By Claire Carlton, MS, RD, LD/N

I frequently get asked, “is organic worth the extra money?” by clients who are concerned about the potential effects of pesticides on health. As with most nutrition topics, my answer is, “It depends!”

The organic food market continues to grow each year according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA). Specifically, the OTA reports that in 2016, parents between the ages of 18–34 years old consumed more organic goods than any other group. Consumers are drawn to organic foods for many reasons aside from the belief that organic foods are more nutritious. The OTA conducts an annual survey to examine the buying behaviors of American households and determine why more and more people are choosing to go organic. Aside from nutrition, organic buyers are more aware of how foods are being produced and express concerns about the environment and sustainability.

To begin, let’s examine the difference between some common terms we may see in the grocery store or farmers market.

Conventional – Conventionally grown produce uses a variety of pesticides to control pests, fungus, mold and diseases. Conventional methods may also rely on several different fertilizers to support plant growth and nutrient content.

Local – The term “local” generally means that the food is produced within a specific geographic area, rather than nationally or internationally. There is currently not a universally agreed upon distance to classify something as local. According to GRACE Communications Foundation, a 2008 survey found that 50 percent of consumers described “local” as food that was produced within 100 miles of their homes. Local food is not always organic. The process to become a certified organic farm and maintain that certification is very expensive. This is why many smaller local farms opt to utilize organic farming methods but lack official certification.

Organic – This is a labeling term defined by the USDA and indicates a food or food product has met federal standards for production, processing and certification. The National Organic program oversees these standards and ensures compliance. According to the USDA, organic agriculture utilizes methods that support healthy soil, conserve biodiversity, and avoid use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetic engineering.

What exactly are pesticides and should we be concerned about their impact on our health?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a pesticide is defined as a substance or mixture of substances that is intended to prevent, destroy or repel any pest. The EPA evaluates all pesticides sold in the U.S. This process includes evaluation of ingredients and composition, potential adverse effects for human health, and environmental impact. This process also helps to ensure that pesticides target the specific pests they are intended for so the use of unnecessary products can be avoided. While the EPA does maintain strict standards for safety, consumer concerns about the long-term health impact of pesticide residues exist. In my practice, I have noticed that most consumers appear to be concerned about the risks for populations such as pregnant women, young infants and children. This fear stems from research published in Environmental Health Perspectives looking at the potentially adverse effects of organophosphate pesticide exposure in utero and how this may impact neurodevelopment. Future research will continue to study the long-term effects of pesticide residue ingestion on human health. Until more concrete evidence is available, those who express concern over pesticide exposure can take measures to limit exposure.

Ways to reduce pesticides in produce

  1. Rinse and wash produce under warm running water and use a soft scrub brush. There is no need to use soap, but there are a variety of fruit and vegetable washes and sprays on the market that may aid in the removal of pesticide residues.
  2. Peel your fruits and veggies. Peeling off the skin will help to remove pesticide residues, but keep in mind that this also eliminates a source of fiber from the food as well as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants found in the skin.
  3. Discard the outer leaves of vegetables such as onions, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and romaine lettuce in addition to washing and rinsing well.

Final recommendations

Most people in the United States are not consuming the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables daily. Conventional produce is better than no produce at all and provides numerous health benefits. The decision to purchase organic over conventional foods extends beyond nutrition to factors such as budget, environmental sustainability and a desire to support local farmers. The most important thing is to get fruits and vegetables in your diet. How that is achieved looks different for each family and individual.