You’re in the produce aisle at the grocery store, looking at two seemingly identical packages of lettuce. One is $2.98, and the other is $5.99. What’s the difference? Why shouldn’t you choose the cheaper option and save the extra money? Is one package twice as good as the other?
The answer, of course, is yes. Absolutely.
One of these packages of lettuce is organic, and the other is not. One is coated in cancer-causing, heart-harming pesticides, and the other is a safe source of essential vitamins and minerals. Let’s look at some differences between organic and conventional foods and determine which is better for heart health.
What is organic food?
Organic food is grown or raised without chemical pesticides, GMOs, antibiotics, or growth hormones. This includes crops, dairy products, and meat from livestock raised on organic diets with access to the outdoors. Organic farms focus on sustainable practices that protect the environment and produce quality food that supports the consumer’s health.
Organic products will be labeled with a USDA Organic seal, and farmers must follow strict guidelines to achieve and maintain organic status. The two main USDA organic certifications to look for are “100% organic” (meaning it’s made with 100% organic ingredients) and “organic” (meaning made with 95% organic ingredients).
How non-organic foods affect your heart
Toxic heavy metals
Conventional crops contain cadmium, a toxic heavy metal that has been linked with the acceleration of atherosclerotic plaque formation. Atherosclerosis, the thickening or hardening of the arteries from plaque build-up, is a dangerous condition that can lead to heart attack, stroke, and other heart complications like coronary artery disease.
While cadmium and other heavy metals are is naturally present in the soil (and also detected in trace amounts in organic produce), phosphate-based fertilizers used in conventional farming increase the amounts to potentially dangerous levels.
Pesticides, sprayed on crops to keep bugs, weeds, disease, and bacteria at bay, are deadly. Unfortunately, they’re used in traditional farming practices with little care for the health and environmental threats they pose. One study found that people who reported regular pesticide exposure in the workplace were twice as likely to have coronary heart disease and five times as likely to have atrial fibrillation.
Pesticides are also known carcinogens and can weaken your immune system, leading to inflammation and heart disease.
Conventional crops have been shown to contain high levels of pesticide residue, such as the dangerous glyphosate. Unfortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set a maximum acceptable residue limit that is beyond what should be considered safe.
Plus, studies have shown that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration currently inspects less than one percent of import shipments for pesticides, meaning most of the food that reaches grocery store shelves could be far more polluted than anyone realizes.
Hormones and antibiotics
It isn’t just conventional crops that could harm your heart health. Factory-farmed meat contains antibiotics and hormones that could increase cancer risk and contribute to heart disease. These hormones and antibiotics are pumped into animals to increase profit.
Antibiotics have been linked to cardiovascular disease (CVD), while artificial hormones in meat and dairy could interfere with the endocrine system and hamper heart function.
Are organic foods healthier than non-organic?
Thankfully, there is a better solution. Organic food. Organic food is significantly better for your heart health and doesn’t contain many of the alarming chemicals and residues that pollute conventional food.
Why you should eat organic foods for heart health
Antioxidants and flavonoids
Organic foods tend to have higher levels of nutrients than non-organic foods. According to a study published in The Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, organic tomatoes contained higher levels of flavonoids than nonorganic tomatoes. Flavonoids possess anticancer, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antiviral properties and have been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease.
Some studies suggest that organic foods also contain up to 69 percent more antioxidants and polyphenols than their conventional counterparts. Antioxidants help clear your body of damaging free radicals and have been proven to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.
Researchers from the USDA Genetic Improvement of Fruit and Vegetable and Rutgers University found organic crops like blueberries have 50% more anthocyanins than conventionally grown blueberries. They also had 67% more phenolic compounds. Anthocyanins and polyphenols act as antioxidants that fight off free radicals and inflammation and protect against cancer.
Naturally-occurring dietary salicylic acid, unadulterated by chemical processing, is found in many vegetables. Salicylic acid is a plant hormone responsible for the anti-inflammatory action of aspirin and is likely the reason daily low-dose aspirin is prescribed to heart disease patients.
Aspirin, unfortunately, contains many other harmful components that work against heart health, making it a poor choice for improving cardiovascular disease. However, salicylic acid’s anti-inflammatory and cardiovascular benefits cannot be denied.
An exciting study published in the European Journal of Nutrition studied the levels of salicylic acid in vegetable soup from conventional produce compared to vegetable soup made with organic produce. Researchers found that the organic soups had a significantly higher salicylic acid content.
Why are organic foods healthier?
Organic farmers focus on building soil quality through cover crops, crop rotation, compost, and manure fertilizer. Instead of stripping the soil of beneficial nutrients and using chemical fertilizers to support crop growth, organic farms actively cultivate healthier, more resilient plants.
This comprehensive approach to soil development leads to healthier, more nutritious crops with better pest and disease resistance.
Another reason organic food is better for heart health is that organic crops are exposed to more stress. Crops grown without pesticides and other chemicals are exposed to more stressors, such as insect attacks. Their comeback against these stressors is to produce more antioxidants and polyphenols.
Is all organic food healthy?
While any organic food is certainly healthier than non-organic food, not all organic foods are healthy. Just because a box of cereal was made with “organic” ingredients doesn’t mean it is good for you.
The sugar might have been grown without pesticides, but it is still sugar and clearly detrimental to heart health, even if it is organic.
Instead of blindly trusting the organic label and wasting money on processed “healthy” foods, focus on adding minimally-processed whole foods to your diet. Things like wild-caught fatty fish (which will never have an organic label), grass-finished meat, and a rainbow of nutritious vegetables are the keys to a healthy heart.
Avoid packaged foods whenever possible, even if they are “organic.”
Where to buy organic foods
Shop for organic produce in your local grocery store or farmers market and source quality meat from trusted sources.
Organic food can be expensive, we understand. If you’re looking to make a few changes but aren’t ready (or can’t afford) and a complete overhaul of your diet, check out the Dirty Dozen™.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) each year compiles a list of the top 12 fruits and vegetables most likely to be contaminated with pesticides.
The list for 2022 includes the following:
- Kale, collard, and mustard greens
- Bell and hot peppers
If nothing else, buy the organic versions of these fruits and vegetables to protect your heart health and reduce pesticide exposure.
Of course, you should always buy organic, grass-finished, and pasture-raised meat to avoid exposure to antibiotics, artificial growth hormones, and animals raised on GMO feed.
Here are a few of our favorite places to shop for quality meat and fish:
Note: Wild-caught fish will never be “organic.”
Remember, while the upfront cost may seem like a large investment, the returns will be worth it. Choosing organic foods now will protect your heart health for years to come.
The bottom line is that any produce or minimally processed meat is better than highly-processed, chemically-created pseudo food. Eating a bowl of salad will always be better than eating a bowl of chips. However, organic is the clear winner when it comes to heart health and should always be your choice whenever possible.
Making the switch to heart-healthy organic foods can feel overwhelming. Get help today with one of our custom coaching packages. Our expert health coaches would love to help work with you to develop lifestyle and diet habits that propel you on your journey to the 100 Year Heart.
Medical Review: Dr. Jack Wolfson, 2023