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Are Organic Foods Better For You?

The sales of organic foods have been increasing by about 20 percent a year over the past decade. That is over ten times the rate of their conventional counterparts. This year organic food sales are expected to rise to six billion dollars. So what are organic foods and are they better for you?

Foods that carry the green USDA Organic seal have been grown and processed according to strict criteria, as verified by private or state organizations. The use of most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, irradiation, and sewage sludge is prohibited. Animals are raised on 100% organic feed and are not given antibiotics or growth hormones. If they get sick and need antibiotics, they are removed from the other animals and not sold as organic. (No meat or dairy products of any kind are legally allowed to contain detectable antibiotic residues, however). The animals must also have access to the outdoors, though in factory farms (a growing trend in the organic industry) they may never actually go outside or spend much time in pasture. A new proposal by the National Organic Standards Board aims to close this loophole for dairy cows, by specifying how much time they must spend in pasture eating grass, as opposed to eating grains in feedlots.

If labeled 100% organic, all the ingredients must be organic. Organicmeans at least 95% of the ingredients (by weight, excluding water and salt) are organic. Made with organic ingredients means at least 70%. Products with less than 70% organic ingredients may not use the term on the front of the package, but can list the organic ingredients individually.

Nearly 70 percent of the public believes that the organic label on food products means they are safer to eat and better for the environment according to a survey by the National Center for Public Policy. Organic farming does have its advantages. It conserves water and soil resources, recycles animal waste, releases fewer chemicals, improves soil fertility, promotes diversity of crops, and protects farm workers, livestock, and wildlife from potentially harmful pesticides. But are organic foods safer than conventional foods? Keep in mind that organic foods can be contaminated with bacteria and pesticides depending on the farming environment. They are also more expensive than conventional foods, but do offer a better nutritional value and sometimes even a better taste.

Organic foods are not always safer than conventional foods. Botanical and a few synthetic pesticides are allowed to be used in organic production, and small amounts of residues may end up in the final product. Some contamination is also unavoidable because conventional pesticides and other agricultural chemicals are ubiquitous in the environment and can drift from neighboring farms onto organic fields. But studies show that compared to conventional foods, organic foods contain pesticide residues less often and in lower amounts. Pesticides may present a danger to farm workers and there is some evidence that low-level residues in conventional or organic foods are harmful to consumers. Also, since organic foods are grown with manure, there may be a greater risk of bacterial contamination. Animal waste is used as a fertilizer instead of synthetic chemicals on organic foods, and this animal waste may contain dangerous bacteria. Although the manure is composted to kill the bacteria, uncertified farmers may not always follow the proper procedure.

Some studies have found higher levels of nutrients in organic produce, but others have found little or no difference. Nutrient levels in foods are determined by many factors, including the plant variety, soil quality, climate, when the plant is harvested, and how it's processed and stored. Interestingly, several studies have shown that organically grown fruits and vegetables have more phytochemicals than conventionally grown produce. Plants make these compounds as natural defenses against pests and ultraviolet radiation. If the farmer provides pesticides, the theory goes, the plant makes less; if they're not applied, the plant makes more itself. But whether this makes any difference good or bad to the person eating the plant food is unknown.

The health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables such as lower rates of cancer, stroke, and other diseases far outweigh any potential risks. Still, the thought of pesticides on fruits and vegetables may still concern some consumers, so here are some ways to reduce exposure to pesticides. One should choose foods that are free of dirt, cuts, insect holes, decay, and mold. Also, selecting produce that has thick skins, husks, or hulls (like bananas, melons, and citrus fruits) reduces exposure to pesticides because the skins are harder to permeate. Before eating fruits and vegetables, they should be scrubbed using a hard produce brush and washed under cold water. Cooking or baking foods will also reduce pesticide residues, as will canning, freezing, or drying foods. Finally, one should eat a varied diet to reduce exposure to any single pesticide.

Reference SourcES
. Cummins Ronnie. “Yummy and Healthy! America’s Consumers are Voting Yes for
Safer and Tastier Organic Foods.” Knight-Ridder News Service 30 June 2000: 1-3.
. Harris, Mark. “Organic Futures.” Vegetarian Times Mar. 2001: 1-6.
. Howe, Maggy. “Pesticides in Our Produce: What Goes Into The Fresh Fruits and Vegetables You Buy?” Country Living March 1998: 1-7.
. Berkley Wellness Letter 02/06



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