The topic of going organic is gaining momentum in conversations from nutrition blogs, to talk shows, to books and magazines; organics are everywhere. The organic food industry has seen extraordinary growth over the past few years as organic products are available in supermarkets now more than ever. According to the Organic Trade Association, organic food and non-food sales totaled $39.1 billion in 2014, an 11.3% increase from the previous year. The most common reasons for going organic among consumers is to avoid pesticides and other toxins, environmental concerns, avoiding genetically modified organisms (GMO), and to promote overall better health.
What is Organic? There are many marketing schemes out there designed to make consumers think that products are organic, but there are limited ways to be sure products are actually 100% organic. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for the federal standards for production, processing, and certification of organic products in the United States. The USDA organic standards describe how farmers grow crops, raise livestock, and which materials may be used. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used. Animals must have access to the outdoors, can’t be given antibiotics, growth hormones, or other drugs and all animal feed must be 100% organic. Organic products are designated as organic by the use of the USDA Organic Seal logo on qualifying food and non-food products.
What is Natural? There is no formal definition set by the USDA for the term natural on food labels. The term natural may be used if no added colors, artificial flavors, or synthetic substance are used per the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Production methods and pesticide use are not addressed. Use of the word ‘natural’ on packaging is a common way food companies try to appeal to those interested in health eating.
Why Eat Organic? From strictly a health and nutrition standpoint, nutrient composition, pesticide exposure, and unnecessary antibiotic and growth hormone use are of great concern among consumers.
Nutrient Composition: According to the Organic Consumer Association, organic food is safer and more nutritious than conventional products. Organic foods have been found to contain 60% more nutrients than conventional products when grown in similar locations. Higher phytochemical and antioxidants levels have also been found in organic products. However, multiple studies indicate no strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious than conventional products.
Pesticides: Many scientific studies have indicated that eating organic food reduces ones pesticide exposure. In a study conducted by Stanford University, organic produce had a 30% lower risk of pesticide contamination than conventional produce. Children who eat conventional foods have been found to have 6 times more pesticide metabolites than children who consume organic foods. There is concern however of cross-contamination of pesticides used on neighboring farms which is likely the cause of some detectable levels of pesticides on organic products.
Antibiotics & Growth Hormones: Low levels of antibiotics are commonly used on conventional farms in order to prevent illness and increase growth rate of animals. This has contributed to a vast increase in antibiotic-resistant infections in humans due to unnecessary use of antibiotics. In addition, conventional meat and poultry products have been found to have a higher risk of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.
Tips for Going Organic:
- Buy local whenever possible: Shop farmers markets or local co-ops if available. Ask the farmer directly of production methods and pesticide use.
- Take advantage of supermarket organic brands that are typically lower in cost than large company products.
- Choose organic products for the items you consume the most.
- Visit the Environmental Working Group at www.ewg.org for a list of the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 which provide recommendations on which produce to buy organic and which ones are okay to eat conventional based on tested pesticide residue.
- Avoid buying organic junk food. It is a waste of money and won’t assist you in eating healthier.
- Wash and dry produce before you eat it. Always wash produce with a peel to avoid contamination.
- Conventional produce is better than avoiding produce all together. If you cannot afford fresh organic produce, try frozen or canned options as well or stick with conventional produce if necessary.