As the selection and availability of organic foods has expanded in recent years, people’s responses have been varied, ranging from indifference to obsession. Is organic the better choice? Is it the necessary choice? Unfortunately, the answers aren’t so clear-cut. We thought it might be helpful to share a balanced view of organic foods, so you can make up your own mind about how to incorporate them into your eating plan. Here’s what we know…
Organic farming goes way beyond fruits and vegetables.
It includes the growing and processing of all agricultural products, which consists of grains, dairy products and meat, as well as produce.
There are distinct differences between organic and conventional farming.
Conventional farmers use chemical fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides in order to promote plant growth, manage weeds and reduce pests and disease. Organic farmers, on the other hand, use techniques such as natural fertilizers, rotating crops, hand-weeding and mulching, along with beneficial insects, traps and birds. Rather than giving animals antibiotics, growth hormones and medications to prevent diseases and spur growth, they give them organic feed, a balanced diet, clean housing, and access to the outdoors. Regarding the latter, however, on some factory organic farms, the animals may still spend little to no time in pasture.
Foods labeled organic have to meet strict USDA standards.
At one time, organic foods weren’t federally regulated and there was a lot of confusion and uncertainty involved with purchasing them. Today, organic certification ensures that standards are met in how the products are grown, handled and processed. However, small organic farmers (who sell less than $5,000 per year) must adhere to organic food production guidelines but are exempt from certification. They cannot use the official USDA Organic seal, but may label their foods as organic.
USDA Product labeling varies, depending on the number of organic ingredients.
There are four categories:
- 100 percent organic – if the product is completely organic or made of all organic ingredients.
- Organic – means the product is at least 95% organic. The nonorganic ingredients must come from an approved USDA list.
- Made with organic ingredients – the product contains at least 70% organic ingredients.
- Organic ingredients – the product contains less than 70% organic ingredients, but still contains some specific organic ingredients that are listed.
Standards must be met for organic meats, dairy and eggs.
Organic poultry, cattle and pigs must be fed 100% organic feed and forage, have outdoor access, and cannot be given antibiotics or hormones. Note though that cattle and sheep are the only animals allowed hormone administration in conventional farming.
Organic certification for seafood has not yet been implemented.
Despite labels that may claim a seafood product is organic, there is no guarantee that it meets USDA standards or is free of contaminants.
A product labeled “natural” isn’t necessarily “organically-produced.”
Only those foods that meet the USDA standards can use the label of “organic.” The term “natural” means the product does not contain artificial flavors, colors or preservatives, but it is not necessarily organic.
Organic produce contains fewer synthetic pesticide residues than their conventionally grown counterparts.
Buyers of organic foods take some comfort in knowing they are limiting their exposure to these residues, in comparison to conventional products. But organic farmers are permitted to use a few synthetic pesticides as a last resort, and some contamination can occur due to drifting of agricultural chemicals from neighboring farms–so organic products can still contain some residues.
The health benefits of conventionally grown fruits and vegetables far outweigh any risks from the levels of residues they contain.
According to most health experts, consuming fruits and vegetables with a small amount of pesticides poses a very small health risk. Also, large-scale studies suggest the residues are not likely to be an important risk factor for cancer, especially because of the known health benefits of consuming fruits and vegetables, regardless of how they are grown.
Organic fruits and vegetables may not look “pretty” and tend to spoil faster than those that are conventionally grown.
Since no waxes or preservatives are used, organic fruits and vegetables have a shorter shelf-life, so must be purchased in smaller quantities (which results in more frequent trips to the store). Although they must meet the same quality standards as conventional foods, organic produce tends to be smaller, odder shaped and perhaps not as vibrant in color.
Whether or not organic foods taste better is an individual assessment.
Some people can tell the difference, while others do not. Regardless of how food is grown, freshness may have the biggest impact on taste.
Both organic and conventional farming can supply nutritious foods.
Organic foods might have a slight edge in terms of nutrition, but only a trickle of research has been done in this area. There is a suggestion that some organic fruits and vegetables might contain higher levels of nutrients such as Vitamin C and beta-carotene, as well as disease-fighting phytochemicals. But conventionally grown produce also contain high levels of theses substances, and are known to be nutritious and beneficial. Organic meats, dairy and eggs, however, are higher in Omega-3 fatty acids than their conventional counterparts.
Many experts believe that antibiotics used in conventionally raised farm animals do not affect human health, but concerns are growing.
In over 30 years of research, a link has not yet been found between use of antibiotics in livestock or poultry and adverse health effects. FDA regulations are in place to ensure that any residues are minimal and very safe. There are an increasing number of scientists, however, who are concerned that the practice of using antibiotics to prevent or treat farm animals may be contributing to the emergence of antibiotic-resistance bacteria in the world. Especially at risk might be people who have compromised immune systems, such as AIDS and cancer patients. If concerned, look for the label “no antibiotics added.”
Steps can be taken in the home to avoid the risk of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections from non-organic meats and poultry.
First, always store meats and poultry at temperatures below 40 degrees and wrap them securely so there is no leakage of juices. Use hot soap and water to wash utensils, cutting boards, sinks and countertops after food preparation–and wash your hands well. Finally, be sure to cook meats and poultry thoroughly, to recommended internal temperatures. These are good practices to help avoid ANY kind of food borne illness–including from organic products.
Not all commercially raised animals are fed hormones as growth promoters.
Although not a widespread concern, some experts believe that hormone residues may increase the risk of breast and other reproductive system cancers among women, and possibly prostrate cancer in men. The USDA prohibits the use of hormones in raising hogs, chickens, turkeys and other fowl. However, hormones are still used as growth promoters in cattle and sheep, so for those who prefer to avoid them, look for the USDA label “no hormones administered.” If buying hormone-free meat and dairy is too costly, another option is to strive for moderate amounts of the conventional products.
Organic packaged foods are not necessarily healthier.
Many organic snack foods and desserts are high in sugar, salt, saturated fats and calories. These kinds of foods are still only recommended in moderate amounts.
Organic foods cost more.
Without a doubt, organic farming is more expensive than the conventional route. It’s more labor-intensive, yields fewer-crops, and must comply with tighter government regulations. This translates into higher prices at the store, sometimes as much as double the conventional counterpart.
Organic is better for the environment.
In addition to keeping some pesticides out of the soil and water supply, organic farming produces less pollution and does not erode and deplete the soil. Organic farmers also use methods which conserve water, use less fossil fuel and preserve plant biodiversity.
Striving to eat organic foods can turn into an obsession.
Some people develop a form of disordered eating called “orthorexia,” in which they are constantly trying to eat perfectly. They live in fear of eating something “impure” or bad for them, to the point that meal planning and preparation consume a major part of their lives. Because of fears of eating the “wrong things,” they withdraw from social occasions and relationships, therefore isolating themselves. Unhealthy weight loss follows, not because they are trying to lose weight, but because their eating becomes too restrictive.
Deciding whether to eat organic foods is a personal choice, with no clear right or wrong answer.
Here in America, we have one of the safest food supplies in the world. In conventional farming, antibiotics and pesticides have been used to prevent and cure diseases, and ensure an ample food supply for our country. Although there are many positive aspects to organic farming, at this point in time, this method can’t supply food on a large-scale, affordable basis.
It doesn’t have to be an “either-or” situation when it comes to conventional versus organically-produced foods. Many people are content to purchase a combination of both kinds of foods, in accordance with their budget and lifestyle. As an example, they may purchase regular oranges and bananas because they are peeled before eaten, but buy organic berries and grapes to avoid more direct exposure to pesticides.
Regardless of your choices, the vast majority of health experts recommend a diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains. They also suggest keeping animal protein intake to moderate levels or less, and limiting (but not eliminating) refined or processed foods. See the article “A Healthy Diet for a Healthy Weight” for more information.