An Athlete's Guide To Organic vs. Conventional Foods

Nobody loves (or hates) a good old-fashioned organic vs. conventional foods debate more than nutritionists. The regular featuring (and marketing) of organic foods in the grocery store has created a bit of a dilemma for consumers. You’re standing in the middle of the produce aisle, between two displays of bananas: one organic, one non-organic. Which should you choose? It’s a great question, one that most of us face every time we head to Fred Meyer to pick up a few ingredients for dinner. But is there one be-all, end-all answer?

The simple answer is “nope!” But, as you know, most answers are more than simple.

Organic foods contain the same number of nutrients as their conventional counterparts.

Organic foods contain the same number of nutrients as their conventional counterparts.

The most common belief is that organic foods are healthier. But, when comparing organic foods to conventional ones in terms of ingredients, they are exactly the same. Conventional foods have the same number of vitamins, minerals, and trace elements as organic foods. So, in this sense, they are equal.

However, organic foods provide consumers the advantage of fewer pesticides and antibiotics used to grow the same product. Organic farming practices include using natural fertilizers to feed soil and plants, and using crop rotation or mulch to manage weeds (as opposed to chemical pesticides). So although the nutrients in an organic apple and a conventionally-grown apple are the same, the way in which both apples are grown is different.

Many factors influence the decision to choose organic foods. Some people choose organic because they prefer the taste. Others opt for organic in order to limit their exposure to pesticides and food additives. But while organic produce typically carries significantly fewer pesticide residues than conventional produce, both organic and non-organic foods do not exceed government safety thresholds. In other words, the conventional apple is not inherently bad for you.

If you want to play it safe when choosing which foods to buy, be sure to keep these 4 tips in mind:



1. Select a variety of foods from a variety of sources.

This will give you a better mix of nutrients and reduce your likelihood of exposure to a single pesticide.

Eating a variety of organic and non-organic foods is healthier than eating nothing but organic grapes.

Eating a variety of organic and non-organic foods is healthier than eating nothing but organic grapes.

2. When possible, buy fruits and vegetables in-season.

To get the freshest produce, ask your grocer what day new produce arrives—or, buy food from your local farmer's market.

A sample in-season produce chart. Get ready for fresh tomatoes and broccoli coming in May!

A sample in-season produce chart. Get ready for fresh tomatoes and broccoli coming in May!

3. Read all food labels carefully.

Just because a product says it's organic or contains organic ingredients doesn't necessarily mean it is a healthier alternative to conventional foods. Some organic products may still be high in sugar, salt, fat, or calories (or all of the above!).

A quick guide to interpreting the U.S. Nutritional Facts label.

A quick guide to interpreting the U.S. Nutritional Facts label.

4. Wash (scrub!) all fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running water before eating.

Washing helps remove dirt, bacteria, and trace chemicals from the surface of fruits and vegetables. Not all pesticide residues can be removed by washing, though. You can peel fruits and veggies to remove any pesticide residue, but peeling can also mean losing some fiber and nutrients contained in the skin of produce.

Scrubbing fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running water can be enough to remove yucky dirt and pesticides.

Scrubbing fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running water can be enough to remove yucky dirt and pesticides.

Choosing organic over conventional foods, or vice versa, is ultimately a personal decision. Nutritional content, taste, price, ripeness, and availability all factor in to your decision to buy the banana with the organic sticker or not. So if you decide on an organic banana and a conventional apple, that's your right to do so! And don’t worry: we nutritionists won't get our underpants in a wad if you mix and match.


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Mike Bewley, MA, CSCS, C-SPN, USAW-I is a guest contributor to the Volt blog. He is a Strength and Conditioning Coach at Clemson University, a specalist in sports nutrition, and the founder of online nutrition platform NutraCarina.