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Core Knowledge

Nutrition

The Organic Food Guide

Overview

There is little or no middle ground among those who passionately believe that organic foods are essential for healthy living. Some organic food producers and consumers are near-evangelistic in their support of eating organic foods and don’t easily tolerate non-organic arguments. In spite of their zeal, organic foods and beverages account for only about three percent of the total market.

Scoobymoo / flickr

Individuals on the other side are not passionately against organic foods. They don’t object to organic foods, and they may even buy or consume them. A Harris poll found that approximately 30 percent of Americans occasionally buy organic foods, and a majority of all Americans think they are healthier, safer, and better for the environment.

According to the Organic Trade Association, “organic” refers to the way agricultural products—food and fiber—are grown and processed. Organic food production is based on a system of farming that maintains and replenishes soil fertility without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers. Organic foods are minimally processed without artificial ingredients, preservatives, or irradiation to maintain the integrity of the food. They are also produced in a manner that reduces pollution and conserves water and soil.

Here are the key production differences between conventional and organic products: 

Conventional Farmers Organic Farmers
  • Use chemical fertilizers
  • Spray crops with insecticides
  • Use antibiotics, growth hormones and medications on livestock
  • Use natural fertilizers (manure, compost)
  • Use beneficial insects and birds, "mating disruption" or traps
  • Use organic feed, allow outside access, rotate crops, and use clean housing to minimize disease

The Environmental Protection Agency says that organic foods cannot be treated with synthetic pesticides, sewage sludge, bioengineering or ionizing radiation.

The Organic Label

The United States Department of Agriculture has established standards for food producers who want to include the word “organic” on labels. Following are terms to look for on labels that will help you make decisions before purchasing organic foods.

100% Organic
Food label indicating no synthetic ingredients; legal use of USDA Organic seal

95% Organic
Food labeled “Organic,” indicating a minimum of 95 percent organic ingredients; legal use of USDA Organic seal

70% Organic Ingredients
Food labeled “Made With Organic Ingredients;” not eligible for USDA seal

Organic Meats, Eggs, Poultry and Dairy

Meat, eggs, poultry, and dairy products carrying the label “Organic” must come from animals that have not received antibiotics or growth hormones. Terms such as “Free Range,” “Hormone Free,” and “Natural” are not regulated by the USDA or FDA. They should not be confused with “Organic,” and may be used more for marketing purposes than for providing the consumer with nutritional guidance. “Organic” does not necessarily mean “local.” They may even have been grown organically in another country.

The Cost of Organic Foods

Organic foods can be 50 to 100 percent more expensive than foods not produced organically. Organic farming and ranching tends to be more labor-intensive, and the yield, especially in large commercial operations, may be less productive without the use of pesticides. Organic costs can also be higher because of tighter government regulation and fewer incentives to switch from traditional to organic farming.

An informal survey conducted by the New York Times found a loaf of whole wheat bread priced as high as $4.55, compared to $1.19 for a non-organic loaf. Organic milk was nearly $7 for a gallon, and a pound of pasta cost $3.

Organic Food Safety

Conventional farmers spray their crops to protect them against diseases, insects and mold, and there is no question that a residue can be left. Most experts seem to think the amount of chemical residue poses a relatively small health risk. Organic food supporters do not agree, and the evidence remains thin on both sides.

The American Dietetic Association says, “There is no evidence that organic foods are superior over traditional foods," and The United States Department of Agriculture does not claim that organic foods are safer, healthier, or more nutritious than traditionally produced foods.

The Environmental Working Group, a non-profit organization in Washington, says that the following foods are most susceptible to pesticide residue:

  • Peaches
  • Apples
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Celery
  • Nectarines
  • Cherries
  • Pears
  • Imported grapes
  • Spinach
  • Lettuce
  • Potatoes

Those with the least likelihood of having the pesticide residue are:

  • Papayas
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Bananas
  • Kiwifruit
  • Frozen sweet peas
  • Asparagus
  • Mangoes
  • Pineapples
  • Frozen sweet corn
  • Avocados
  • Onions

The reasoning behind these lists is that with berries, for example, there is nothing protecting them. Bananas and pineapples, on the other hand, have peels that provide more protection against pesticides.

Reducing the Risk

Here are some ways to protect your family against possible chemical residue on the food in your home:

  • Wash under a stream of water; don’t use soap (Some people in the food business advocate washing foods with a mixture of water, vinegar and baking soda, but the scientific basis for those ingredients is not clear.)
  • Remove outer leaves of leafy vegetables.
  • Trim excess fat from meat and poultry.
  • Eat a variety of foods.
  • Don’t get all foods from the same sources.

Environmental Impact of Organic Foods

Perhaps the strongest argument for organic foods relates to the environment. Generally, organic food is better for the environment because the produce is grown naturally, or as close to it as possible. It makes sense that if the soil from which food comes is richer, the produce would have more nutrients. If the soil is richer, the food should be richer, also.

Taste

Taste is important, but it is also subjective. Organic food consumers say that their food tastes better, and they may be right because the soil is richer. But the key to taste is more likely to be freshness than method of production. Fresh foods, often more available from local, organic farmers, taste better than those that have been produced far away, stored, and transported over long distances. Foods that sit in a truck for days are going to lose flavor and nutrients. The transportation and storage of those foods will also have a greater negative impact on the environment.

Appearance

If appearance of food is important to you, you may be disappointed with some organic foods. They may be shaped oddly, but that has absolutely nothing to do with the nutritional value or safety of the product. In the U.S., we have become accustomed to perfectly-shaped produce, courtesy of science. In Europe, fruits and vegetables are more likely to come straight from vines, off trees, or out of the ground and the shape—perfect or not—is not related to quality.

The Bigger Picture

There are legitimate arguments on both sides of the organic versus conventional food debate, and your decision may be based on a variety of factors, not all of which involve food quality or safety.

More important than the organic versus conventional food argument is the issue of nutrition itself. Most Americans eat too many processed foods, too many sweets, too many fats, and not enough fruits, whole grains and vegetables. We get more calories from soft drinks than we do from vegetables. And nearly two-thirds of all Americans are either overweight or obese.

If organic foods motivate you to consume a healthier overall diet, go organic. But eating a well-balanced, nutritious diet is more important than whether that food is produced organically or non-organically.


Tags: Food, Nutrients, Cooking

References

  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration
  2. MayoClinic.com
  3. The New York Times
  4. Organic Trade Association
  5. Science Daily
  6. United States Department of Agriculture
  7. University of California–Davis
  8. WebMD

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