With rising food costs and increasing media reports on harmful chemicals in the environment and our food, many smart shoppers are eyeing the organic produce a little closer…and are wondering if the higher pricetag is worth it. Why do people buy organic? Primarily, it is because of concern over the potential negative effects of pesticides, growth hormones, bioengineered foods or other chemicals. Many people also believe that organic produce has more nutrition than conventionally grown foods. Last, organic produce is touted as being better for the environment due to the sustainable agriculture practices used in raising organic crops. I’ll just touch on the nutrition aspects of eating organic, because sustainable agriculture falls more under environmental than human health.
As for pesticides, there is some evidence that large doses may cause cancer, reproductive, and other hormonal problems, especially in vulnerable populations like children. The million dollar question is whether or not there is enough residual pesticide on our food to cause a problem. Tough to say, but my gut feeling is that people that are 1) genetically vulnerable or 2) have a high toxic load from previous environmental exposure to chemicals may benefit from avoiding these chemicals as much as possible. That said, numerous studies still show that people who eat 5-10 servings a day of conventional produce are still less likely to have cancer or heart disease…and that’s even with the chemicals. Want to go organic but realistically need to budget? Check out http://www.foodnews.org/ for a list of the most to least contaminated foods.
Is organic food more nutritious? That depends on the type of food as well as how it is grown or raised. Theoretically, plants and animals that are not treated with antibiotics and pesticides should be healthier in order to resist disease, and some studies indicate that there are more nutrients per weight in organic produce. However, other studies have come out saying that there is no difference…especially in animal products. How can this be? Well, let me use an analogy using people. There are well-nourished and poorly nourished people, and people who are on medication and not on medication. Usually the well-nourished people need less medication and are healthier, just like well-balanced organic produce grown in quality soil would be healthier and have the more nutrients and phytochemicals to ward off disease. However, just because a person does not take medication does not make them automatically healthier, and in the same way, food grown without pesticides or antibiotics is not automatically higher quality. I have come across some very sickly, yellowed organic greens as well as fruit full of bugs…not exactly my definition of healthy food. That said, your organic apples and tomatoes are usually bursting with flavor compared to their conventional counterparts in the supermarket.
As for me, I will often choose organic when it is on sale or if it is one of the “dirty dozen” foods that I eat frequently. I also choose organic products much of the time for my toddler. Organic processed foods such as animal crackers and peanut butter have higher quality ingredients and no trans fat or artificial colors and preservatives…another plus for the hurried shopper who doesn’t want to read the ingredients in depth. Now let me add the disclaimer that this is just my opinion based on what I know right now…and hopefully we’ll get a clearer answer to these questions as consumer demand increases, farmers provide more organic foods, and more scientists look into these important questions.