As we gain access to fresh food over the spring, summer and fall, more and more people ask me if buying organic is still better than supporting local. I say, go to your local Organic Farmer's Market and get both!
A landmark study published by an international team of researchers in the United Kingdom concluded that organic foods are compositionally different than their conventionally-grown counterparts, contrary to earlier reports. The meta-analysis conducted by a team from Newcastle University analyzed 343 peer-reviewed publications reporting on crop composition data and concluded that organically-grown crops have higher amounts of several beneficial antioxidants and lower levels of the harmful heavy metal cadmium.
The Debate over whether or not organic food is more nutritious continues to be a contentious issue, similar to the divide over whether or global warming is a real phenomenon, but this study provides overwhelming evidence to support the claim that organic farming has merits and that lowering your exposure to pesticide residue is better for your health. Simply stated, an organic crop is one that is grown without the use of synthetic chemicals such as nitrogen- or phosphorous-based pesticides and fertilizers that are the standard in conventional agriculture. While 11% of organic crops studied had chemical residue, that number was significantly lower than 46% of non-organic crops. Notably, 75% of non-organic fruits are contaminated with pesticides. Therefore, consuming organics generally leads to lower pesticide exposure.
The Research: Researchers also noted that the organically-grown produce had 48% lower levels of cadmium, a toxic heavy metal and human carcinogen according to the World Health Organization1 that accumulates in the liver and kidneys and may also be linked to cardiovascular disease2. This isn’t surprising as cadmium is an ingredient in agricultural chemicals and it can be present in higher concentrations when crops aren’t rotated as they are in organic operations.
The Nutrition: When it comes to antioxidants, organic crops, especially fruit, were found to be 18-69% higher in antioxidants than non-organic crops. This may be because without access to synthetic nitrogen-based chemicals organic crops are more likely to produce phytonutrients to protect against pests and support plant health. These nutritionally-desirable, health-supportive chemical compounds have been shown to prevent disease3 and help your body function optimally.
This study proves to consumers why it is important to buy organic produce, but points to the need for more human studies in order to satisfy the scientific community and support additional health claims. However, the big takeaway is that the authors confidently conclude that the additional antioxidants consumed by switching to organically-grown crops are the equivalent of eating 1-2 more portions of fruit and vegetables per day, which further justifies the investment.
For recommendations on which crops have the highest concentration of chemical residue, check out the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list.
To learn more about why organic food is especially important for children, click here.
Here are 5 ways to reduce your organic food costs
1. Support Local: Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs)
These are small independent farms. You can buy a share in a farm, which supports a local organic farmer. They will deliver fresh produce to your door all summer long! Locally grown foods are better for the environment (fewer planes and trucks spewing pollutants and carbon) and for our health (fewer post-harvest preservatives and pesticides). Farmer's markets and farm websites are great resources for ways to cut back on eating out. With just a little bit of investigating, you can buy directly from your favourite restaurant's supplier.
Check out these resources:
USA Organic Growers Directory (The Organic Pages)
Europe Organic Directory (Green Trade Marketplace)
For more information about organic farming worldwide, check out the Organic World website.
2. Buy In Season
Strawberries and basil are incredibly cheap in season. Consider freezing so you'll have organic throughout the year. I bought a freezer from Craigslist for $100 and it saves me $1000 a year. For example, I bought 20 litres of cherries for $30 at Toronto’s Evergreen Brickworks farmers market this summer and froze them whole. Now I just thaw them out when I crave a taste of summer bliss.
3. Buy Healthy Staples
Tortillas, white bread and Top Ramen noodles are filling, but they're not exactly loaded with nutrition. But they are also inexpensive, which is why such foods often become a staple for low-income families struggling to put food on the table. Cheaper organic staples include millet, dried beans, sunflower seeds and brown rice.
4. Pull a Jamie Oliver
Jamie was nicknamed The Naked Chef because he taught the masses the secret to easy gourmet food by stripping down ingredient lists. When you buy high-quality staples like olive oil, pasta, grains and rice you can transform the basic ingredients into all sorts of soul-satisfying creations. Jamie never substitutes high-quality staples for cheaper ones because he wants you to enjoy home cooking just as pleasurable and fulfilling as any restaurant meal. If you really can’t cook, you may want to budget for a cooking class.
5. To Meat or Not to Meat
A lean cut of meat can feed a family for days. The grass-fed, organic beef can run you from $5.00-$8.00 a pound when buying it straight from the farmer vs. expensive organic cold cuts at $54 a pound. For those on a really tight budget, you could go meatless for a few meals a week. The most expensive items on most organic shopping lists are the meats and cheeses. Consider eating a bean dish mixed with a grain such as rice. This makes a perfect vegetarian protein option that you can cook for less than $3.00 a meal.
Baranski, M., Srednicka-Tober, D., Volakakis, N., et al. “Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: A systematic literature review and meta-analyses.” British Journal of Nutrition, (2014): 1-18.
1. World Health Organization. "Exposure to Cadmium: A Major Public Health Concern."
2. Finsterer, J. and Ohnsorge, P. “Influence of mitochondrion-toxic agents on the cardiovascular system.” Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology 67, 3 (2013): 434-45.
3. Del Rio, D., Rodriguez-Mateos, A., Spencer J.P. et al. “Dietary (poly)phenolics in human health: structures, bioavailability, and evidence of protective effects against chronic diseases.” Antioxidants & Redox Signaling10, 18 (2013): 1818-92.