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Whether it’s through the local CSA, a neighborhood farmer’s market, or the grocery store down the street, we’re all pretty well-trained at this point to at least look for organic options. But, do you know why? We asked environmental journalist Amanda Little to give us a cheat sheet on the nuts and bolts of it all—both for those who are on the fence about whether organic is worth it, and also for those of us who want an arsenal of facts for their next dinner party companion who tries to debunk its value.

Why Buying and Eating Organic Matters

Most of us have drunk the local, organic Kool-Aid. We go out of our way to buy the freshest, purest, most local, most seasonal, closest-to-homegrown fruits and veggies. And so we should but why, exactly? Avoiding pesticides and herbicides—that’s one good reason. These crop chemicals have been linked in study after scientific study to ailments from allergies and ADD to cancers and autism. But the virtues of organic foods go beyond the bad things they avoid to include the good things they contain.

The Nutritional Case For Organic

Dozens of recent studies have shown that organic fruits and vegetables are actually richer in nutrients than conventional produce trucked from afar. One study from Newcastle University in England, for example, found that organic produce had up to 40 percent higher levels of vitamin C, zinc, iron and other key nutrients. A 10-year study at University of California, Davis, found that organic tomatoes had almost double the quantity of antioxidants called “flavonoids,” which can reduce blood pressure and help prevent heart disease and strokes. Scientists from the University of Florida found that organically grown produce had a concentration of cancer-fighting “phytonutrients” up to 25 percent higher than its conventional counterpart.

“In organic soil, nitrogen releases slowly into plants, letting them grow at their own sweet, natural pace.”

Nitrogen—that miraculous element that enables plants to absorb water and nutrients—plays a big role in all this. In organic soil, nitrogen releases slowly into plants, and they grow at their own sweet, natural pace but soil that has been doused with chemical fertilizers becomes super-charged with nitrogen, which makes fruits and veggies grow rapidly, giving them less time and energy to develop nutrients. The extra nitrogen also makes them soak up excess water (ever had a bland, watery tomato on an airport salad, or tasteless melon chunk in a fast-food fruit cup? That’s why).

The Nutritional Case For Local

There’s also the fact that conventional produce is almost always picked when still unripe and hard. That way it won’t bruise or damage when it’s trucked and shipped hundreds (or often thousands) of miles to market. The hitch here is that plants have to fully ripen on the vine to reach their peak nutrient levels. Immature produce that gets transported long distances is often chemically ripened in warehouses before it heads to the store, a process that makes the fruits and veggies look ripe and colorful, but doesn’t let them develop their full nutrient potential.

“Subtleties of taste and texture for any edible plant just can’t be achieved with chemicals in a warehouse.”

Same thing goes with flavor: If produce is picked before it’s ripe, the texture and flavors are immature when the sun naturally ripens a tomato on the vine, for instance, it stimulates the release of enzymes that transform the starches in its flesh to sugars; dozens of essential oils develop that create the fruit’s complex flavors and scents. The enzymes also break down cell walls, softening the flesh and creating juiciness. These subtleties of flavor and texture in a tomato (or any other edible plant) simply can’t be achieved with chemicals in warehouses.

The Economic Case For Both

When we buy local, organic produce we’re also supporting small and mid-sized farmers instead of far flung mega-farms. That sends signals to the market that can shift our food system in a good direction. Our buying options become limited as the end of harvest season nears and farmers markets peter out. Still, in late-fall and winter months there’s a lot we can do with local, organic produce that has been canned and frozen.

All this said, very few of us have the time or budgets to maintain 100% organic and local diets. Don’t sweat it not all conventional produce is tainted (see chart below) and the impacts of eating non-organic and long-distance produce on your health and the environment are gradual and cumulative. So buy local and organic whenever you can—and savor the goodness. But don’t panic when you can’t.

The Dirty Dozen—And the Clean 15

The Environmental Working Group has a great “Dirty Dozen” guide to organics, which lists the fruits and vegetables most impacted by chemicals (often, the skin is consumed, or it’s particularly permeable). Unfortunately, a lot of these are the most popular, especially amongst kids, so going organic on these ones is a good investment. On the flipside, the fruits and veggies in the “Clean 15” absorb a minimal amount of pesticides and fertilizers so there’s little discrepancy between the organic and conventional versions.

Clean 15

Dirty Dozen Plus

Asparagus

Apples

Avocadoes

Celery

Cabbage

Cherries

Cantaloupe

Tomatoes

Corn

Cucumbers

Eggplant

Grapes

Grapefruit

Hot Peppers

Kiwi

Nectarines

Mangos

Peaches

Mushrooms

Potatoes

Onions

Spinach

Papayas

Strawberries

Pineapple

Sweet Bell Peppers

Sweet Peas (frozen)

Collards & Kale*

Sweet Potatoes

Summer Squash & Zucchini*

* The pesticides used on these are of particular concern. Chart from EWG

Illustration by Jessie Ford.

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