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There is so much hype around organic foods right now.  It seems as if the word “organic” is stamped on the signage and packaging of foods on every shelf, of every aisle in the store.  I didn’t know what it meant exactly.  I just thought it must be a healthier, cleaner way to eat since that’s what I heard (from no one in particular).  So I jumped on the bandwagon and began paying the few extra cents per pound for organic produce.  But then I asked the question that I ask about everything else under the sun…why…or more accurately what?  What makes organic foods organic?  What makes them so special and are they really better than non-organic foods?

Here’s the scoop…in order to be considered “organic”, a food product must meet the strict government standards outlined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) .  In 1990, the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) required the USDA to develop national standards for organically produced products and required farms or handling operations to be certified  by a state or private entity accredited by the USDA and be subject to annual inspections.

Most recognizable of these standards is that organic foods must be produced with a system of farming that excludes toxic pesticides and fertilizers.  All organic produce must be grown on ground that has been free of pesticides and chemical fertilizers for at least three years before the harvest of an organic crop.  Organically raised livestock must also be free of antibiotics and growth hormones.  Additionally, genetic engineering, cloning and irradiation is prohibited for all organic foods.  Why is this important?  Studies show that even small doses of pesticides and other chemicals can cause lasting damage and health problems, including birth defects, nerve damage and cancer.

Labeling

The labeling criteria for organic products can still spark some confusion as its based on the percentage of organic ingredients they contain.  A product listed “100% organic” must contain only organically produced ingredients and a label simply stating “organic” consists of at least 95% organically produced ingredients.  However, a product indicating that its “made with organic ingredients” is likely processed and contains a minimum of 70% of organic ingredients.  Also confusing is the label “natural”.  A product that is “natural” (ex. natural beef) has no chemical additives added after packaging, but has no restrictions on additives used beforehand.

Is Organic Better?

The short answer…no one knows for sure. The nutritional benefits of organic produce over conventional produce has not yet been determined.  Sure, there is wide agreement that organic food has fewer pesticides but no formal comparison on nutritional benefits has been made.  Some studies have shown organic food to contain more nutrients, such as vitamin C and other antioxidants.  An organic product may contain more trace minerals and bioactive compounds than non-organic produce.  However, organic foods have the same number of calories, fats, proteins and carbohydrates as conventional foods.   There is no definitive evidence that organic food is “better” from a nutritional standpoint.

When to Buy Organic

While we don’t know how nutritionally beneficial organic food is, it may be a good idea to purchase organic versions of fruits and vegetables highest in pesticides.  Check out The Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen”, the 12 fruits and veggies with greatest chance of pesticide contamination, and the “Clean 15” foods you don’t have to buy organic.

References:

“Defining Organic.” Energy Times Mar. 2010: 38-45.

EWG’s 2010 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides. 12 Sep. 2010. Environmental Working Group. 12 Sep. 2010 <http://www.foodnews.org/&gt;.

“Is There An Organic Advantage.” Washington Post 28 June 2004

United States. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Pesticides and Food: Health Problems Pesticides May Pose. Sep. 2010. 12 Sep. 2010 <http://www.epa.gov/​pesticides/​food/​risks.htm&gt;.

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