate.
2021 EWG's Clean 15 Results
Fruits and vegetables on the Clean 15 had the lowest amounts of pesticide residues, according to EWG’s analysis. I am more apt to purchase conventional produce from the Clean 15, but I also look at the price. If organic is a similar price, I buy organic.
Here are some of the key findings for the Clean 15 List:
Avocados and sweet corn were the cleanest. Fewer than 2% of samples showed any detectable pesticides.
The first seven Clean Fifteen crops tested positive for three or fewer pesticides on a single sample.
Almost 70% of Clean Fifteen fruit and vegetable samples had no pesticide residues.
Multiple pesticide residues are extremely rare on Clean Fifteen vegetables. Only 8% of Clean Fifteen fruit and vegetable samples had two or more pesticides.
Hopefully this answers your questions about whether to buy organic or conventional fruits and vegetables.
Bottom Line: Buy organic when possible, especially produce on the Dirty Dozen list – you will be healthier. You must protect your gut health. Also, you vote with your dollar and by purchasing organically-grown foods, it shows a demand to farmers and big corporations to make a switch from conventional habits to organic practices.
Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
1. US Environmental Protection Agency. Pesticides and Food: Why Children May be Especially Sensitive to Pesticides. May 9, 2012.
2. Heavy use of herbicide Roundup linked to health dangers-U.S. study. Apr 25, 2013.
3. Food Democracy Now! Alarming levels of Monsanto’s glyphosate are found in popular US Foods.