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The Unrefined Truth About Organic Food

Your great-grandma didn’t have to make decisions about buying organic apples and potatoes. If they didn’t grow in her own backyard, they were produced within a few miles of home, mostly by small farmers whose No. 1 fertilizer was manure.

All that changed with large-scale farming, synthetic chemicals and high-yield crops that made it possible for the world’s food supply to meet and even outpace population growth. The downside of this cornucopia is concern about the safety and environmental impact of the pesticides and farming methods used to produce it.

Interest in eating organically may have been a fringe phenomenon as recently as the 1980s, but it’s mainstream now. Whether you shop at a farmer’s market or Wal-Mart, you’re confronted with a vast array of edibles – from corn chips to chicken – labeled “organic” and “natural.”

What do those labels really mean? How are organics produced? And are organics truly better for you? This article will answer those questions and more.

What Is Organic?
In a nutshell, organic food is produced without the use of conventional pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation or genetic modification.

Instead, organic farmers rely on techniques such as crop rotation to build soil fertility, the use of manure and compost, and pesticides derived from natural ingredients.

In the case of organic livestock, the use of growth hormones and routine antibiotics is prohibited. The animals must be given access to the outdoors for at least part of the day and fed an organic diet that includes no animal byproducts. In cattle, this last provision reduces the risk of mad cow disease.

To label their food “organic,” producers must be certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s strict National Organic Program. Violators risk fines, and their certification can be suspended or revoked.

A government-approved agent must inspect the farm before certification is granted, and companies that handle or process organic food must also be inspected. Growers can’t be certified overnight: They have to follow a three-year process of converting their land and farming practices.

Small producers whose gross annual income from organic sales is less than $5,000 a year are exempt from the need for certification.

What Do Organic Labels Mean?
The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) defines three specific labels that may be used for food:

  • “100-percent organic,” which means a food includes only “organically produced ingredients and processing aids,” excluding salt and water
  • “Organic,” indicating a food consists of at least 95 percent organic ingredients, excluding salt and water
  • “Made with organic ingredients,” meaning the product must contain at least 70 percent organics
Only products in the first two categories may sport the USDA Organic seal. Those in the third category may indicate which ingredients are organic, but they can’t use the seal. All of these terms indicate that the organic contents of the food were produced according to NOP regulations.

Note that there are no standards for organic seafood, so any label on such products is meaningless.

The word “natural” on a label means only that the food does not contain additives or artificial food colors. Unhealthy ingredients such as trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup may be plentiful. Also, the food ingredients may have been genetically modified or grown with pesticides.

Other claims, such as “free-range” (indicating that animals have outdoor access) or “hormone free” must be factual but are not verified by the government.

Are There Health Benefits To Eating Organic?
The jury’s still out, with plenty of opinions but no conclusive evidence.

New York University nutrition professor Marian Nestle recommends buying organic if you can afford it. On the other hand, the American Dietetic Association says there’s no evidence organic foods are superior in safety or freshness. The majority of studies show no nutrient differences between organic and conventional produce.

It’s a fact that organic produce contains much less pesticide residue. A 2002 study published in the journal Food Additives and Contaminants found that organic foods “consistently had about one-third as many [pesticide] residues as conventionally grown foods.” Non-organically grown foods also were much more likely to contain several kinds of pesticide residues.

Indisputably, high exposure to pesticides is harmful to humans and animals. At issue is whether the tiny amounts of pesticides in ordinary vegetables and fruits do any harm. A 2006 survey of the scientific literature published in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition found no conclusive evidence that eating organic food provides health benefits.

Nonetheless, some scientists believe it is important to minimize children’s exposure to pesticides because of fears that they may be toxic to the developing nervous system. And pesticides can cross from a pregnant woman’s blood to her fetus.

An added consideration is the use of growth hormones and antibiotics in producing conventional meat and poultry. Overuse of antibiotics in animals has been linked to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and exposure to growth hormones from beef and pork might spur early onset of puberty in girls, says Consumer Reports.

The U.S. government makes no claims that organic foods are safer or more nutritious than conventionally-grown foods. In 2000, then–U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman noted that “the organic label is a marketing tool” consumers want – not “a value judgment about nutrition or quality.”

Finally, remember that junk food made with organic ingredients is still junk food, with the same empty calories as its conventional counterpart.

Does Organic Food Taste Better? Is It Fresher?
There’s no evidence that organic foods taste better, although such decisions are obviously subjective.

Flavor is greatly determined by freshness, so a locally grown conventional strawberry may taste sweeter than an organic one shipped from China. When buying fruits and vegetables, don’t hesitate to ask where the food originated.

Because organic produce has not been sprayed with waxes or preservatives, it may spoil more rapidly. For maximum flavor, ask what day your grocery store receives produce deliveries, and try to buy then.

Does Organic Food Cost More?
Yes: Usually 50 percent to 100 percent more, and for several reasons.

Often demand outstrips supply, as with organic milk. There just aren’t enough organic cows to satisfy consumers’ thirst.

Organic farming methods – for example, hand-weeding rather than using herbicides – are more labor intensive and often generate smaller yields, with greater losses to insects. In addition, organic growers do not receive federal subsidies as do conventional farmers.

If you’d like to consume fewer pesticides but don’t want to blow your food budget, limit organic choices to the most contaminated foods. Studies published by Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit public-interest organization, showed the following fruits and vegetables were the most likely to have pesticide residues:
  • Peaches
  • Apples
  • Nectarines
  • Strawberries
  • Cherries
  • Imported grapes
  • Pears
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Celery
  • Lettuce
  • Spinach
  • Potatoes
There’s little point in spending more for organic onions, sweet corn, asparagus, peas, cabbage, broccoli, eggplant, avocadoes, pineapples, mangoes, kiwi, and bananas. They were the least likely to have detectable pesticide residues in the EWG’s recent investigation

How Can Consumers Get The Freshest, Safest Food?
The organic-food industry is growing like a weed.

These days all the major grocery-store chains offer organically-grown produce. In 2005, Whole Foods, the leader among organic supermarkets, saw $4.7 billion in sales.

The U.S. market is currently expanding around 20 percent a year, according to the Organic Trade Association, compared with 1 percent to 2 percent growth in the food industry as a whole.

According to an October 2006 Business Week cover story, the organic food category is now a $14 billion industry, making up about 2.5 percent of all grocery spending.

But, eating locally grown food may be at least as important as buying products specifically labeled “organic.” Why? Local means fresher and more healthful because nutrients start to decline as soon as produce is picked. And buying locally means reducing the environmental impact of trucking or otherwise transporting perishables.

Consider joining a local service, such as a CSA (for community-supported agriculture), that provides fresh vegetables and fruits on a weekly basis during the growing season. You can find participating growers on the Web site www.localharvest.org.

Note that serious food-borne diseases caused by organisms such as salmonella, aflatoxin mold and E. coli have nothing to do with whether the food was grown organically or conventionally.

To reduce the risk, wash and gently scrub produce under running water to remove dirt and bacteria and reduce pesticide residue. Take off the outer leaves of leafy vegetables. Peeling vegetables and fruits helps eliminate pesticides as well.

Remove fat and skin from meat, as pesticides tend to accumulate in animals’ fatty tissue.

For More Information
To learn more, visit these Web sites.

USDA’s National Organic Program

Lists of stores and produce markets with a wide variety of organic foods
www.organic.org/storefinder

Local farmer’s markets and community-supported farms
www.localharvest.org