Most people have a sense that certified-organic fruits and vegetables offer advantages over other produce in grocery stores. But because organic food is usually more expensive, consumers want to prioritize those products that offer the greatest health benefits.
To find out more about this topic, the Georgia Straight contacted Shannon Smith, a resource dietitian at Choices Markets. “Genetically modified foods is a really big question with consumers right now,” she said, “and many people don’t know a certified-organic food cannot have any genetically modified foods in it.”
Smith acknowledged that nonorganic fruits and vegetables are just as nutritious as organically grown ones. So if someone is living on a low income, she said the best option might be to choose nonorganic if that’s the only way to afford enough fruits and vegetables. However, she also claimed that nonorganic produce has far higher pesticide levels than its certified-organic counterparts.
For those interested in the health effects of pesticides, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety website has a long list of general symptoms associated with mild, moderate, or severe poisoning. Even at mild levels, people can experience headaches, nausea, diarrhea, changes in mood, insomnia, and irritation of the nose, throat, eyes, or skin.
“Some health effects from pesticide exposure may occur right away, as you are being exposed,” the centre states. “Some symptoms may occur several hours after exposure.”
There’s a common belief that if fruits have thick skins that must be peeled away—such as oranges or bananas—then the food won’t be as contaminated by pesticides as fruits and vegetables with thin skins. But Smith said that while this is often true, it doesn’t mean it’s harmless to choose nonorganic, thick-skinned fruits in a produce aisle.
“While you can peel away skin and you’re not going to be consuming the pesticides, bananas are actually one of the most heavily sprayed fruits,” Smith said. “So Choices has actually taken a stance not to carry nonorganic or non-fair-trade bananas because it’s such a huge environmental risk—not only to the farm itself but to the farm workers who are applying those high levels of pesticides regularly.”
Smith is a fan of the nonprofit Environmental Working Group’s 2015 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. It includes a “Dirty Dozen” list of fruits and vegetables with the highest loads of pesticides. Topping the list are apples, followed by peaches, nectarines, strawberries, grapes, celery, spinach, sweet bell peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, imported snap peas, and potatoes.
According to the EWG. 99 percent of apples, 98 percent of peaches, and 97 percent of nectarines tested had at least one pesticide residue. The EWG also reported that the average potato contains more pesticides by weight than any other fruit or vegetable.
The EWG also posts a list of produce with the lowest loads of pesticide residues. Avocados ranked first, with only one percent showing detectable amounts. Next were sweet corn, pineapples, kiwis, eggplant, grapefruit, cantaloupe, cauliflower, and sweet potatoes.
“They update it yearly,” Smith said of the EWG shopper’s guide. “It’s consumer-friendly.”
Organic certification also takes into account how animal products are being created. According to Smith, this includes restrictions on the use of antibiotics as well as defining how much outdoor access farm animals must have.
Smith readily admitted that it can be challenging for people to take the time to shop and eat well. She advised that a little planning can go a long way. For instance, she recommended cooking food in big batches and freezing portions for future use.
“Anything that’s really saucy or soupy will freeze well and reheat well,” she said.
This ensures that people aren’t constantly eating leftovers because food doesn’t have to be consumed the following day. Another tip is to prepare breakfasts in the evening and pack them in canning jars. This way, they can be eaten on the run, if necessary.
Smith also cautioned that if a product is labelled “natural”, that doesn’t mean it’s certified organic. In fact, she said it’s “frustrating” that foods are labelled “natural” when there isn’t a regulatory structure on par with how organic products are labelled.
Smith coauthored a report for Choices Markets called Becoming a Sustainabilist, which outlines how to be a smart consumer of healthy foods. It explains that the “Canadian Organic” label indicates that the product meets Canadian standards and contains at least 95 percent organic ingredients. If it has a “British Columbia Certified Organic” logo, the product has been approved by the Certified Organic Associations of B.C.
“The main thing that you’re looking for with the word organic on a food is any kind of certification to actually show that it has been through the regulatory process,” Smith said. “So as much as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is supposed to be overseeing this, it’s such a huge industry. There can be other small companies that might slip under the radar for a short time before being caught.”