Diet & Nutrition
Organic Foods: Are They Safer and More Nutritious?
Organic foods are harvested or produced from crops grown without synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, industrial solvents, radiation, or chemical food additives. Organic meats and poultry are from free-range animals raised on organic feed. This type of farming and husbandry is an FDA-regulated industry that originated in the 1940s. By the 1960s it was known as “the green revolution.” More recently, the definition of “organic” was widened to exclude genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Genetic modification is a process designed to make plants resist pests, tolerate herbicides, and survive weather changes, all in the interest of increasing crop yield.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
A 2013 Stanford University study—actually an analysis of 237 previous studies—found no substantial differences between organic and conventional foods in terms of nutrient levels as well as bacterial and fungal contamination. However, the team did find an important difference in the levels of pesticides—and that alone is enough to convince many people to buy organic.
The researchers found that only 7% of organic foods had detectable pesticide residue, presumably because of contamination from nearby fields. Yet a whopping 38% of conventionally grown food had pesticide residue. The study also showed that the two groups of food had about the same levels of E. coli bacteria, which can cause serious illness and even death.
A QUANDRY AT THE SUPERMARKET
Organic foods, once found only in health food stores, are now staples at most supermarkets. You stroll through the produce department of your favorite grocery store looking for, say, pears and apples. Do you choose conventionally grown items or organic ones? Both are nutritious. Both provide plenty of vitamins and fiber. You have no way of knowing how much pesticide residue each contains. Do you go with the odds that the organic versions will be cleaner? Do you go by appearance? Organic fruits and vegetables often don’t look perfect; they may have unusual shapes and colors and be smaller than their conventional counterparts. Or do you decide based on cost? Conventionally grown produce typically costs less, but are the savings worthwhile? Are you sacrificing safety? Is the organic produce really more nutritious, despite the findings of the Stanford University study?
There are no definitive answers to those questions, but keep in mind that organic foods are even more strictly regulated than conventional foods. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has established an organic certification program that requires all organic foods to meet rigorous government standards. These standards control how such foods are grown, handled, and processed.
The label on an organic product tells you a lot about that product. Here is what you need to know about organic labeling:
*A product labeled as organic must be USDA- certified unless the producer sells no more than $5,000 a year in organic foods.