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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.

Defining Organic

The “USDA Organic” label (green seal) may appear on processed and fresh packaged foods. Here’s how to decipher the label terms:

  • 100% organic—Contains only organic ingredients. May display the USDA seal.
  • Organic—Contains at least 95% organic ingredients by weight. May also display the USDA seal.
  • Made with organic ingredients—Contains at least 70% organic ingredients by weight. Cannot use USDA seal.
  • Some organic ingredients—Contains less than 70% organic ingredients. May list them separately, but can’t be labeled organic on the front of the package.

Organic Has a Bright Future

According to the Organic Trade Association, the organic industry will continue to grow and thrive at a steady rate over the next 20 years, but at a slower pace than the current 20% average annual sales growth.

Other findings from recent surveys of the OTA’s research partners show that:

  • The average consumer household in 2025 will contain at least one, if not many, organic products on a regular basis. This includes not only food items but organic clothing, household cleaning products and personal care items.
  • All organizations agree that by 2025, organic products will be sold anywhere and everywhere. Increased sales in restaurants were mentioned by more than one as a trend that will continue to 2025.
  • The overall increase in organic sales and acceptance should also translate into increased organic acreage.
  • Younger shoppers will continue to find organic food of interest, especially as Gen-Xers pass down their belief systems. Ethnic  shoppers, including Asian-Americans and Hispanic-Americans will also continue to be more likely organic shoppers, in proportion to their representation in the population.
  • Government support of organic agriculture will be crucial to maintain the industry’s growth potential. The OTA feels that the U.S. government needs to support farmers in their transition to organic production, and must continue to enforce the standards to minimize consumer confusion.

10 tips to reduce exposure to pesticides

  1. When possible, purchase foods labeled “USDA organic” (usually have less pesticide residues than conventional foods).
  2. Choose domestically grown and, if possible, locally grown produce in season.
  3. Select foods free of dirt, cuts, insect holes, decay and mold. Avoid perfect-looking produce.
  4. Discard outer leaves of leafy greens like lettuce. Trim celery tops and leaves.
  5. Select produce with thick skins, husks or hulls like bananas, melons, citrus fruits and corn. It’s harder for pesticides to permeate them.
  6. Peel fruits and vegetables to remove some pesticide residues, dirt and bacteria. (The draw back is peeling also removes some nutrients like dietary fiber.)
  7. Scrub fruits and vegetables with edible skins (e.g., potatoes, carrots) and waxes (e.g., apples, cucumbers) with a hard brush. Wash well with cold tap water. Don’t soak or rinse with liquid detergent, since it leaves soap residue. (Note: Wax is harmless. It seals in moisture and prevents bruising and spoilage.)
  8. Cook or bake foods to reduce pesticide residues. Canning, freezing or drying fruits and vegetables can also decrease residues.
  9. Since pesticides concentrate in animal fat, trim fat and skin from meat, fish and poultry before cooking. Grill or broil foods, and drain pan drippings.
  10. Offer a variety of fruits and vegetables daily to reduce exposure to any single pesticide.

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