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We’ve all seen foods labeled “organic,” but what does that really mean? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, organic farming practices preserve the environment and avoid most synthetic materials, including pesticides and antibiotics. Among other requirements, organic farmers must receive annual on-site inspections, use only USDA-approved materials, and not use genetically modified crops. In order to be counted in the $35 billion U.S. organic retail market, products receive a USDA organic stamp.

The fact is that being organic doesn’t mean a food is healthy. The organic food industry didn’t become so lucrative by selling carrots. For instance, you can now buy pesticide-free potato chips and organic jelly beans. There are even organic Oreo cookies. Junk food is still junk food, even if it was produced organically.

You may be surprised (as I was) to learn that a review of hundreds of studies found that organic produce does not seem to have significantly more vitamins and minerals. Organic fruits and vegetables do, however, appear to have more nontraditional nutrients, like polyphenol antioxidants, thought to be because conventionally grown plants given high-dose synthetic nitrogen fertilizers may divert more resources to growth rather than defense. This may be why organic berries, for example, appear to suppress cancer growth better than conventional berries in vitro.

Based on its elevated antioxidant levels, organic produce may be considered 20 to 40 percent healthier, the equivalent of adding one or two servings’ worth to a five-a-day regimen. But organic produce may be 40 percent more expensive, so for the same money, you could just buy the extra servings’ worth of conventional produce. From a purely nutrients-per-dollar standpoint, it’s not clear that organic foods are any better. But people don’t just buy organic foods because they’re healthier—what about safety?

Conventional produce appears to have twice the levels of cadmium, one of the three toxic heavy metals in the food supply, along with mercury and lead. The cadmium is thought to come from the phosphate fertilizers that are added to conventional crops. The greatest concern most people have about conventionally grown produce, though, is the pesticide residues, but just as people may tend to overestimate the nutritional benefit of organic food, they may also overestimate the risks of pesticides. Indeed, buying organic foods may reduce your exposure to pesticides, but it may not eliminate them entirely. Pesticide residues have reportedly been detected in 11 percent of organic crop samples due to accidental or fraudulent use, cross-contamination from neighboring nonorganic fields, or the lingering presence of persistent pollutants like DDT in the soil. A 10 percent saltwater rinse, however, has been found to remove the bulk of certain pesticide residues more effectively than simply rinsing produce under running water.

You receive tremendous benefit from eating conventional fruits and vegetables that far outweighs whatever little bump in risk you may get from the pesticides. But why accept any risk at all when you can choose organic? My own family buys organic whenever we can, but we never let concern about pesticides stop us from stuffing our faces with as many fruits and vegetables as possible.

What about organic meat, eggs, and dairy? The USDA organic standards don’t allow these animals to be fed or injected with antibiotics or steroids. All foods of animal origin—organic or not—naturally contain sex steroid hormones, though, such as estrogen, but the hormones naturally found even in organic cow’s milk may play a role in the various associations identified between milk and other dairy products and hormone-related conditions, including acne, diminished male reproductive potential, and premature puberty. And, in a comparison between meat from animals raised conventionally versus organically, all conventional chicken samples were contaminated with multidrug-resistant bacteria. However, the majority of organic samples were also contaminated. If antibiotics are prohibited on organic farms, where might these antibiotic-resistant bacteria come from? A possible explanation is that day-old chicks arrive from hatcheries already infected or chickens may become infected at the slaughter plant, as organic and non-organic chickens may be processed at the same facilities, allowing for the possibility of cross-contamination.

Image Credit: Jessica Spengler / Flickr. This image has been modified.

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