Organic: Why it REALLY matters

This photo shows a nice selection from my summer garden, a colorful, inspiring sight.  When I can’t simply walk into the garden and “pick” most of my dinner, I make the same choices at the grocery store that I encourage you to make. I prioritize  what’s in season. I buy what looks the freshest. Most of all, I buy what’s organic.  Certainly, not 100%.  Alas, that’s nearly impossible throughout the year.  But definitely ~90%.  And I think it’s a significant reason why I feel fantastic nearly every day.

I find many people are confused about why buying organic foods is so important.  It is a very common question raised during my walking nutrition tours of Whole Foods Market…

  • Is it because the flavor is better?  Well, in many cases, I find this to be true (especially strawberries and apples which are both very heavily sprayed).  But this is not always the case.  In student blind taste tests in my cooking classes, some could tell the difference, and others couldn’t.
  • Is it because organic foods have more vitamins?  Study results are actually mixed as to whether the nutrient content of organic food is higher; it definitely depends on the source – and on the soil quality.
  • Is it because organic food is not loaded with toxic chemicals?  YES!  I believe the most important reason to choose organic produce is because of what it’s not:  it is not toxic.  It has not been sprayed with chemicals designed to penetrate the food and last for weeks – rain or shine.   And as chemical-laden as our society has become overall, we desperately need help in reducing the daily toxic onslaught we ask our bodies to manage.  We are learning more and more each research year about the connections between pesticides and herbicides and human disease….the rampantly increasing incidence of anything from celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity to ADHD in children.  Are organic foods 100% free of pesticides?  No.  Cross-contamination has largely removed that possibility for commercial food production.  However, organic fruits and vegetables have on average 180 times less pesticide contamination than conventionally produced (this link goes to a summary of a University of Stuttgart study vs. the original posting which is in German). That is a big difference in toxicity.  (There is more detail below.)

Having said all of this, I appreciate that organic is substantially more expensive and, at times, hard to source.  In terms of expense, I believe we largely pay now (for health) vs. pay later (for illness).  Hence, my commitment to investing generously in my wellness – in feeling fantastic – as a high personal priority.  But both of those constraints are legitimate barriers for many, and thus, I think it’s important to have tools to help you to prioritize your organic choices.  I advocate buying as much organic food (1) as you can find and (2) as you can afford.

When you shop in the produce section, do you know which foods are the cleanest and which are the dirtiest?  Most of us don’t.  Thankfully, we have the Environmental Working Group ( which publishes an annual report ranking fruits and vegetables for residual pesticide content (given current conventional farming practices and actual food assays).  They famously publish a short, convenient subset of that list in a handy wallet-sized card – or PDA download – called the “Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen”.  The Dirty Dozen are the foods currently retaining the highest concentration of pesticides, and thus, these are foods I recommend you not purchase unless you can access an organic version.  However, the Clean 15 are those foods with the least chemical retention, so you can feel more confident making a non-organic choice with them, especially in managing your budget.  Are you surprised to learn that mangos are one of the cleanest?  How about celery and spinach being some of the dirtiest?  The results aren’t always obvious!  The best part is that these guidelines are updated every year to reflect current agricultural practices and outcomes. The 2015 results were just released.

Photo Courtesy NRCS

Pesticides and herbicides have been shown to contribute to a wide variety of damage in the body including nervous system toxicity like ADHD in children, estrogen spikes that can cause miserable PMS and menopause symptoms, and the inability to lose weight.  Seriously, this is not up for speculation!  The clinical data is quite damning.  It is important to understand scientifically that RoundUp, one of the most common herbicides in use in farming, contains one of the most potent estrogen mimickers in our society today:  glyphosate.  These estrogen mimickers – or xenoestrogens – are chemicals that disrupt our endocrine system by fitting into estrogen receptors and causing a spike in hormones that the body didn’t intend.  I believe strongly that this is one of several major factors contributing to the near-epidemic increase we have seen in both breast and prostate cancer (in men, the prostate is the most estrogen-sensitive tissue).  If you want to know more about which common chemical products put you at risk of estrogen dominance, please check out my prior article.  There is also interesting initial research questioning whether glyphosate might be a major driver in the rapidly increasing incidence of intestinal permeability, celiac disease, and even atheroscloerosis (That is, clogging of the arteries that can lead to heart attack or stroke.  When you click, don’t let the title of this last video turn your away.  It goes way beyond statins to showcase some recent research findings about the potential role of glyphosate in creating atherosclerosis.  Fascinating!).

I highly recommend buying organic produce whenever possible, but at least be sure to prioritize organic choices to avoid the dirtiest produce.  Keep in mind that “washing” conventional produce – even with citrus-based cleaners – does not remove the chemicals on the inside of the food.   Even better, as the weather warms this spring, visit a local farmer’s market for typically pesticide-free foods (be sure to ask!) that are super-fresh and thus higher in nutrients than foods that were trucked thousands of miles to the grocery store.  For you and your family’s long-term wellness, don’t be apathetic about the chemicals you allow in your food, on your skin, or in your home.  Be informed, and choose to Eat on Purpose!