This post was written by Erin Palinski-Wade
A few days ago I was giving a talk at a corporate event and one of the attendees wanted to know if it was ever OK to feed his child a fruit that wasn’t organic. Apparently his mother-in-law would give him a death stare anytime he dared to offer a non-organic grape to his son. The audience laughed at this, and yes, it sounds funny, but this food shaming can lead to some very unnecessary and unhealthy habits. This isn’t the first time I have been asked this question or have seen this happen. Just a month ago I was at a party with my husband and the conversation turned to strawberries. When my husband mentioned he buys his strawberries at the grocery store (oh the horror!) another guest basically shamed him and told him that if he didn’t hand pick them from the farm he was essentially poisoning himself.
This type of thing happens all of the time. Being in the nutrition field, I think I’m more sensitive to it because I can see the negative side of these conversations. There’s nothing wrong talking about food choices. And there is nothing wrong with buying organic foods or picking your own produce at a local farm. But there is something wrong with essentially condemning anyone who gasp purchases conventionally grown produce or shops at the grocery store instead of the farm stand. In a perfect world, we would all grow our own seasonal produce, pick it at the peak of ripeness, and eat it the same day. But in the real world, that’s not going to happen for most of us. Even if you have a home garden, you most likely are not going to be able to grown everything you consume- or in our area the deer and rabbits just eat it all on you before you can get to it!
Not everyone can afford organic foods and not everyone has access to farm stands on a regular basis. This food shaming leads to many individuals opting to bypass eating fruit and vegetables all together (or avoid providing them to their kids) because they start to view the conventionally grown options as lesser quality, unhealthy, or downright dangerous. There’s a lot wrong with that. Cutting fruits and vegetables out of the diet can lead to many more health issues than eating a few non-organic options. I wanted to take a few minutes to clear up this confusion so you can stop the guilt and start feeding your family nutritious foods again without fear that you are harming them.
Organic refers to how a food is grown and processed. It does not refer to the nutritional content of the food. Have you ever checked out the nutrition information on a package of organic cookies or candy? They are still packed full of sugar with little nutritional value. Just because they were made with ‘organic sugar’ does not make them a healthier option. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, organic produce may contain lower amounts of pesticide residue. Organic produce, however, has not been found to be nutritionally superior. For instance, an organic pineapple will have just as much vitamin C as conventionally grown one. So if you are stressing over what you should buy organic and what can you buy that is conventionally grown, I suggest using the ‘Clean 15’ and ‘Dirty Dozen’ lists produced annually by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). These highlight the produce that to contain the highest amounts of pesticide residue (the Dirty Dozen which would be the produce most beneficial to purchase organic) and those with the least residue (the Clean 15, which would be your best options to buy conventionally grown).
What’s most important for nutritional value of produce is the length of time from the produce being picked to the time it is consumed. If you were to pick a strawberry today and let it sit out for a few days or a week before eating it, it will lose some of its nutritional value. Eating it directly after it has been harvested helps to make sure you are taking in the maximum nutrition from the food. That’s why the recommendation for purchasing in-season, local produce is made so often. Now, if you have a child like mine that would live on berries, you don’t have to stress that the berry season is so short. Frozen produce is picked at the peak of ripeness and flash frozen, so it retains most of its nutritional value. Eating frozen produce can actually be more nutritious than eating fresh out-of-season produce when you factor in all of the time the produce has been transported after harvesting.
So what’s the bottom line? Do what you feel is best for you and your family, but don’t stop eating fruits and vegetables just because you can’t find an organic option or buy from a local farmer. The benefits of eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables (regardless of if they are organic or not) are numerous. What do I do? I try to buy organic produce for those on the dirty dozen list most of the time. I try to select in-season local produce when buying fresh options and stick with frozen for the out-of-season varieties. A few times during the summer we take a trip to pick fruits and vegetables at the farm, but we hit the grocery store more times than not. At the end of the day, I make sure my family is eating plant-based foods regardless of where they came from. That’s the biggest goal in my mind.