In 2015 Consumer Reports found organic food to be on average 47% more expensive, based on over 100 product pairings. But is it worth the additional cost? Let’s dig into the data.
Organic produce indeed has less synthetic pesticide and fertilizer residues than its conventional counterpart. Foods labeled organic are generally not permitted to contain antibiotics, growth hormones, sewage sludge, synthetic pesticides (there are some exceptions), or ionizing radiation. But the matter of whether organic foods are actually more nutritious and significantly better for your health is inconclusive in the scientific community, though 55% of Americans hold that it is in fact superior, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center study.
As a 2017 study on the organic foods summarizes, “The quantitative reviews and meta-analyses greatly disagree; some found a significant difference in nutrient content between organic and conventional crops but others did not… The only entirely unequivocal benefit of organic foods is reduced contamination from pesticide residues; although this might not matter for consumers in high-income countries, where pesticide contamination on conventionally grown food is far below acceptable daily intake thresholds, it could provide an important health benefit for consumers elsewhere.”
A 2012 review of 240 studies concludes that there is insufficient evidence that organic food is significantly more nutritious than conventional.
But organic produce has indeed been found to be superior in some ways. A 2014 meta-analysis of 343 studies found that organic produce had significantly higher levels antioxidants, and four times higher levels of pesticide residues, including the toxic metal cadmium. Further, a 2016 meta-analysis of 170 studies conducted by Newcastle University found that organic milk has higher concentrations of beneficial fatty acids.
Overall, given the lack of a consensus and that in the U.S., residues are low even in nonorganic foods, it’s unwise to be spending a lot more on organic, or to be consuming fewer fruits and vegetables because you can’t afford or don’t have access to their organic versions.
While I cannot attest to the soundness of its methods, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit environmental organization, publishes a list of foods with the highest loads of pesticide residues, the “Dirty Dozen,” and with the lowest, the “Clean Fifteen,” which are based on annual results of the USDA’s testing of produce samples.
Do you buy organic? Why or why not?