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.
Local produce offers us fresh, nutrient-dense produce, picked at peak ripeness and transported with the lowest carbon footprint.
There are many small local growers who employ the best of organic practices but who are not certified organic.
So, getting to know your local growers is wise! If you buy from local farms or at farmers markets, ask what their pest management policies are.
Hydroponic produce, grown in greenhouses in nutrient-enriched water or vapor, falls outside conventional/organic soil-grown parameters. Hydroponics offer some unique advantages:
Grown indoors, they are protected from pests and soil-borne pathogens, so pesticides are less frequently required. If they must manage an infestation, beneficial insects are often employed to address an infestation.
Because they are not soil-grown, hydroponically-cultivated produce has no heavy metal contamination like mercury, lead arsenic and cadmium from pesticides, industrial waste, paints and batteries.
They sidestep microbial contaminants like E. coli and salmonella from manure fertilization and run-off from pig & chicken farms.
Hydroponic agriculture conserves water, can be grown year-round, is far less labor-intensive than organic agriculture and therefore less expensive. It competes on taste and nutrient density.
Hydroponic agriculture may well be the future of agriculture, with unique possibilities that offer creative vertical footprints in even blighted urban areas or suburbs with little remaining open space. Even rural areas can reap these rewards. (4)
Most of us though still rely on supermarkets for our produce. In its 2015 Crop to Table Report Consumer Reports evaluated the level of pesticide residue found on common conventional fruits and veggies by country of origin. (5)
The upshot? Only a handful of conventionally grown fruits and veggies were deemed risky. For these few, organic options were recommended, indicated with thumbs-up icons below. This handy chart appears on p. 18 in the Report and I consult it regularly when I shop. Note: The U.S. performed worse than other countries in many cases.
(You can download the report and print this chart using the URL in footnote 5 below.)
The Best Veggie Wash
Finally, whether we buy conventional or organic produce, we can very easily reduce any residual pesticide residue by simply washing produce in water, which removes up to 80% of pesticides or by soaking them in a 10% salt bath (that's 1 part table salt to 9 parts water) for 10 minutes, which is purported to eliminate pesticidal residue by 87.9-100%. (6) Just rinse your produce off well and don't soak longer, lest it begins to absorb sodium or affect flavor. This technique was far more effective than any commercial vegetable washes evaluated.
So eat your fruits and veggies! As many as you can and from whatever sources you prefer! Though we'd all prefer a world without pesticides, we can shop wisely and soak to neutralize any residue, virtually eliminating risk. The antioxidants, phytonutrients, and fiber in fresh produce are our very best insurance for vibrant health!
1) P R Williams, J K Hammitt. Perceived risks of conventional and organic produce: pesticides, pathogens, and natural toxins. Risk Anal. 2001 Apr;21(2):319-30.
2) R Reiss, J Johnston, K Tucker, J M DeSesso, C L Keen. Estimation of cancer risks and benefits associated with a potential increased consumption of fruits and vegetables. Food Chem Toxicol. 2012 Dec;50(12):4421-7.
6) A Zohair . Behaviour of some organophosphorus and organochlorine pesticides in potatoes during soaking in different solutions.Food Chem Toxicol. 2001 Jul;39(7):751-5.