It’s no secret that organic food is trending. There’s a reason it’s a $25 billion industry! But the question everyone wants to know is: Is it really that much better for you than conventional food? The answer is, it depends on how you look at it.
A recent Stanford University report, which reviewed 237 different studies examining all types of food, from fruits to grains to meats, concluded that there isn’t much difference between organic and conventional foods.Yup, you heard right. According to the Stanford report, organic food only showed higher levels of phosphorus, which can also be found in processed food, beans and meat—in other words, it’s not a common deficiency. And a few studies also linked organic milk to higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, though this finding was inconclusive. One report looked at variations of soil type and weather conditions for organic foods and found higher levels of vitamin C (6%) and higher levels of secondary metabolites (12%, a.k.a. phytochemicals). These metabolites increase a plant’s ability to survive in its environment and have been linked to a reduced risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease in diets with high fruit and vegetable intake. Potentially.
There is also the matter of pesticide exposure, not to mention synthetic hormones and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This is where organic food shines! Organic food has 31% lower risk of pesticide contamination than conventional food, even though it still may have traces of these substances (<5% is acceptable). While the FDA considers trace levels to be within safe limits, what is still unclear is how the cumulative load of organophosphorous pesticides effects special populations, such as children, pregnant/ breastfeeding women and the elderly. Another advantage is that organic dairy farmers are prohibited from using antibiotics and synthetic hormones (growth hormones). Compare this to conventionally raised chicken and pork, which have a 33% higher risk of antibiotic-resistant bacterial contamination—from up to three or more antibiotics!
- Organic farming is gentler on the environment.It uses about half the amount of energy as conventional farming, produces lower levels of greenhouse gases (up to 40% less!) and supports soil that, in turn, yields better crops. Therefore, it’s better for the air we breathe, the water we drink and the soil we farm.
- Food safety.The use of chemicals in food manufacturing is a common concern, especially if you are pregnant/breastfeeding, elderly, or have children.
- Organic is non-GMO (genetically modified organism). As part of the certification process, organic food cannot be modified. This is why organic fruits and veggies can grow into funky shapes.
- Animal welfare.Organically raised animals are allowed to graze on pasture and roam freely. The added space reduces their risk of getting sick. They are also not injected with synthetic growth hormones. Overall, the animals are not as miserable as they are in conventional farms.
- Taste.Have you ever tried an organic versus a conventionally grown apple? There is no comparison. The organic is bursting with flavor!
Something to Think About: Big Organic
“Organic” is a business. The USDA Organic Certification ensures a certain standard of practice, but this is an expense that many local, environmentally conscious farms cannot afford. Bottom line: Just because it’s organic, doesn’t mean it’s healthy (e.g. organic junk food!). Many local farms follow the same standard of practice, but may not carry the organic seal.
Going organic can have a steep price tag. Here are some tips to make the transition more bearable:
- First thing’s first: Eat your fruits and vegetables.Ideally, buy them fresh, organic and/or local (from a trusted farmer). But what matters most is including fruits and vegetables in your diet, regardless of how they are grown. Only 6-8% of people are getting their recommended servings, so intake, regardless of type, is essential. For a more reliable way of choosing produce on a budget, look at the Environmental Working Group Dirty Dozen list. This shows which foods are best to buy organic based on their pesticide levels. The list includes apples, celery, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, peaches and potatoes, among others.
- Buy seasonal fruits and vegetables. The overabundance and decreased traveling will reduce your cost.
- Do not buy organic junk food. If being healthier is one of the reasons you are buying organic food, eating junk food—regardless of the label—defeats the purpose!
- Choose organic meats, dairy and eggs whenever possible.Another option is buying from local farmer’s markets and community-supported agricultural programs. Most of these are grown/raised in organic fashion, even though the farm may not have the certification. Farmers generally don’t mind being asked about their farming practices. Ask away!
- Other ways to reduce pesticide residues when organic is not an option:Practice food safety (start with washing your hands!) and wash food thoroughly. Before slicing produce, cut away any bruised areas. Pesticides usually concentrate in animal fat, so trim fat from red meat/pork and do not eat the skin of chicken/fish.
Do you buy organic?
Written by Alanna Cabrero, MS, RD
Originally posted on NYHRC Tumblr
Edited by TCabrarr
Picture from Katie Hargrave on Flickr.
Little evidence of health benefits from organic foods, Stanford study finds. Stanford School of Medicine.
Organic Really Matters. Environmental Nutrition, January 2013.
The Organic Foods Debate — Are They Healthier Than Conventional? Today’s Dietitian, July 2013.