The sun beamed the day the local farmers’ market opened on May 1st in North Beach, Maryland. I was on the hunt for some crisp asparagus, local honey and anything else that looked delicious. There is something beautiful about a community gathering of people and local food producers. Conversations happen as shoppers ask questions about how the food is grown or prepared in the kitchen. I love being part of that connection and learning more about food.
Waiting in line at one stand, I overheard a customer asking a question about the fresh eggs on display. The customer seemed embarrassed at her own lack of knowledge. The farm stand operator reassured her, saying, “We don’t get much education about these things in school.” Isn’t that the truth, I thought to myself.
Many of us don’t know where our food was grown or how it was produced. We have lost touch with our agricultural roots, creating lots of opportunities for misinformation to proliferate and fear to set in. Most people understand that fruits & vegetables provide important nutrients to our diet, yet I found many are unsure of what produce to put on their plates at each meal.
The American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association, Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics and American Academy of Pediatrics all recommend eating a diet rich in fruits & vegetables. A plant-forward eating pattern has many benefits including reducing the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer. Yet, only about 9% of adults ate the recommended serving of vegetables and 12% ate the recommended serving of fruit, according to the CDC’s 2015 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. One would think that the dismal intake of fruits & vegetables by adults in the U.S. would be a wake-up call to encourage ALL and ANY produce to hit the plates and mouths of consumers. It seems, however, more work needs to be done to help guide us.
Watchdog nutrition groups, celebrity physicians and other “experts” have created DO and DON’T lists focusing not only on the types of produce to consume (or not) and the way produce was grown (conventional versus organic). Over the years, I’ve found that many of my clients were paralyzed in the produce aisle, wondering what they had to buy organic and worrying conventional produce choices might be harmful ones. Some clutched crinkled lists, provided to them by other healthcare providers or the Environmental Working Group (EWG), with the do’s and don’ts of purchasing produce.
Even as a registered dietitian, I too often worried about my choice to pick fresh strawberries (#1 on EWG’s Dirty Dozen List in 2021) at a local farm. Or buy conventional greens because that was the budget-friendly option when I visited the grocery store. Was I making the wrong choice? Some groups/individuals certainly would say, YES.
Yet, because of my professional experience (counseling literally thousands of people over my fifteen year career thus-far) I understand the well-documented barriers firsthand. Studies have indicated that access, cost, limited availability and perceived lack of cooking/preparation time are common barriers to including more fruits & vegetables in one’s diet. Many of the food lists provided to my clients didn’t take into account any of these barriers but only created fear and guilt about their current choices.
My personal food philosophy has always been to simplify healthy behaviors especially when it comes to changing eating patterns to improve health, and focus on the science. Eating should be personalized. And in a country where most individuals could use a few more nutrient-dense foods in their diets, I don’t believe it is helpful to provide judgement on the kinds they prefer or can include.
I don’t claim to know it all (because nutrition science is always evolving) but here are my answers for common questions about eating produce, including whether or not organic is better.
Q: Is Organic Produce Better for My Health?
A: We need more conclusive research
Evaluating the long-term impact of organic versus conventional produce on human health is difficult to evaluate as is noted in this review study.
Clinical studies are minimal for a variety of reasons. Those that are available look at only a short period of time and often examine small groups. Studies that attempt to examine food intake over long periods of time often rely on food frequency questionnaires. Do you remember how many times you ate organic lettuce over the last six months? As you can imagine, there is a margin of human reporting error involved with this method of study. Observational studies can also be challenging because food selection alone (i.e. including organic produce versus conventional) isn’t a stand-alone health habit decreasing mortality or disease risk. There is also regular physical activity, regular preventative health checkups, etc. This makes any associations between organic food consumption and health outcomes difficult to pinpoint.
Q: Should I Worry About Pesticides Residue on Produce ?
A: Instead of worry focus on educating yourself
It is important for all of us to learn more about our personal environmental exposure to different chemicals and compounds. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for overseeing pesticides, setting regulation for how much pesticide is allowed. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration test fruits and vegetables for pesticides. Organic food is regulated by the USDA and although different products might be used during the growing process, organic is not pesticide-free. Wading through scientific studies regarding pesticides is daunting, there are many unanswered questions. It is an area where research on pesticide risk-assessment is evolving along with advancements in farming.
Q: Which is Better, Local or Organic Food?
A: It depends on your values
There is no right answer to this question. Eating seasonally is a great way to improve variety in the diet. In that case, focusing on what’s available locally might be more important than ensuring that all produce is organic. For other people buying the organic produce may be more important than buying locally. Respecting different choices, budgets, and preferences is key along with remembering that having different values regarding our food choices is just as healthy as having differing views on other aspects in life. Let’s normalize different food choices and reduce food guilt.
Bottom Line-What I Tell My Clients:
We know eating more produce is beneficial to health, customize your intake to your health needs, personal preferences and budget. Purchase the freshest looking produce available along with frozen and canned options. Eat seasonally, as this naturally provides variety to your eating patterns.
Bottom Line-What I Do Personally:
I try to follow advice I give to clients and reduce my own food guilt. I buy a mix of conventional, organic and locally produced foods. I try to buy the freshest foods available, but often include frozen and sometimes even canned fruit options (packed in juice or water) to supplement my fresh choices. I focus on eating seasonally, which means that I might only really buy, eat and enjoy strawberries when they are in season in May in my area. I hope you’ll try my strawberry pie recipe.