Decision Points: Organic Versus Conventional Produce


While conventionally-grown produce is often cheaper than the organic variety, some organizations, such as the Environmental Working Group (EWG), say that buying organic fruits and vegetables can reduce your exposure to potentially-harmful pesticides. Below are pros and cons to consider when buying organic versus conventional produce.

Organic pros

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), organic food is grown without most conventional pesticides or petroleum or sewage sludge-based fertilizers.

Organic foods are readily available in many parts of the country. The Organic Trade Association found that the organic market grew to more than $28.6 billion in 2010. The organization also found that 78% of American families buy organic foods.

While organic foods do tend to have higher price tags, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) says that these prices take into account the environmental protection that organic farming offers. This allows for the proper rotation periods that are necessary to build soil fertility and prevent erosion.

Organic cons

Kendra Pierre-Louis, the author of "Green Washed: Why We Can't Buy Our Way to a Green Planet," says that the word "organic" has erroneously become shorthand for "wholesome" or "safe."

"Plenty of organic foods are little more than pesticide-free junk foods -- potato chips made from organic potatoes are still not a health food," she says.

Something else to take into consideration when buying organic frozen foods: a percentage comes from China, which has gained notoriety for food safety issues. While Pierre-Louis explains that this is not limited to organic food, it still makes it difficult to find out what you are unknowingly eating.

"An organic food label just isn't capable of showing everything," she says.

And then there is the issue of cost. Organic foods tend to be more expensive than their conventional counterparts. Read the FAO's explanation for this discrepancy here.

Conventional pros

The EWG points out that the known benefits of a healthy diet full of fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks associated with pesticide exposure. Make sure to thoroughly wash fruits and vegetables before you eat them.

Conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables are typically less expensive than organic produce. In June 2006, the average price of one pound of conventional strawberries was $2.73, compared to the $4.79 average price of the same quantity of organic strawberries.

Rodale Institute's Organic Price Report tool allows you to compare the prices of organic and conventional produce and grains in select markets across the United States so you can see the difference on a given day.

Conventional cons

One of the most common concerns with conventional produce is its exposure to pesticides, which then get passed along to you. The EWG ranks fruits and vegetables by pesticide residue to determine its "dirty dozen" and "clean 15" lists.

The USDA found pesticides on 98% of the 700-plus conventionally-grown apples that were tested, according to the EWG. Conventional strawberries may have as many as 13 different pesticides, while conventional celery may have as many as 57.

The impact of pesticides on humans has not been fully studied, but pesticides have been linked to a variety of problems, including hormone disruption, cancer, skin, eye and lung irritation, and brain and nervous system toxicity, says the EWG.

Children consume more food calories per unit of body weight. This, along with their rapid cell division, puts them at a greater risk for pesticide exposure-related problems, according to Ann Kulze, a family physician, nutrition expert and the author of "Eat Right for Life."

As children tend to be picky when it comes to food, they may eat only a few kinds of fruits and vegetables on a regular basis, which could mean increased exposure to the same pesticides, Kulze adds.