Is organic food worth it or not? This topic is surprisingly complex. In deciphering the whole eating healthy on a relative budget issue, I have found that Environmental Working Group is a valuable resource.
Just looking at produce, potatoes, tomatoes and lettuce all grow differently and have their own cultivation needs depending on if they’re grown organically or conventionally (or something in the middle). Since I can’t make a full time job of hunting down every source of every fruit or vegetable I buy and investigating its growing methods, I have used this cheat sheet many times to decide when to buy organic and when it’s not worth my money. Download your copy here: http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/guide/.
Dirty Dozen: go organic for these when able
With a little interpretation, this is a very handy guide. The “Dirty Dozen” list is those fruits and veggies that are most contaminated when bought conventionally (non-organic). There are a variety of reasons for these particular fruits and veggies to appear on the list. If you look at it, most of them are soft-skinned fruits, which pick up and retain much of the chemicals that are used in today’s large-scale agriculture.
Conventional produce agricultural techniques include the use of herbicides, fungicides, vermicides, soil additives (like nitrates) and genetic modification. The effects of their use has been linked to birth defects, allergies, respiratory disease, endrocrine disruptors (alters one’s hormone function) and weight gain (giving rise to the term “obesogens”). Most of us can’t afford to eat solely organically so it’s prudent to lessen your exposure whenever you can as this is just the reality of the majority of our food supply. Another option here is to wash your produce with a soap made just for fruits and vegetables.
Clean Fifteen: organic is not necessary
The “Clean 15” list, in contrast, are those fruits and veggies which are least impacted by conventional growing methods and thus are safest to eat conventionally. For all us on a budget, we can more safely skip the organics without worrying about our food’s chemical load.
Grocery Store Investigation
The story doesn’t end here. Let’s take it to the streets. Last weekend I checked the prices and availability of all those fruits and veggies you see on both lists at our neighborhood grocery stores to see how this all shakes out. While I’ve heard that Portland Fruit Company (80th & Foster) sometimes carries organics for cheap, I couldn’t find any during my visit. Same for Oriental Food Value (83rd & Insley) but I wasn’t really expecting any there. They’re my one-stop shop for Carlton Farms pork, Asian veggies and unusual mushrooms but not organics. So Foster Freddy’s, we meet again.
I’ve been told that we have the worst Freddy’s around, but it’s just too close for it not to be a standard grocery store stop for us. And they carry a (small) selection of organics, so let the investigation begin!
Now I know our horticultural diversity is thinnest in the middle of winter but we still have to eat, and your produce shelf in the fridge shouldn’t hibernate all winter.
Taking a look at the Dirty Dozen list, those are the fruits and veggies where organic is much healthier. Apples top the list of best deals- organic is pretty much the same price as conventional. Celery and cucumbers are roughly twice as much, but that only means about 50 cents a pound more so are still quite affordable. Red bell peppers, spinach, lettuce and potatoes all cost quite a bit more organic (organic potatoes are over five times more). Both types of strawberries were fairly expensive (and probably taste watery and bland) so this is where eating in season should be a guide and skip on those until June.
So how about the Clean Fifteen? Avocados, kiwis, mangoes and cabbage are all available organic and conventional. It’s good that conventional avocados are relatively clean because getting a perfect one is like winning the avocado lottery.
I’m a big fan of trying to source my food locally, and not just because supporting the local farmers and economy is a great thing to do. Food that has traveled from farm to mouth quickly has more nutrients so is more valuable even if it costs a little more (if you eat fruits and veggies specific to the local growing season, it’s often cheaper). That is because as an apple or a carrot gets picked, transported and sits on a grocery store shelf it ages, decaying a little bit at a time. All the vitamins, nutrients and antioxidants present in fruits and veggies break down over time so I’d rather purchase and eat some peaches picked that morning (oh, Lents Farmers Market, we miss you in the winter time) than a papaya that has spent weeks being shipped from New Zealand- even if it is organic.
So, organic is nice, particularly if the alternative makes the Dirty Dozen list. Local is great as well. When it comes down to it fruits and vegetables are a necessary component of your diet so get them in any way you can, on any budget.
Questions, thoughts, comments of agreement or disagreement? Leave ‘em below!
Angela Cortal, ND is a Naturopathic Doctor who runs Rose City Health Clinic, a healthcare practice in the Foster-Powell neighborhood. She is as passionate about her neighborhood and community involvement as she is about health and healing using natural medicine (and that’s a lot). During the day she helps patients with a wide variety of health issues (cardiovascular disease, diabetes, anxiety, depression and thyroid concerns )and focuses on natural stress management and relief. During her off time you may see her at the Green Lents Community Tool library, biking around the neighborhood or hiking in the Columbia River Gorge. Please see rosecityhealth.com to learn more about her and her practice.