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An In Depth Look at Organic

Apples, one of the "dirty dozen", can contain high pesticide residues so they'd be a good organic choice.

The million dollar question: does organic really have more nutritional benefits than conventionally grown/raised food?

Answer:  Yes, no or maybe so.  The term ‘organic’ is associated with a variety of popular terms these days.  The easiest way to answer this question is to address each food category separately.  So, here we go!

  • Produce: Organic fruits and vegetables are grown without pesticides, herbicides, insecticides or other chemical sprays.  They haven’t been exposed to synthetic fertilizers, ionizing radiation, sewage sludge or other ‘conventional’ farming methods.  With regard to chemical sprays, research clearly indicates that organically grown plant foods (including grains and beans) have fewer pesticide residues.  Is that healthier?  Well, no one knows for sure.  Even the pesticide residues of conventionally grown plants are well below the ‘safe for consumption’ EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) standards.  However, one question still remains: do small amounts of pesticide residues accumulate in our bodies over time enough to have negative health consequences?  Maybe – more research is needed.

Nutritionally, organic produce has been shown to have higher amounts of vitamin C, some minerals, and some antioxidants.  However, the amounts are negligible, so the impact on your overall nutrition would be minimal.  At this point, it’s safe to say that a higher nutrient content would not be a good reason to eat organic produce.

There’s one more issue to consider about organic produce: genetically modified (GM) foods.  In theory, organic produce is not supposed to contain and GM pollen or seed.  There’s little that famers can do to prevent GM organisms from infiltrating an organic crop.  While a group of natural food producers began an effort to verify ‘non-GMO’ organic foods, there’s still no guarantee with all organic produce.  Plus, the cost incurred by farmers that test crops and verify non-GMO status, is so high that it’s nearly impossible to expect small, local farmers to afford it.

Verdict: Some organic produce clearly contains lower levels of pesticide residues.  If you’re interested in purchasing organic, non-GMO verified products, check out the Non-GMO Project.

  • Fish: Organic fish is a more difficult term to outline.  Wild fish eat whatever they want, and given agricultural runoff and pollution in the world’s water, it’s impossible to know what wild fish have eaten.  Farmed fish are still tricky to define.  Theoretically, a fish could be termed organic if it was fed organic feed.  However, carnivorous fish (i.e. salmon), are often farmed in netted areas, so some of their food just swims right in and becomes lunch.  Defining plant-eating fish as organic is slightly easier because fish farms can more tightly control what feed is available.

Verdict: At this time, purchasing sustainably caught fish is probably a better bet than organic fish.  Sustainably caught fish means that the species are not overfished or at risk of extinction.  The debate deeming farmed fish ‘organic’ is complicated and the current guidelines are loosely defined.  Check out Seafood Watch for more information about safe-to-eat fish.

  • Meat, Poultry, Eggs, and Dairy:  Organic meat, poultry and dairy is defined as free of pesticides, synthetic growth hormone or antibiotics; in addition, the animals must be raised on organic, GMO-free feed.  In the last couple years, regulations have become stricter on animals’ access to pasture.  It used to be that animals merely needed ‘access to pasture’ to be called organic.  These days, they must graze for at least 4 months out of the year and 30% of their diet must be from grazing.

Nutritionally speaking, organic animal products contain more omega-3 fatty acids (including CLA, a type of fatty acid) and more antioxidants; they are also lower in calories and fat.  Animals raised organically have lower levels of IGF-1, a hormone associated with cancer.

As always though, the term ‘organic’ doesn’t encompass certain important aspects of animal farming.  For instance, ‘organic meat’ does not indicate if the animals were slaughtered humanely, if they were uncomfortably confined during their 8 months indoors, or whether or not their feed is part of their natural diet (i.e. organic cows can be fed organic grain, even though their natural diet is grass).

Verdict: Choosing organic meat is the better choice than conventionally raised animals.  For more information about meat and poultry claims, check out this guide from Mayo Clinic.

Is organic worth the extra cost?  Maybe.  Given your personal financial situation, there are some organic choices that are probably worth the cost.  Check out page 4 of this WebMD article to make more informed organic choices.

originally posted on 2/24/12 on Digging Deep

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