The health value of organic food is a frequent topic of debate, heating up each time a research study suggests that organic foods are no more nutritious than “conventional” foods. The news last year that imported organic foods may not actually be organic added more fuel to the fire. In spite of this, a recent Organic Trade Association report found that 82 percent of American homes stock organic food and that organic food sales hit the $40 billion mark in 2016. EN reviews a few points to consider when making your own food decisions.
What Does Organic Mean? Food certified “organic” under the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Program (NOP) is produced without most synthetic (manmade) chemicals or fertilizers, genetic engineering, radiation, or sewage sludge. Organic farmers use only specific pesticides allowed by the NOP. These pesticides tend to include natural substances as ingredients or come directly from natural sources. However, some synthetic substances are allowed if there’s no organic substitute and the synthetic substance is deemed safe. Ideally, pesticides are a last resort.
Health Benefits. Can we say conclusively that organic produce is more nutritious? There is some evidence that organic fruits and vegetables contain more phytonutrients (compounds in plants that have antioxidant and other health benefits), but many factors affect levels of vitamins and minerals in produce. These include variety, soil quality, weather, climate, when the produce was harvested, how far it traveled, how long it sat in the store, how long it lingered in your fridge, and how you prepared it.
Because organic cattle have to be at least partially grass-fed, organic beef and dairy tend to have a slightly more beneficial fat composition, including more omega-3 fatty acids. However, any nutritional differences are relatively minor, and some conventionally-raised herds also eat grass.
When to Go Organic
If you’re on the fence about whether to invest time and money in seeking out organic produce, which can be more expensive and not as easily available, prioritize where you put your grocery dollars. Many people use the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Dirty DozenTM list (www.ewg.org/foodnews/) as a starting point.
The Dirty Dozen™
You may want to prioritize purchasing organic versions of these 12 fruits and vegetables which have the most pesticide residues.
- Sweet bell peppers
Farm And Environmental Benefits. Nutrition aside, are there reasons to buy organic? Eating organic foods reduces your exposure to synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and can reduce the exposure of farmworkers to these chemicals as well. Livestock raised under organic guidelines aren’t fed antibiotics, which means they don’t contribute to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. Finally, organic farming often goes hand-in-hand with good land stewardship. Organic farms have a lower “environmental footprint,” largely because they don’t use synthetic pesticides and fertilizers that could leach into water and soil. When organic farms use other sustainable farming practices, such as crop or pasture rotation, it has additional benefits for the environment and future farmland health.
Myths and Hype. Why do we buy organic? According to consumer research, we choose organic because we want to avoid a lot of things in or on our food, including synthetic chemicals, genetic modification, antibiotics, and hormones. Not only do we believe organic foods are safer, healthier, and more nutritious, we also believe that animals on organic farms have better lives.
Organic produce and animal feed can’t be genetically modified, but contrary to what most people believe, both organic and conventional farms come in all sizes—from small family farms to large “factory farms.” Also, “organic” does not necessarily mean animals are free to roam in an open pasture. Similarly, some organic farms use approved pesticides liberally, while some conventional farmers use pesticides sparingly.
The Bottom Line. If nutrition is a driving factor in your food choices, follow these three guidelines:
Focus on eating enough fruits and vegetables, period—many people don’t.
Buy from local farms—whether organic, conventional, or those that are transitioning to organic. The shorter the time and distance from harvest to table, the fresher and more nutritious your fruits and veggies.
Eat what you buy promptly, to minimize both nutrient loss and food waste.
If avoidance of synthetic pesticides is your priority—whether out of concern for yourself, your family, farmworkers, or the environment—eating seasonally from organic produce grown in the U.S. and reducing reliance on imported produce may give you peace of mind. Keep in mind that locally grown produce, even when conventional, may have been grown with fewer pesticides.
—Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN
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