Organic food is here to stay and lucky for us it is. Should we all go organic or can you still eat a healthy diet from conventionally grown food? What it boils down to is your own personal decision. What are you looking for – reduced pesticide residue, less antibiotics, and hormones in food, environmental issues – or are there other areas of concern. What should matter to all of us is the nutritional quality of our diet. By eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meat, nuts, seeds and beans - organic or not - you will still benefit from the necessary nutrients these foods offer and that’s what counts.
Before we go any further, the terms “organic foods” and “conventionally grown foods” need to be defined:
Organic food – Food not produced with chemical pesticides and fertilizers. It uses natural pesticides, fertilizers, and promotion of multiple crop systems or using the same field for different crops.
Conventionally grown food or conventional farming – Farming that uses scientific and technological developments to grow food for human and animal consumption. It includes the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, weed killers, genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) and production of only one or two crops in the same field or growing season. This allows for a greater yield, and a greater resistance against weeds or pests.
1. Fallacy: Organic food is always safer than conventionally grown food
Fact: It depends on how you are defining safer. If your objective is food with reduced pesticide residue, then yes, organic foods fulfill that standard. A 2012 meta-analysis by researchers at Stanford University reported organic fruits and vegetables had a 30% lower risk of pesticide contamination than conventional produce. Overall, consuming organic foods does reduce pesticide residue in addition to containing lower levels of hormones and antibiotics used in animals for speeding up growth and treating disease. On the other hand, there is little evidence that the current levels of pesticide exposure from conventionally grown produce presents risks to human health. Organic foods are not completely free from contamination risks either. A common natural fertilizer used on organic food is manure which if not treated properly, can contain pathogenic bacteria. Whether you’re buying organic produce or conventional, always cut away damaged or bruised areas before eating, wash produce, throw away outer leaves on leafy greens that may contain contaminants and trim fat from meat and skin from poultry to reduce residue of some pesticides that concentrate in animal fat.
2. Fallacy: Organic food is more nutritious than conventionally grown food
Fact: This is where it gets murky. Various research studies are conflicted on this topic. The Stanford University study concluded there was not enough evidence that organic foods were significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. This was the same conclusion a 2007 meta-analysis by the British Nutrition Foundation finding little nutritional difference between organic and conventional foods. However, another meta-analysis in 2011 by Newcastle University in England found organic produce to have a 12% higher content of phytochemicals and a 6% higher vitamin C content.
Growing produce and comparing their nutritional composition is complicated. A plant’s nutritional profile depends on many factors – growing conditions such as the weather, soil composition, fertilizer regimen, and methods used to protect the crop such as herbicides or pesticides. Nutrient content is also affected by how the food is stored, transported, and processed prior to consumption. Both organic and conventionally grown foods contain nutrients we need to keep healthy and reduce risk of disease.
3. Fallacy: Organic farming is always better for the environment
Fact: Organic farming overall has a good record of being kind to the environment. Organic farming doesn’t contaminate soil and groundwater with chemical pesticides and fertilizers, along with more reliance on crop rotation, compost, and cover crops to maintain soil. Preserving soil increases sustainability for growing into the future and reduces the amounts of chemicals into the environment.
The downside of organic farming is it’s not nearly as productive in yielding crops and it requires more land to produce the same amount of food that conventional farming does. If the world was to completely switch over to organic farming, it could lead to less food to feed the world’s hungry.
4. Fallacy: The higher cost of organic food should always be paid over the cost of conventionally grown food
Fact: If all you buy is organic food, you will pay a higher price for them. Organic food can cost 20% to 100% more than conventionally grown foods. It’s really again a matter of personal choice – if you have the money to pay the extra cost, go ahead but know that conventionally grown food is still a healthy choice too. Here’s what drives up the extra cost on organic food:
· Crops grown without herbicides and pesticides will have more loss due to crop damage
· Higher labor cost for weeding and pest control
· Fee for organic certification
· Organic feed costs twice as much as conventional feed for feeding livestock
· Organic food takes more time to produce – time is money
· Organic farmers don’t receive as much money in subsidies as conventional farmers
To help save money on buying organic food, support your local farmers market where the food can be more cost reasonable. You don’t have to buy all organic foods – check out the Environmental Working Group’s “Clean 15” and the “Dirty Dozen” food lists of foods to help you decide which foods to buy organic or not.
5. Fallacy: If a food label says “organic” it’s always 100% organic
Fact: Not true. Only foods containing 100 percent organic ingredients (excluding salt and water, which are considered natural), can carry the “100%” organic label. This includes most raw, unprocessed farm products such as fruits, vegetables, eggs, cheese, milk, and meat. Here are the regulations established by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regarding organic labeling standards:
· If the label says “100% Organic” it means it’s made with exclusively 100% organic ingredients and can use the organic seal.
· If the label says “Organic” it means it’s made with at least 95% organic ingredients and can use the organic seal.
· If the label says “Made with organic ingredients” it means it’s made with at least 70% organic ingredients, it cannot use the organic seal but it can list up to three organic ingredients on the front of the package.
· Any food made with less than 70% organic ingredients cannot use the organic seal or make any claims on the front of the package.
6. Fallacy: Foods labeled “organic” and “natural” mean the same thing
Fact: Not true. Many food labels may say “natural, “all natural,” “free-range” or “hormone free.” The labels must being truthful in what they are stating but they are not necessarily organic. A food has to be grown and processed according to USDA organic standards in order to carry the term “organic” on its label. The two terms are not interchangeable.
Putting it all together
Bottom line, our food environment can benefit from and support both organic and conventionally grown food. As a nation, we should take advantage of each as we can use both systems to feed us into the future. Both types of food growing systems have their strengths and weaknesses. However, we should feel fortunate we have a choice in getting to decide how best to feed ourselves and our families.
Cheryl Mussatto has over 30 years of experience as a Registered Dietitian and has worked in a variety of settings that cover a wide span of nutrition experience. Currently she works as an adjunct professor for two community colleges, Allen Community College in Burlingame and Butler Community College in Council Grove, Kansas teaching two courses, Basic Nutrition and Therapeutic Nutrition. She is a consulting dietitian for the Cotton O’Neil Medical Clinic in Osage City doing individualized nutrition counseling. Cheryl also is a contributing author for osagecountyonline.com, an online newspaper and Edietitians, a global free nutritional and health magazine. Her articles for both publications pertain to nutrition topics that cover a diversity of health and nutrition interests for the general public. She is also certified as a health and wellness coach. Visit her website atwww.eatwell2bewellrd.com and Facebook page: Eat Well 2 Be Well.