Nutrition: How does your produce grow?

By Rosie Schwartz, RD on March 28, 2013
Shopping for fruits and vegetables used to be simple. The variety of produce on your grocer’s shelf depended on the season and you made your choices accordingly. But nowadays, there’s a vast array of imports to choose from, regardless of the time of year. Do you buy local to reduce your carbon footprint, or do you take advantage of global offerings and increase your vitamin and nutrient intake? Then there’s the question of organic produce versus conventionally farmed produce to consider. Small wonder you may be confused about the best options for your family.

Is organic produce healthier?

Many thought this question was finally put to rest when Stanford University scientists published studies comparing the nutritional value of organic versus non-organic produce. Media reports emphasized that both types of produce offered similar amounts of vitamins and minerals. However, many experts criticized the review because the data should have measured produce grown in similar locations, as this can affect nutrient content. This was the case in about half of the studies included in the review.

Also left out of many discussions was the phytochemical content (phyto meaning plant). Phytochemicals act as antioxidants and disease-fighters. These compounds, mainly known as polyphenols, are plants’ natural defense system to fight off assaults from pests or disease. Plants grown using pesticides don’t contain the same level of these substances.

Another concern expressed is the issue of pesticide residues. While pesticides may be found in both conventional and organic produce (due to cross-contamination in the fields), levels are significantly lower in organic fruits and vegetables. For produce to be labelled “organic” in Canada, it must be grown without the use of synthetic pesticides (such as defoliants, desiccants, fungicides, insecticides and rodenticides), wood preservatives or other nonpermitted pesticides. There are several certification bodies working in Canada, approved by the Canada Food Inspection Agency.

Pesticide residues are particularly troubling when it comes to children. Their lower bodyweights result in a higher concentration of pesticides per pound compared to adults. The American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that the most important consideration is that children should eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. Concerns about pesticide residue should not overshadow this. Diversifying your family’s produce repertoire will help maximize your nutrient variety, and help minimize the amount of different compounds that you want to avoid. For example, if your child eats strawberries everyday, a fruit that may have high pesticide residues, then opt for organic some or all of the time, or go for a mix of other fruits.

But here’s a positive note: the organic movement has led to a significant reduction in the amount of pesticides being used in conventional farming today. And in some cases, farmers using conventional methods have adopted some practices used by organic growers.

Wash this produce diligently

Based on a new analysis of government data by the Organic Center, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, these fruits and veggies are the most likely to have pesticide residues.

Fruits:

  • Cranberries
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches
  • Strawberries
  • Pears
  • Apples
  • Cherries
  • Cantaloupe*

Vegetables:

  • Green beans
  • Bell peppers
  • Celery
  • Cucumbers
  • Potatoes
  • Tomatoes
  • Peas
  • Lettuce

(*residue on the rind can transfer from the knife to the flesh)

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, April 2013.

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