Buying organic seems like a no-brainer. Organic food tends to have a lower impact on the environment, and it’s often more humanely produced. And what about the potential health benefits? A meta-analysis published last summer in the British Journal of Nutrition, which looked at 343 studies across geographic regions, found that organic crop foods contained, on average, 20 to 25 percent more antioxidants and had lower levels of cadmium and pesticides. This last point is key if you are pregnant or have children, since kids might be more affected by pesticides due to their lower body weight and because we have yet to learn about pesticide’s long-term effects. But ‘ and it’s a big but ‘ there’s no denying organic can be expensive. To make sense of it all, we’ve done some research to help you make budget-friendly choices.
When to go organic’
There are several reasons to choose organic beef. For one, the type of corn fed to conventionally raised cows is treated with neonicotinoid insecticides, which some say kill bees and set off a cascade of environmental problems. Organic cows are allowed to roam in the pasture, which means they get to eat grass and other plants, which, unlike corn, is what they’re biologically designed to munch on, keeping them healthier. This also makes the meat better for us, says recent research out of the University of Toronto: Scientists found there was a higher ratio of anti-inflammatory omega-3s compared to omega-6s in grass-fed meat and dairy. Finally, organic beef does not contain antibiotics or growth hormones, so there’s less exposure to drug-resistant bacteria.
Few fruits say summertime like peaches, but since both the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) say they have multiple pesticide residues, it’s worth waiting until they’re in season. At that point, you won’t likely have to pay all that much more for the organic version.
The CFIA reports that potatoes have multiple pesticide residues. (Though, potatoes garner a decent compliance rate when it comes to the maximum residue limit.) ‘Potatoes have a few persistent pests,’ says Mary Ruth McDonald, the University of Guelph’s research program director of plant production systems, which may explain the need for chemical spraying. For similar reasons to apples (see #7), organic is a good choice.
Conventionally grown bananas are treated with a massive amount of pesticides. So while, thanks to the protective peel, the fruit does not contain many pesticides, traditional growing practices use large amounts of chemicals, putting the local environment and plantation workers at risk.
U.S.-grown blueberries rank number 14 on the EWG’s Dirty Dozen list (and imported are number 23), but there’s another reason that organic might be a better choice: There are more antioxidants in smaller blueberries. ‘Organic blueberries tend to be a little bit smaller because they don’t get as much nitrogen fertilizer,’ says McDonald.
6. Dried Herbs and Spices
If the herbs and spices you use most often are imported into Canada (the label will tell you so), consider buying them organic. Imported dried spices are often irradiated, says Sarah Ramsden, a Vancouver Island-based certified nutritional practitioner. ‘This increases the shelf life,’ she explains, ‘but it reduces the nutritional content of the food.’
The CFIA conducts annual tests of pesticide residues on apples. In its most recent report, it noted that this was a crop with multiple residues but that the fruit was most compliant for staying under the CFIA’s maximum residue limit. We say go organic on this one for domestic and imported apples because we don’t know the impact of multiple residues. Ralph C. Martin, Loblaw Chair in Sustainable Food Production and a professor in the University of Guelph’s plant agriculture department, says it’s an area in need of research. ‘It’s not so much one pesticide at a time and arbitrarily set levels that should be the measure as it is the cumulative and interactive effect of eating pesticides over time.’
‘Organic is a great option for dairy, especially butter,’ says Ramsden. Organic dairy cows spend part of their spring and summer outdoors, where they graze on grass and other greens, while in the cooler months they are fed organic feed (which means you support the bees thanks to no neonicotinoids). One hundred percent grass-fed butter can be expensive and hard to find, but it’s more readily available through the summer and early fall. Stock up at the end of the season and freeze it for use throughout the winter.
When to stick with conventional’
These vitamin- C-packed melons are a safe bet to buy conventional. According to findings from the EWG, 61 percent of the cantaloupes tested didn’t show any pesticide residues.
The flesh of this heart-healthy fruit is protected by a hardy outer skin, so although it is sprayed, it doesn’t pose a health risk.
Little to no pesticides are applied to the parts of asparagus we eat when it’s being harvested because it grows so quickly, says McDonald. ‘In two days, it can go from out of the ground to ready for harvest,’ she says. So, there’s no need to splurge on certified organic stalks.
Conventional is also the way to go for these essentially pesticide-free fungi, which are grown indoors (to control temperature and humidity) in pasteurized compost. ‘Farmers are very careful not to bring in pests, insects or diseases,’ says McDonald.
It’s hard to find organic honey in Canada (the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association says there are only a few organic beekeepers in this country, likely because it’s difficult to meet the requirement that the forage area be a certain distance away from places that might use prohibited chemicals). Luckily, that’s not a worry because the CFIA found very few pesticide residues in their latest round of testing of conventional store-bought honey. If you want to go organic, a number of beekeepers practise some organic techniques without official certification. One way to find out what you’re buying is to talk to a honey seller at your local farmer’s market. You might be surprised to learn how close their techniques come to the organic standard.
14. Cabbage and Head Lettuce
Conventional is a solid choice here since the outer wrapper leaves are stripped from cabbage and head lettuce before they go to market, which means pesticide residues are likely lower.
Corn is number 50 of the 51 fruits and vegetables ranked by the EWG, so it’s one of the least likely to contain pesticide residues thanks to its protective husk. While corn is treated with neonicotinoids, it’s planted using a different technique that produces less dust, so there’s minimal impact on neighbouring bees.