The only organic foods to buy

I’ve written about the barrage of organic foods flooding the marketplace in previous editions of the Daily Dispatch. And the truth is, many of the splashy, packaged “organic” foods lining supermarket shelves these days are a waste of your money.

But organic produce is a different story.

In fact, I often find myself opting to pay more for organic produce. I’ll explain why in a moment. But first, let’s talk a little bit about the incredible growth of the organic farming industry over the past 15 years.

Since 1999, the area of farmland around the world certified as organic has increased 300 percent. And today, there are more than 91 million acres of farmland worldwide under organic cultivation. However, that amount still accounts for less than 1 percent of all agricultural lands. So, why does 99 percent of farming remain “non-organic”?

The organic farming sector faces three major challenges. First, there is a serious shortage of organic raw materials–such as grains, sugar and livestock feed. Without an adequate supply of these basic agricultural commodities, organic farmers cannot harvest sufficient products to make their businesses viable.

This shortage is partly why we pay a premium at the cash register for organic products. It’s simply a matter of supply and demand. Demand is high. And growing higher by the year. Yet supply remains low.

The second challenge comes from food products marketed as “natural” or “locally grown.” These savvy food producers capitalize on a consumer’s desire to eat “clean” food. But they know many consumers don’t understand the terminology.

So let’s clear that up right now…“natural” and “locally grown” do NOT mean organic. When you read the word “natural” on packaged foods, it’s an essentially meaningless term. Don’t be fooled.

On the other hand, locally grown is an important concept. It supports local farming. It keeps food close to home. And it avoids the costs, pollution and preservation required for long-distance hauling.

Unfortunately, locally grown produce can carry a heavy synthetic pesticide load. (Although, even organic produce can contain “natural pesticides.” And I’ll explain more about that fact next week.)

Locally grown produce can also come from genetically modified seeds. So, the only way to guarantee you’re not buying genetically modified produce is to buy organic. In fact, according to federal law, organic produce cannot be genetically modified.

The third–and largest–challenge faced by the organic farming industry is cost. Organic raw crop farming requires careful labor and management. So it costs far more up front to turn out an organic crop.

Conventional agri-business farmers use chemicals to reduce labor and increase raw productivity (although not nutritional value). However, in the long run, non-organic farming is just as expensive as sustainable farming. Or perhaps even more expensive than organic farming–at least in terms of indirect costs.

For example, non-organic farming takes a serious toll on the environment, wildlife, and human health with harmful, synthetic chemicals that contaminate the soil, water and air.

Of course, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets tight limits on permissible levels of synthetic pesticide residue allowed on organic and non-organic produce. And the Federal Drug Administration regulates these limits.

Even so, this fact may surprise you…

The pesticide residue found on produce in the U.S. falls below these limits more than 99 percent of the time. Even on non-organic produce.

So if pesticide residue isn’t as big of a concern as some shoppers might think, why spend extra money to buy organic produce?

It all comes down to nutrition. Simply put, organic produce contains more nutrients.

In fact, the actual nutrient content and quality of mass-produced, conventionally grown crops has significantly declined over the past 80 years. So, when you buy a conventionally grown apple, you ingest some unwanted, synthetic chemicals. But you only get a fraction of the nutrition compared to organic apples.

Several years ago, scientists compared the nutritional content of organic and conventionally grown produce. Over a two-year period, they purchased samples of both types of apples, potatoes, pears, wheat and sweet corn in the western suburbs of Chicago. They found that on a per-weight basis, the organic produce contained many more nutrients than conventionally grown produce. In fact, the organic produce averaged:

-63 percent more calcium

-78 percent more chromium

-73 percent more iron

-118 percent more magnesium

-91 percent more phosphorus

-125 percent more potassium

-60 percent more zinc

Plus, the organic produce averaged 29 percent less mercury than the conventionally grown produce. The researchers published their findings in the respected Journal of Applied Nutrition. And that’s just one study that focused solely on mineral content.

In 2008, a group of U.S. scientists reviewed 97 studies that compared the overall nutritional content of organic and conventionally grown produce. They found that organic produce provides about 25 percent higher nutritional content on average than conventionally grown produce.

So, if you want to achieve optimal nutrition from the foods you eat…and if you want to get the most bang for your buck, you may want to consider buying organic produce. But skip the “organic” and “natural” prepackaged foods on grocery store shelves. Just because that chocolate pudding is “organic” doesn’t mean you should eat it!


1. “Is Organic Agriculture ‘Affluent Narcissism’?” Forbes ( 11/7/2012

2. “Distinguishable Epidemics of Multidrug Resistant Salmonella Typhimurium DT104 In Different Hosts,” Science 9/27/2013; 341(6153):1514-1517

3. “Organic foods vs. supermarket foods: Element levels,” Journal of Applied Nutrition 1993; 45:35-39

4. “New Evidence Settles a Lingering Question – Is Organic Food More Nutritious?,” Organic Consumers Association ( 3/19/2008