Going organic

Buying & serving organic foods helps the environment, but are they safer to eat? Are they healthier or more nutritious?

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), organic foods account for only 2% of the U.S. market. But the market has been rapidly growing—as much as 20% annually nationwide over the past decade.

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) reports organic products now total more than $10 billion in annual consumer sales. However, organic foods can cost 10% to 100% more than conventional foods. Are they worth it?

Organic standards: In 2002, USDA set national standards for domestic and imported foods to be certified “organic” based on how they are grown or raised. The regulations prohibit use of most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers for at least three years before harvest of organic crops. Organic does not mean pesticide-free, since natural (e.g., sulfur, copper, plant extracts) and some synthetic pesticides are still allowed.

Use of irradiation, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and sewage sludge (for fertilizer) for crops, and growth hormone and antibiotics for farm animals, is prohibited. Livestock must be raised on 100% organic (pesticide-free) feed and have access to the outdoors.

There are no “organic” standards for fish. Be careful—seafood marked organic may be farmed and contain contaminants like mercury.

Organic farming uses methods and materials that have a low impact on the environment by conserving water and oil, recycling animal waste, releasing fewer chemicals (creating less pollution), improving soil fertility (creating less erosion), promoting crop diversity (crop rotation), and protecting farm workers, wildlife and livestock from potentially harmful pesticides (e.g., using biological pest control like beneficial insects).

Food safety: Organic foods do not guarantee safety or purity. These foods can be spoiled or contaminated with bacteria like E. coli or salmonella that can cause illness or death. Proper food handling and thorough cooking are just as essential for organic foods like meats and eggs as for conventional foods. Organic produce must be washed well.

Organic products packaged without preservatives will spoil faster. Refrigerate and/or use them quickly. Freeze organic meats cured without nitrates or nitrites.

Studies show organic foods contain less pesticide residues than conventional foods, yet there may be residues from chemicals used years before. Also, cross-contamination may occur from synthetic pesticides carried by wind, rain, ground water or soil from other farms. Low residue levels pose minimal health risk. The health benefits of eating a variety of fruits and vegetables (either organically or conventionally grown) daily outweigh the potential risks of pesticides.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a public watchdog and promoter of organic foods, recommends buying organic (due to high pesticide residues in non-organic) for the following 12 fruits and vegetables: apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach and strawberries.

Nutritional value: Organic crops compare favorably in taste and appearance to conventional crops. But research shows organic foods may not be nutritionally superior or healthier than conventional foods. Processed organic foods (e.g., candy, soda, crackers, desserts, snacks, cereals and frozen dinners) may still be high in calories, fat and sugar and low in fiber.

For example, although organic potato chips don’t contain unhealthy trans fats or many food additives, they still are not nutritious.

Plants can’t distinguish between organic and synthetic fertilizers. Fertilizers must be broken down to nurture crops. Nutrient content depends on many other factors including plant genetics, variety and maturity, climate, soil quality, growing region, handling and storage methods. Locally grown produce may be fresher and more nutritious than food shipped cross-country.

Some studies show organic produce contains more high-quality protein, minerals, Vitamin C and phytochemicals (plant substances that may help prevent diseases like cancer and heart disease) such as lycopene (e.g., tomatoes) and phenols (e.g., strawberries, corn). Organic crops may also contain fewer nitrates, which can be toxic if consumed in excessive amounts.

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