Sylvia Meo, R.D.
Should You Buy Conventionally Grown Food, Organic or a Mix of Both?
Updated: Mar 17, 2021
You may have noticed that the organic food sections in your local grocery store or farmer's market continue to expand, leaving you maybe confused or simply wondering if you should be considering buying organic food instead of conventional.
Let me start by explaining what organic actually means in Canada, as it is not only about whether or not pesticides are used or what the animals are fed. Essentially organic agriculture touches all the different aspects of food production. Canada regulates this industry by placing strict limits and prohibitions on a number of agricultural practices, including how animals (livestock) are housed, fed, transported and slaughtered; how foods are grown and processed, as well as which environmental factors must be considered.
In Canada, a food labeled “organic” means that:
No toxic pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilizers were used to grow them;
No GMOs or genetically engineered seeds were used;
No drugs, growth hormones and antibiotics were used for the livestock;
The feed used for the livestock does not contain any animal meal;
The health and welfare of animals are protected. Animals are not overpopulated in closed buildings, instead space, natural lighting and fresh air are required, as well as access to pasture for grazing;
Environmental factors such as crop rotation, composting and using “green” manures, etc., must be considered;
No artificial ingredients, synthetic additives or preservatives, and irradiation are to be used for processed foods.
Although choosing organic foods over conventional is a personal choice and one which often means paying 20 to 40% more, buying organic has many advantages. Here are a few good reasons to choose organic and why I do whenever possible:
The lack of chemical products means the health of our farmers and soils, water, ecosystems and planet are better protected;
We are ensuring the animals that feed us are respected, protected and have a healthier and better quality of life. Why should they not get to thrive during that little time they get to live…and we all know how stress ails us, do we really want to feed ourselves with animals that lead a stressful life? I surely don’t;
Although studies have not proven that organic foods are more “nutritious” than the conventional ones, some have shown that organic produce contain a higher level of antioxidants and less nitrates, and that organic meat and poultry contain higher amounts of omega 3 fatty acids (aka "good" fats);
Finally, how can a diet richer in foods that contain more antioxidants, less nitrates, no hormones, no antibiotics, no GMOs, no chemical preservatives, no artificial ingredients, and that lived a healthier, less stressful and less toxic life NOT be better for our overall health and wellbeing?
In fact, herbicides, synthetic pesticides, insecticides commonly used have been found to be carcinogenic, hormone replicators or negatively impact children’s development on different levels…so if it only meant protecting the health of our children, I’m definitely for it!
Fruits & Vegetables
While fruits and vegetables are essential to a healthy diet, high levels of pesticides in produce have been linked to fertility issues, and can cause harm to infants, babies and children at even low levels. Unfortunately, buying all your produce organic can get very costly. If you can afford it, ideally you want to buy local and certified organic produce.
For those of us who are trying to not break the bank, but want to get the most from an organic diet, my best tip would be to avoid buying conventionally grown produce found on the Dirty Dozen list. This is a list that is released each year by the Environmental Working Group www.ewg.org, an American environmental organization that specializes in research in the areas of toxic chemicals, agriculture and western land issues. The foods found on this list are a part of the most heavily sprayed crops and consequently, the most contaminated with pesticide residues. The 2021 Dirty Dozen list https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/dirty-dozen.php includes, starting from the worst, strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes, and sweet bell peppers.
The EWG also releases a yearly list of 15 produce items that have a few, if any, detectable pesticide residue in them, called the Clean Fifteen. This year’s list https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/clean-fifteen.php includes avocado, sweet corn, pineapple, cabbage, onion, frozen sweet peas, papaya, asparagus, mango, eggplant, honeydew melon, kiwi, cantaloupe, cauliflower and broccoli. For these foods I strongly urge you to save your money and stick to conventional produce unless the organic ones are the same price or cheaper, it does happen, so look at those specials! Don’t forget these lists change every year around the month of April, so keep an eye out for the updated versions! I also print them out and keep them in my purse for a quick reference when shopping.
Personally, especially when it comes to wheat I steer clear of any product that is not made with organic wheat as I definitely want a product that is not doused in glyphosate (aka RoundUp weed killer, I don't put on my lawn so why would I want to ingest it?!). I also have been avoiding rice as much as possible, organic or not, because it has been found that it is a crop that typically contains high levels of inorganic arsenic. Long term exposure to elevated levels of inorganic arsenic is known to contribute to an increased risk of certain human cancers and can be harmful for our gastrointestinal tract, lungs, kidneys and epidermis (outer layer of cells that make up our skin).
Therefore, most of the types of breads and pastas I buy, even the occasional “white” pasta, I look for the “organic” label, and the same goes for all other grains and flours I add to our menu, whether it be corn flour (especially because most corn in Canada and USA is a genetically modified crop), white flour, oats, quinoa, spelt, etc. These staples are often less costly at big box retailers or if bought in bulk!
Meats & Substitutes
Did you know that 88% of all the antibiotics produced or imported into Canada are given to animals? That is really not good, and for that reason alone I urge you to choose organic as much as possible!
If you can and want to go the extra mile in this food group, choose your meats organic and 100% grass-fed. “Grass-fed” is not a regulated term, hence why you want to look for 100% grass-fed which means the animal’s diet is corn, soy and grain free and comprised exclusively of grass and forage. Consequently, these meats have a healthier fat profile (2 to 3 times more conjugated linoleic fatty acids which are linked to reduced cancer risk, cardiovascular disease risk and better cholesterol levels) and more antioxidants (vitamin E and A). If its 100% grass fed and organic it means they ate pure, pesticide-free grass, and also had access to the outdoors, weather permitting, triple bonus!
If you have a harder time finding 100% grass-fed meat, but find pasture-raised meat that is also organic, that would be my next recommendation. If not, simply organic meat will do, in this case the animals should have been fed on grass and forage, but odds are may have mostly received corn, soy and grains, which isn’t their natural and typical diet, so not ideal, but at least it is organic.
In the case of chicken and other poultry you are looking for organic and pasture-raised as a first choice; this means the chickens got to roam in a natural environment (outdoors) and also ate grass and forage. If not, the second choice would be organic and free-range (but this is not a legalized term, which makes it meaningless as it can have different interpretations and can simply mean that the chickens were not raised in cages and were instead “free” but living inside a building at all times).
If you can’t get them from your local farmer, you also want to get your eggs organic and ideally from chickens pasture-raised.
The sad reality is that we live in Canada and our harsh winters make it difficult to get meats that are 100% grass-fed and chickens that are pasture-raised, unless they come from the USA. But if buying organic is not possible in this category, I recommend you visit a few farms and see how they feed and raise their animals and choose one that respects and follows organic standards and whose values most resonate with yours. Finally, as a last resort, if you don’t care about buying local or if you can’t find a local farmer who essentially follows organic practices, my advice would be to buy meats and poultry with the mention “no antibiotics used” on it and remove the fat and skin before cooking it as that is where the toxins, chemicals, pesticides, etc. tend to accumulate.
When it comes to fish and seafood, I often see people looking for the organic label and choosing organic salmon over wild. Many times I feel like stopping the person and saying “you’re making a mistake!” but of course my husband is behind me telling me to just walk away and mind my business…so I comply. Here is the thing, “organic salmon” may have an appealing sound to it, but don’t be fooled. Not only is “organic” salmon or other fish labeled “organic” farmed, it is not nearly as healthy as wild-caught fish and they may not even offer any advantages over the conventionally farmed fish. This is the ONLY food category that I will encourage you to NOT choose organic and instead stick to only sustainable wild-caught fish and seafood, which technically meets all the organic criteria and should be the only one to be labeled “organic”, but I digress.
If you eat tofu, edamame, tempeh or any other food that contains soy, even soy protein powders, for the same reasons mentioned in the Dairy Alternatives section above, you definitely want to choose organic. For other legumes, like beans, lentils, chickpeas, because they aren’t usually very expensive to begin with, this wouldn’t be where I encourage you to go conventional. Furthermore, buy them dried as they are cheaper per weight than the canned ones, and besides being much healthier for you, you’ll get more for your money, plus you can maybe even find them at a better price if you buy them in bulk or at big box retailers!
In the case of nuts and seeds, although most are protected by a shell or fruit, they are also treated with very harsh and dangerous chemicals and because of their high fat content have a higher residue level. Macadamia nuts, cashews, pistachios, walnuts and peanuts have been flagged as having particularly higher levels of pesticides than others; therefore you truly want to look for the organic label on nut and seed packages, as well as when you buy oils or butters made with them. They are a great snack idea and source of protein and healthy fats, so look for the specials and stock up, it’s truly worth it!
Dairy Products & Dairy Alternatives
When it comes to milk, cheese, yogurt and butter for the reasons mentioned above, you want to ideally choose organic. If you find dairy products that are organic and made from 100% grass fed cows, even better! The organic label on dairy products guarantees that the cows were not exposed to antibiotics, drugs, hormones, animal feed, nor does their feed or pastures contain GMOs, animal meal, pesticides, etc.
If instead you are an avid soymilk consumer, since most soybeans sold in Canada or in the USA are genetically modified, you definitely want to always buy organic. If you prefer other non-dairy milks, like cashew, almond, rice, oat milk, etc., again choosing organic introduces fewer pesticides and other toxins into your body!
Here Are My Tips for Shopping Organic on a Budget
If you truly can’t afford to buy organic right now, don’t stop eating your produce or other foods for fear of the health risk associated to GMOs or pesticides and other toxins. The health benefits of diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure, so in this case eating conventional produce is far better than none at all! Just focus on the Clean Fifteen produce items, stay away from the Dirty Dozen and remove the extra fat and skin off your meats and poultry. Finally, lookout for the specials to help you slowly and economically introduce organic items into your life and build up your supply!
Eating more organic doesn't mean you need to change everything at once. Focus on the foods that are a big part of your diet or that you eat regularly. Foods that you only eat occasionally and are not part of your regular diet, choosing conventional will definitely save you money and not have much of an impact on your health. Because animal products tend to accumulate toxins at far higher concentrations than conventional fruits and vegetables, meat, poultry and dairy would be a good place to start making a switch. This can also be a great opportunity to decrease your meat consumption and perhaps add more legumes to the menu!
Check the weekly sales flyers and compare prices. When on sale, stock up on non-perishable items. I also like to buy fruits and vegetables in season or when they are on sale and either freeze or can them.
Sometimes buying dry goods and pantry staples (nuts, seeds, legumes, grains) in bulk is cheaper. Places like Bulk Barn have a good variety of organic items, and they also sometimes are on sale. Compare prices and go for the best deals.
Big box retailers like Costco and Walmart also have a good selection of organic foods, whether it’s fresh produce, meats, or packaged goods.
Farmers markets are also a great place to get local and consequently fresher, better tasting and sometimes even more nutritious (higher content of vitamins and minerals) and cheaper produce than what you find at the grocery store. “Local” isn’t synonymous with “organic”, but often times farmers are following the exact same practices required by the organic industry, but are just not certified organic due to financial reasons. So get to know your farmers! There are even sites like this one www.equiterre.org from Équiterre where you can sign up for a weekly or bi-monthly summer organic basket and you may not only save money but also support our local farmers!!
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