We're all trying to increase our consumption of fruits and vegetables to enhance our health, strengthen our immune systems and drive down systemic inflammation. Folks have been asking me how they should shop for produce. They wonder, is buying organic always preferable?
Benefits vs. Risks of Conventional Produce
First, let me put your mind at ease: Whenever we hear about a recall due to an outbreak of E. coli or salmonella, our alarm bells go off over food safety. And when it comes to the public's exposure to pesticides and cancer risks, many believe pesticides kill as many people as automobile fatalities or smoking. (1)
Such fears are vastly overblown and very unfortunate if they frighten us away from eating more produce, because the benefits of consuming more fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks by a very long shot!
To put this in perspective, if half the U.S. population ate just one additional serving each of fruits and veggies per day, 20,000 cases of cancer could be averted. This compares with the 10 new cancer diagnoses that might result from eating that additional produce. (2) Those are pretty awesome advantages! And the more produce we eat, the greater the number of health benefits that accrue.
Organically grown produce may offer even better odds as it generally has meant less exposure to pesticides. Especially if your immune system is suppressed or compromised, buying organic may offer additional protection.
Organic may not mean NO spraying, however. Organic farms are permitted to manage pests chemically and some organic pesticides are very toxic indeed.
While many small growers rightly pride themselves on their no-spray/low-spray practices, some organic entities manage pests aggressively -- as Michael Pollan puts it, practicing the letter of the law without its spirit. (3) Organic farming has become big business and the organic certification label, alas, is no longer a guarantee of quality as it once was.
Whether or not organic produce is more nutritious is still an open question in my mind; studies on both sides are legion and many are compromised by industry involvement...on both sides.