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Are they worth the cost?
By Gary F. Zeolla
Note: This article was revised and expanded and incorporated as a chapter in the book God-given Foods Eating Plan.
Organic foods are becoming more popular. Along with health food stores, many grocery stores are now carrying organic foods. But organic foods can be expensive, costing 2-4 times as much as their regular counter-parts. So are organic foods worth the cost?
Fruits and Vegetables
Recent studies have found that much of the produce sold in groceries stores is contaminated with pesticides. But these same studies have also found that some organic produce can also have pesticide residues on it. However, there is a great difference in the frequency and amount of pesticides found.
Specifically, one study found that 75% of traditional produce contained pesticide residues while 23% of organic foods did. The reason organic foods might have some pesticide residue is pesticides that have been banned for years or even decades can still be found in the soil the organic produce is grown on. But still, this study did find that three times as much traditional produce had pesticide residue than did organic produce.
Moreover, what was not as often reported is this study found that the amount of pesticide residue and the number of different of pesticides found were much greater on traditional produce that organic produce. So with organic produce, you are much less likely to be consuming pesticides. And even if you do, the amount will be far less than with traditional produce.
But still, does this matter? Pesticides are supposed to be safe. They are government approved, right? And they do have benefits. The reason organic produce is more expensive is because "pests" generally consume about a third of the organic harvest. But whether "approved" or not, the fact remains many pesticides that at one time were thought to be safe were later found not to be and thus were banned. DDT is the most famous example of a class of pesticides that were widely used at one time but were later found to be dangerous.
And one thing is certain; pesticides are "unnatural" chemicals. And consuming them increases the "toxic load" on a person's system. We are exposed to many toxins in modern-day life, from environmental pollution and the like. And all of these toxins can build up in the body's systems and lead to health problems. It is for this reason that alternative health practitioners put an emphasis on various "detox" procedures. And many people have found that just by undergoing such procedures, their health problems resolve. But even better would be to reduce the exposure to toxins in the first place. And consuming organic produce would be one step in this direction.
Moreover, some people such as myself are "sensitive" to pesticides. I can tell very quickly if a food is contaminated with pesticides as I have an immediate allergic reaction when eating contaminated foods. So for me and my health, it is imperative to avoid pesticides as much as possible.
On the other hand, not consuming fruits and vegetables to avoid pesticides would not be wise. The consumption of more fruits and vegetables is one of the most important steps to take to improve one's health. This is discussed in the first part of the article The Basics of a Healthy Diet.
Moreover, there are many who believe that organic produce simply tastes better. This is, of course, a subjective area. But I will say that a while back after reading about the health benefits of eating "dark greens" like collard greens and kale, I bought some at a grocery store. The kale I couldn't eat at all as it tasted too awful, while the collard greens were "tolerable" at best.
But I then tried organic forms of these greens and found that I liked the taste of the kale, and the collard greens actually tasted very good. So if you are one of those persons who refuses to eat vegetables because you don't like the taste, maybe just maybe if you try them in their organic forms you will like them, or at least find the taste tolerable. And your body will thank you for the effort.
Pesticides Residues Lists
But still, organic produce can be costly. And if one is determined to eat more fruits and vegetables, then buying all that produce in its organic forms can add up to quite an expense. So to find a good compromise, I spent time researching the Web and other sources to develop a list of what produce is most likely to be contaminated with pesticides or to have the greatest pesticide residues and what produce is least likely to be contaminated or tends to have the least contamination.
Below is a compilation of what I came up with. Some lists I came across put the produce in the order of greatest to least contamination. But in collating the lists, I have simply put them in alphabetical order.
3. Bell Peppers
4. Cantaloupe (imported)
8. Grapes (imported)
9. Green Beans
11. Peaches (fresh)
14. Red Raspberries
2. Bananas (fresh)
5. Brussels sprouts
9. Grapes (U.S.)
10. Green onions (U.S.)
13. Peaches (canned)
14. Pineapples (canned)
16. Sweet Potatoes
I have found these lists to be rather reliable. Given my allergic reaction to pesticides, if I eat a food from the most contaminated list, I generally have a reaction, but if I eat something from the least contaminated list, I have no problems.
So my approach is simply this, I never eat any of the produce on the most contaminated list unless I can get it organic. On the other hand, I will save my money and buy traditional versions of the fruits and vegetables on the least contaminated list. This gives me quite a few items I can purchase at the lesser price. And I would recommend the same approach to the reader.
The difficulty comes in with items that are not on either list. They may or may not be problematic. So for myself, if I can find the item in organic form and it is not too much more expensive than the traditional counterpart, I'll get it organic. But if the organic form is not available or is too expensive, then I might try the traditional version. But if it gives me problems, I won't eat it again unless I can get it organic. Oranges, for instance, are an item I have found to be problematic unless they are organic.
Other Plant Foods
What about plant foods other than fruits and vegetables? Do grains, nuts and seeds, and legumes have much pesticide residues? Generally speaking, they do not. So my approach here is the same as for produce that is not on either of the above lists. I'll buy organic if I can find it and it is not too expensive. Otherwise, I'll try the non-organic counterpart. But if if it causes me problems, then I won't buy it again.
Moreover, this is one case where the source or brand can make a difference. For instance, non-organic walnuts purchased at a grocery store tend to cause me problems while non-organic walnuts from a health food store do not. I've had similar experiences with other items. So I would say that even non-organic items purchased at a health food store tend to be less contaminated than non-organic foods purchased at a grocery store.
When it comes to animal foods like red meat, chicken, dairy products, and eggs, the main potential problem here is that residues of antibiotics and hormones given to the livestock can be present in the final product. And if pesticides are used on the grains fed to the livestock, these can end up in the final product as well.
But again, is this a problem? I will say that again, many alternative health practitioners often trace health problems to a person's consumption of the antibiotic and hormone residues in the animal foods they are eating.
For instance, an intestinal yeast infection can be caused by antibiotic use. Along with harmful bacteria, the antibiotics can kill off the beneficial bacteria in the intestines. And with the beneficial bacteria gone, this opens the door to the growth of yeast, and this yeast can be the source of a variety of health problems. So one of the first questions an alternative practitioner will ask someone with such a problem is if they have taken antibiotics recently. But even they haven't, they might have received constant antibiotic exposure from the animal foods they were consuming, and this could be the source of the problem.
And again, some people like myself can be sensitive to the antibiotic and hormone residues in animals foods. So it becomes imperative to avoid such contaminations.
I discuss further the potential problems with hormone and antibiotic residues in animal foods in my God-given Foods Eating Plan book. So I won't go into any greater detail here. But the above should suffice to show there are good reasons to eat only organic animal foods. But again, the organic items tend to be considerably more expensive than their traditional counterparts.
However, with organic foods becoming more popular, even traditional grocery stores are now carrying organic meat, chicken, eggs, and dairy products. And these tend to be less expensive than those found in health food stores.
Moreover, there are sometimes ways to avoid hormone and antibiotic residues without having to purchase organic items. For instance, near where I live there is a "turkey farm" (Pound's Turkey Farm in Leechburg, PA). Along with a wide variety of turkey products, they also sell beef products.
Talking to the owner, I found out that they do not give antibiotics to the turkeys or cattle. However, they do use (quoting the owner), "a very limited amount of pesticides on the grains fed to the animals." It is for this reason that their products cannot be certified as being organic. However, it is also for this reason that their turkey and beef products are not that much more expensive than their grocery store counterparts. And the amount of pesticides they use must truly be "very limited" as I have never had any problems with any items I have purchased from them. And I purchase quite a bit from them. I eat their turkey breast on almost a daily basis as it is a great source of low-fat protein. And other specialty stores in my area carry chicken that is produced without hormones or antibiotics but is not that expensive. My point is, with a little effort, it is possible to find meats without significant contamination that is not that pricey.
As for other animal foods, the only eggs I eat are "Eggland's Best" Eggs. Like the above turkey farm, their chickens are not given hormones or antibiotics, but the eggs are not certified organic since they probably use some pesticides on the grains fed the chickens. But again, I have never had a problem with them, and they are less expensive than organic eggs. And the chickens are fed in such a way that the eggs are higher in healthy omega 3 fatty acids than traditional or even organic eggs. So that is a plus as well.
Organic milk is readily available at both grocery stores and health food stores. But it is rather expensive. I personally, don't drink milk so I haven't looked around for a cheaper alternative. But I will say that I use whey and casein based protein powders. And despite being dairy based and not being organic, I have never had a problem with them. So I can only assume that in the processing used to remove the fat and carbohydrates, any hormone and antibiotic residues are removed as well.
And finally, I praised the value of yogurt in the second part of my Basics of Healthy Diet article. And I generally don't have a problem with non-organic yogurt, but the organic version is not that much more expensive, so I get it whenever possible.
There is no simple answer to the question posed by the title of this article. In some cases, yes, organic foods are worth the cost. But in other cases, it's not really necessary to pay the extra amount for organic. Alternatives are available that are less expensive but still avoid the potential contamination of non-organic foods.
Co-operator, The (newsletter of the East End Food Co-op). Vol. 15, No. 1; Jan-Feb 2004.
"Let us spray." Valley News Dispatch. May 8, 2002, p. A1.
Nutrition Action Healthletter. June 2003, Vol. 30, No. 5, p.13.
Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce. (from a Web site that no longer exists).
Organic Foods: Are they worth the cost?. Copyright © 2004 by Gary F. Zeolla.
Disclaimers: The material presented in this article is intended for educational purposes only. The author is not offering medical or legal advice. Accuracy of information is attempted but not guaranteed. Before undertaking any diet, exercise, or health improvement program, one should consult your doctor. The author is in no way responsible or liable for any bodily harm, physical, mental, or emotional, that results from following any of the advice in this article.
The above article was posted on this site August 18, 2004.
It originally appeared in the free email newsletter FitTips for One and All.
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