Is Organic Best?

Have you found yourself pausing in the produce aisle and wondering if eating organic foods is really a healthier choice? Read on to get the facts about the value of organic options.

By Carolyn Katzin, MSPH, CNS

For most people the term organic is synonymous with eating healthfully. Many people also believe that organic foods are tastier and have more nutrients than conventionally grown produce and meat, dairy, or eggs from animals raised in a manner that may include synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, or hormones. But what does organic really mean, and are organic foods always the best choice?

What’s in a Name?

The term organic indicates that the food has been grown or raised in a manner that focuses on the use of renewable resources and conservation practices that will preserve and enhance environmental quality. The National Organic Program (NOP) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was created to accredit agents who inspect organic production and handling operations to certify that they meet USDA standards. What are those standards, and when is something officially organic?

According to the USDA’s consumer publication Organic Food Standards and Labels: The Facts, before a product can be labeled “organic,” government-approved certifiers must inspect the farm to ensure that “organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones” and that “organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.” In addition, the USDA NOP must certify all companies that handle or process organic food before it reaches consumers through markets and restaurants.

This process ensures that food stamped with a USDA Organic label is in fact organic. Once a product is certified, labeling it with the USDA label is voluntary, but the label may not be used on products that contain 70 percent or fewer organic ingredients (though in this case the label may state “made with organic ingredients” and list them). Alternately, some organic producers use the specific state certifying agency logo, stating that the food is either “100 Percent Organic” or “Organic” (defined as at least 95 percent organic). Farmers or growers who sell less than $5,000 per year must follow the same regulations as larger producers if they want to label their food as organic, but they are exempt from certification.

Another complication in defining and labeling organic products arises from the tendency of many natural-food companies to claim that their foods are “free of irradiation, preservatives, toxic additives, food colorings, refined sugars, and genetically engineered ingredients” or that the products are “all-natural” or “free-range” or “hormone-free”—none of which is an accurate definition of “organic” as described by USDA standards.

Is Organic Food Healthier?

So if a food is certified organic, is it healthier than conventionally grown food? When money is tight, is it really worth it to pay extra for organic? Studies delving into this topic have produced conflicting results. Although conventionally grown leafy vegetables, for example, may have a lower vitamin C content and higher nitrates,1 no overall clear-cut differences in nutritional value have been consistently demonstrated between organic and conventionally grown food.2

Studies have been conducted to determine whether organic foods can lower cancer risk, but, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS), “at this time, no research exists to demonstrate whether such foods are more effective in reducing cancer risk than are similar foods produced by other farming methods.” There is also no evidence, according to the ACS, “that residues of pesticides and herbicides at the low doses found in foods increase the risk of cancer.”

Critics might argue that new research methods are being discovered all the time and that perhaps insufficient attention has been paid to chronic exposure to low levels of pesticides and herbicides—especially to those who are particularly vulnerable, such as small children, pregnant or lactating women, and people who are undergoing cancer treatment. For those concerned about the presence of pesticides, organic foods offer a clean solution. For many consumers, spending the extra money on organic foods is not an option. In that case, knowing which foods carry the highest pesticide load and which are less affected can help you decide how to spend your organic dollars.

The Final Word

Whether you buy organic food or conventionally grown food, there are two additional considerations to take into account: freshness and quality. Let’s look at freshness first. If a food is consumed or frozen quickly after harvesting, it is very fresh. If a food is transported halfway around the world at varying temperatures, by the time it arrives on the shelf of your local market, it may not be fresh at all. The term fresh is not monitored as closely as the word organic, and the nutritional value of certain fruits and vegetables declines rapidly as time after harvest passes. High-quality foods will be fresh, provide nutritional value, and maintain their integrity—meaning they won’t be bruised or damaged. Always check produce to avoid damage, as these compromised parts of the fruit or vegetable can allow the encroachment of molds and bacteria.

For many people, choosing organic foods is an easy decision. For others the choice is not so clear-cut and varies, depending on the price of the food, other available options, and personal factors, making the question a complicated one. What is clear is that when you select organic food, you are helping sustain healthy agricultural practices, promoting biodiversity, and making a positive choice for your own health by reducing your exposure to synthetic pesticides.3

Buyer Beware

Below are some examples of produce with the highest pesticide loads listed by two nonprofit organizations; these would be good choices to purchase at a growers’ market or in the organic section of your local market.

Produce with the Highest Levels of Pesticides

Fruit

Vegetables

Peaches and nectarines Sweet bell peppers
Cranberries Celery
Strawberries Green beans
Cantaloupe Lettuce
Cherries Cucumbers
Grapes (imported) Broccoli (imported)

Source: The Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org) and the Organic Center (www.organic-center.org)

Farmers’ Markets

Farmers’ and growers’ markets present another dilemma where organic foods are concerned. Though the perception may be that all foods at these markets are organic, that’s not necessarily the case. Much of it probably is, as many local farmers who sell at open-air markets may not be certified organic as a result of the small size of their operation but still follow organic farming practices and uphold the principles. Some is not organic but is nevertheless fresh and locally grown and regulated to ensure quality.

In California, for example, food sold through California Certified Farmers’ Markets is monitored by government checks to ensure that farmers are in fact selling their own “safe, nutritious, vine- and tree-ripened fruit and vegetables that are California Grown and Certified by the State of California.” By buying local, you are supporting sustainable and biodiverse food practices as well as helping raise awareness of the value to the land of good farming practices. In addition, shopping at growers’ markets supports the local economy and allows you get to know the local producers and eat seasonal produce. If you have children, a farmers’ market provides them the opportunity to try new foods through the samples that are usually freely available—and it’s fun!

Conventional Versus Organic Farming: What’s the Difference?

Conventional Farms

Apply chemical fertilizers to promote plant growth

Spray insecticides to reduce pests and disease
Use chemical herbicides to manage weeds
Give animals antibiotics, growth hormones, and medications to prevent disease and spur growth

Organic Farms

Apply natural fertilizers, such as manure or compost, to feed soil and plants
Use beneficial insects and birds, mating disruption, or traps to reduce pests and disease
Rotate crops, till, hand-weed, or mulch to manage weeds
Give animals organic feed and allow them access to the outdoorsUse preventive measures—such as rotational grazing, a balanced diet, and clean housing—to help minimize disease

Source: Organic foods: Are they safer? More nutritious? Mayo Clinic Web site. Available at: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/organic-food/NU00255. Accessed December 19, 2009.

References

  1. Williams CM. Nutritional quality of organic food: shades of grey or shades of green? Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 2002;61(1):19-24. Review.
  2. Magkos F, Arvaniti F, Zampelas A. Organic food: nutritious food or food for thought? A review of the evidence. International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition. 2003;54(5):357-71.
  3. Baker BP, Benbrook CM, Groth E 3rd, Lutz Benbrook K. Pesticide residues in conventional, integrated pest management (IPM)-grown and organic foods: insights from three US data sets. Food Additives and Contaminants. 2002;19(5):427-46.

Web sites for more information:

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service, National Organic Program
www.ams.usda.gov

U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Library
www.nal.usda.gov

International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements
www.ifoam.org

Environmental Working Group
www.ewg.org

The Organic Center
www.organic-center.org

American Cancer Society
www.cancer.org