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The Downside of Going Organic

Many folks tout the fact that they purchase organic foods. My friends, for instance, are proud to tell me, "Oh Toby, I went to the market today and purchased organic apples," or, "I only buy organic fruits and vegetables." The truth is, I'm happy they are making healthy decisions by purchasing fruits and vegetables. The fact that these foods are organic is a matter of personal choice, availability and -- a point that many people often forget -- affordability. Not everyone can afford sustainable foods.

Should you ever feel guilty for purchasing conventional fruit and vegetables? Absolutely not! But people apparently do, potentially even leading them to eat even fewer fruits and vegetables than the small amount they already are.

[See: 8 Great Farmers Markets.]

According to a recent study published in Nutrition Today , researchers at the Illinois Institute of Technology's Center for Nutrition Research gave 510 low-income people questionnaires to help them determine what influences folks to shop for fruits and vegetables. They also asked participants about credible sources for food and health information, and their attitudes toward certain organizations related to food (such the media, farmers and the U.S. government).

The results were surprising: The team found that small increments in income within the low-income population was associated with differing attitudes and beliefs regarding organic and conventional growing of fruits and vegetables. They also found that low-income people on the higher end of the income spectrum actually felt more conflicted about the cost of fruits and vegetables. "We thought more income would reduce the conflict," says researcher Britt Burton-Freeman, who directs the center. "We think that's because this 'higher' of the low-income group also had more issues with trust in the food industry, government, etc., and indicated a stronger need to buy 'pesticide-free' or 'organic.'"

[See: 6 Healthy Foods Worth Splurging On.]

Fear-mongering is another issue that reared its ugly head in this study. Based on the participants' responses, people felt they'd be less likely to purchase any type of fruit or vegetable when considering the Environmental Working Group's statement about the "dirty dozen." The EWG puts out and regularly updates the dirty dozen list, which names the top 12 foods that contain the highest level of pesticide residue. However, the one thing the EWG does not stress is that conventional produce does contain the same nutrient profile as its organic counterpart. It also doesn't stress that purchasing any produce (conventional or organic) is better than purchasing none at all. Further, conventional produce is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and farmers can't just put as much pesticides as they want on the produce. Strict guidelines are set forth for pesticide use, and conventional farmers do use a combination of non-chemical and chemical (if deemed necessary) methods to help control pests and other issues that may arise.

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that people consume at least 2.5 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit daily, based on a 2,000 calorie diet. The guidelines also reveal that 90 percent of the U.S. population does not meet the daily recommendation for vegetables, while 85 percent of the U.S. population does not meet the daily recommendation for fruit. Whether you choose conventional or organic, fruit and vegetables are critical components of the diet. Both provide the same nutrient profile and plethora of health benefits.

"I think we need to do more research to make sure we are providing the tools and educational content that empowers consumers to make informed choices," Burton-Freeman says. "I think we could utilize the people they trust the most in conveying and teaching people the truth about pesticides and proper handling of all fruits and vegetables." Utilizing the expertise of chefs and even starting with young children can help provide useful education for the public.

The media too needs to claim part of the responsibility for this fear-mongering. Consumers listen to the media. Experts in the field must provide science-based facts without bias. Messages should be easy to understand.

[See: 6 Fruits and Vegetables You Should Eat This Fall.]

Bottom Line: Whether you choose organic or conventional produce, both can be part of a healthy diet and both count toward your recommended daily intake of fruits and vegetables. Be proud of whatever you choose to purchase.

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is the owner of Toby Amidor Nutrition and author of the cookbook, "The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day" (Grand Central Publishing 2014). She consults and writes for various organizations, including FoodNetwork.com's "Healthy Eats" blog and "Today's Dietitian" magazine.

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