EAT THIS: Organic or Conventional?

I’ve always been an organic shopper, recommending that my clients do the same. Following along with Environmental Working Group’s Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen makes it easier to know what to buy organic or conventional in a cost-effective and healthy way. Or so I thought.

Often, listeners of my regular Friday radio segment with Jerry Agar on NewsTalk1010 write in with their thoughts. This recent one got me wanting to dig deeper:

“Enough about your guest promoting Organics as the better way to go! Have her prove it sometime!! Show me the peer-reviewed science to support it! Statistically, there are more [food-borne] human health issues from people consuming organics than non-organics. Talk to an informed person like Dr. [Schwarcz] from McGill University.​”

I hadn’t heard of Dr. Joe Schwarcz before, so I did some research. He’s a scientist who relies solely on science to direct his recommendations and opinions. I reached out to Dr. Joe for an interview and dove into his book to learn more about his opinion on organic produce, farming and choosing organic over conventional.

During my interview with him, he commented that you’ll find residue on both organic and conventional produce, and it’s not so much about the type that you find, but the amount. When an analysis of both conventional and organic has been carried out, a bigger variety of pesticides will be found on conventional. Dr. Joe says that what matters the most is how much. Any analysis done is of a small amount of any particular crop, so it’s difficult to say exactly how much is found on any given apple or pear that you pick up in stores.

The’s Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen lists are compiled by outside analysis to give their recommendations. This year there were some new updates to previous years. The most worrying one for me (as I eat so much) is that 97% of conventional spinach samples contained pesticide residues (I always buy organic, phew). Conventional spinach had relatively high concentrations of permethrin, a neuro-toxic insecticide. What exactly ‘relatively’ means is unclear. A summer favourite of mine, strawberries, are another worry. One strawberry sample contained an astounding 22 pesticide residues and one-third of all conventional strawberry samples contained 10 or more pesticides.

When I asked Dr. Joe if he ever purchased organic produce, he said yes. If it is the same price as conventional, he would. Not because of the pesticide issue, but because it’s better for the environment. His take on the Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen is one of concern. Concern that people will avoid the Dirty Dozen foods and that will limit the variety of the diet, and as typically we all need more fruits and vegetables, limiting it for fear of pesticides will limit the intake.

I went on to ask Dr. Joe about the comment “there are more food-borne human health issues from people consuming organics than non-organics”. He said that it’s not that there are more issues, but that contamination is an issue. Often, the manure used in some countries for organic farming is untreated. More reason to always wash all produce before consuming.

In the end, Dr. Joe doesn’t believe that organic is healthier although he would purchase it himself if the price is right. In my mind, that says there is value and benefit to organic. If it’s a question of cost and whether to eat the produce or not, wash it and then eat it. It’s still good for you.

For more of my take on’s Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen, watch this CP24 clip or listen to my segment with Barb DiGiulio (in for Jerry Agar) on NewsTalk1010.

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