There are lots of reasons consumers give for buying organic foods, but a few reasons are very common. Among them is the notion that organic foods are better for you. Really? Are organic fruits and veggies better for you? Depends on what you mean by ‘better for you’. But as far as we know, the answer is probably ‘no’, especially if you’re buying organic fruits and veggies (F&V) at the store. It might seem crazy, but there’s no good evidence to support the notion that you will be more healthy by shopping for organic F&V. There are some complicated reasons for this, and some areas we aren’t quite sure about yet, but I’ll try to explain.
If ‘better for you’ means ‘fewer pesticide residues,’ you’re right. But if you think ‘fewer pesticide residues’ means ‘better for you,’ that gets murky. Why do we apply pesticides? We do it to protect our food from pests and diseases. It’s cheaper and more productive than destroying blight-infected tomatoes, individually wrapping apples in a protective barrier, or throwing away heads of cabbage with worms. But why do those things matter? It turns out we’re just consumers. Two big things we look for when buying F&V are appearance and cost. If a person has a choice between a spotty, more expensive apple and a uniformly bright and shiny lower-cost apple, he’ll probably choose the latter. And which would be better, buying 2 heads of cauliflower because it’s pretty and low-cost (conventional), or buying one head because it has a slight cosmetic defect and costs a little more (organic)? You guessed it; in terms of your health, it’s more likely that 2 heads are better than 1. If that isn’t complicated enough, consider that there are no good long-term human studies concerning the health effects of pesticide residues ingested from food. There’s no evidence that eating conventional F&V, even with the elevated risk of consuming more pesticide residues, is worse for you than eating organic F&V. But there is evidence that eating more F&V is better for you than eating less. So why eat less?
Some of the best health care in Minnesota comes from the Mayo Clinic. What? Who cares about the Mayo Clinic? In Minnesota, we worship the Mayo Clinic. [undeserved pride] They represent some of the finest health care in the country [/undeserved pride]. And what does the Mayo Clinic have to say about pesticides on our food? “Most experts agree…that the amount of pesticides found on fruits and vegetables poses a very small health risk.”
But what about nutrients—don’t organic foods have more nutrients or something good in them? Maybe they do have fewer nitrates (which may be bad for you, especially if you’re too young to read this), but that really depends on how the specific growers use fertilizers. Maybe some organic produce tends to have more vitamin C, but that can vary too. And even if the organic tomato you’re eating has more vitamin C than the conventional tomato you passed up, is that physiologically relevant? Does it matter to your body? We don’t have any good evidence that it is.
Why am I being so down on organics? Mostly because I like to play devil’s advocate. I buy a lot of organic F&V. There are some reasons to buy organics that may be more legitimate than “it’s better for me”. Sadly, research seems to indicate that I buy organic F&V to make myself feel good for buying it, not because it’s actually better for me. But in general, eating healthy means eating more fruits and vegetables.
Charlie Rohwer is a horticultural scientist at the University of Minnesota Southern Research and Outreach Center. He has an MS from Michigan State University and a PhD from the U of M. He currently studies vegetables and things that make them good for you.