Articles about healthy eating almost always tell you to eat organic, local, seasonal and/or fresh foods. Unfortunately, these terms are often conflated, making it difficult for consumers to weigh the relative benefits of each.
Shahla Wunderlich is a professor of nutrition and food studies at Montclair State University. She has concluded that eating fresh food is far more important than eating organic. Here’s why.
Why You Need Fresh Produce
In one study, Wunderlich found no significant difference in vitamin C content between organic and conventionally-grown broccoli. However, she did find major seasonal differences- broccoli purchased during the fall had nearly twice as much vitamin C as that purchased during the spring, regardless of whether the broccoli was organic or conventional.
“We use vitamin C as a biomarker (of overall nutritional content) because it’s one of the nutrients that degrade most rapidly due to heat and time,” Wunderlich explains. Most nutrients degrade more slowly than vitamin C, with fat-soluble vitamins, like vitamin A, likely being the most durable in her opinion. However, many vitamins and minerals start to degrade noticeably within just a few days.
As for methods of preservation, Wunderlich says that refrigerating, or better yet freezing, works well. In her research, the nutritional quality of frozen fruits and vegetables is only slightly lower than that of fresh produce, and significantly higher than canned produce.
Organic is Overrated
While organic produce doesn’t contain more nutrients, it does tend to have fewer toxins- including pesticide residues- than conventional produce. However, the actual difference is small, and contrary to popular belief, organic farming does use some pesticides.
From an environmental perspective, this would seem to make organic farming better for the environment. The catch here is that organic farming averages 20% lower crop yields, thus requiring more land to produce the same amount of food, generally offsetting any environmental benefit of organic farming.
Over the past decade, several systematic reviews have failed to find clear and significant benefits to consuming organic foods in place of conventional alternatives. However most studies, including Dr. Wunderlich’s, have focused on plant foods.
There is at least some evidence that eating organic offers more benefit when it comes to animal products, but more research is needed.
How to Buy the Best Produce
Organic produce commands a hefty price premium- typically around 50% higher than conventional produce. As Wunderlich acknowledges, “People who buy local or organic often don’t care about price.” However, she stresses that eating fresh foods- and by extension, seasonal and locally-produced foods- is both more important and more affordable than buying organic.
She advises buying seasonal, locally-produced fruits and vegetables whenever possible, ideally from farmer’s markets. Where fresh food is unavailable, frozen food is preferable to canned or non-preserved foods.
Fresh foods are not only cheaper than organic foods, they have more vitamins and minerals. When it comes to healthy eating, fresh beats organic, hands down.