Debbie M., MS, RD contributed to this article –
It’s a question that looms. It seems reasonable, and some swear by it. What does it mean, “organic,” and is it another fad, or is something you need to know?
Scientifically speaking, something organic means it has carbon atoms. Molecules that come from living things…not metal, stone or sand. That’s what chemistry says.
Organic in our current culture, in reference to the foods we consume, refers to the way foods are farmed. Animals and plants derived without direct genetic manipulation to their DNA, raised without synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers and processed without solvents or irradiation are organic foods.
The Case for Conventional or Non Organic Foods
Without getting into too much detail, there are good reasons why genetic engineering and certain crop treatments have been used in our food supply. Mainly to combat pest infestation, thus preventing crop damage and ensuring their subsequent human intake. In fact, certain foods would not have survived without it, such as Hawaiian papaya which was infected with a ring spot virus last century.
Enhancing the appearance of produce (e.g. larger uniform red apples) is another matter. Blame that on our aesthetics and apparent food waste of edible but ugly produce! But really, would you buy a pear with a worm hole in it? Making food easier or cheaper to grow is now a predominant reason for conventional raising. Think about how it’s possible for only 2% of the population to grow the food for the other 98% at relatively low cost.
Organic Standards are Higher
To obtain the USDA’s organic seal, set standards must be observed from farm to table, including soil and water quality, pest control, livestock practices, and rules for food additives. The principles and practices employed by organic farming are much harder work than conventional methods. Attaining the certification involves annual inspections and residue testing…as well as$1,000 or more in fees.
Speaking of money, organic farming comes at a higher retail price as a result of the greater expenses involved. It takes more land and resources to produce the same amount of food. For instance, naturally derived fertilizer (peat, manure, compost) entails more product volume than concentrated industrial fertilizer.
Is Organic Better?
Many people are of the mindset that organic foods are better for you or safer than conventional food. There does seem to be some difference in the nutrient content of some foods, such as greater antioxidants in organic corn and berries. The produce indicated as the “Dirty Dozen” by the Environmental Working Group are highest in pesticide residue and may be worthy of selecting in organic form. Across the board, however, there is not definitive evidence to support or deny the claim that organic food is better for you.
That said, organic farming is better for the environment and for farm workers. It protects ground water, builds soil instead of eroding it, and reduces run-off (caused by applying synthetic fertilizers), not to mention the fact that it reduces workers’ exposure to chemicals used in conventional farming.
Should You Choose Organic?
If the cost is prohibitive for you, such that it means limiting your intake to only a few servings of produce daily, then no. The nutrition you’d be sacrificing is a greater threat than the potential risk from conventional food. If you can still consume an abundance and variety of whole foods while opting for organic versions of the Dirty Dozen, then do so. For grains, dairy, poultry and meats, the same line of reasoning applies. Focus on the level of processing for grains and milk products and how livestock and poultry are raised (free-range, grass fed).
Sorry, but organic soda and candy are still not okay foods! Pick something fresh instead.
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