Here’s When Buying Organic Counts Most

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What you need to know about the ‘Dirty Dozen’ & the ‘Clean Fifteen’

 Do you buy all organic? Sometimes organic? Never organic?

These days, close to 60 per cent of Canadians are buying some organic products every week, according to the Canadian Organic Trade Association.

“The main reason I choose organic is because of what it doesn’t contain,” says Julie Daniluk, a registered nutritionist, health educator and the recipient of the 2012 Organic Achievement Award from the Canadian Health Food Association. Needless to say, she’s a big fan of all things organic and writes about it on her website.

“When we buy certified organic it’s not grown from genetically-modified seeds and there are no fungicides, pesticides or herbicides sprayed on the crop. On the flip side, we also know there are more antioxidants in produce that’s grown organically because it’s picked closer to ripeness and there are also more nutrients in the soil.”

While scientific studies vary in their findings on the human impact of chemicals used in conventional food production – and that debate continues – the market for organic products continues to grow, recently pegged by Statistics Canada as being worth about $3.7 billion.

In March of 2015, 17 experts from 11 countries met in France at the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer to assess whether certain pesticides cause cancers. While some studies were inconclusive, the insecticide diazinon (designed by a Swiss company in the 1950s to replace DDT) was classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans.’ So was the widely-used herbicide glyphosate, which is currently used in more than 750 agricultural, forestry, urban and home use products. Just this April, Health Canada launched a public consultation process on its proposed re-evaluation of products containing glyphosate.

“For one thing, the pesticides used in conventional crops damage our gut bacteria, which is a key reason so many people are at higher risk of getting sick because gut bacteria plays a major role in our ability to stave off infection,” says Julie. “We also know that gut bacteria plays a major role in serotonin levels and our happiness. Classic herbicides kill off our good bacteria, which is very hard on our health.”

So what if you don’t want to go all organic – maybe because of the cost? While the difference in price for some organic vegetables may be a third to 50 per cent more than non-organic, once you get into organic meats and poultry prices can be five times higher than non-organic.

So is it worth it to go part way organic?

“A little bit organic is definitely better than none at all,” insists Julie.

NEXT: Foods with the most pesticides

She cites the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) lists as a great place to start. The Dirty Dozen – or the produce that tends to have the most pesticides if not organic – includes grapes, apples, peaches, nectarines, celery, cherry tomatoes, spinach, strawberries, sweet bell peppers and hot peppers, kale and collard.

The EWG’s Clean Fifteen lists the produce that tends to have the least pesticides (in part because they can be peeled). That list includes asparagus, mangos, avocados, onions, papayas, cabbage, cantaloupe, cauliflower, pineapples, sweet corn, eggplant, sweet peas, grapefruit, sweet potatoes and kiwi.

Julie also advises buying organic whenever you’re buying leafy greens for salad, since “you can’t wash off the pesticide residue or cut it away.”

And keep in mind that certain chemicals that were outright banned in Canada are still in use elsewhere. “They’re simply imported back into Canada and consumed here,” she says.

Another way to move towards organic is to buy local whenever possible – from May through November. That, says Julie, will limit your exposure to pesticides since Canadian farmers don’t use nearly the amount of dangerous chemicals many other countries do. Being certified organic in Canada is very different than being certified organic in China, she says. Canada has strict guidelines and certified organic farms must be thoroughly inspected annually, she says. “There are very difficult standards to meet here.”

Then there are the local roadside vendors that call themselves ‘organic’ but which are not certified organic. In those cases it boils down to the level of trust you have with your local farmer. “You have to take their word for it,” says Julie.

Bottom line? “Yes, organic is more expensive, but to me it’s about peace of mind.”