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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 and not use genetically modified crops.

The fact is that being organic doesn’t mean a food is healthy. You can now buy pesticide-free potato chips and organic jelly beans, and there are even organic Oreo cookies. Junk food is still junk food, even if it was produced organically.

You may be surprised to learn that a review of hundreds of studies found that organic produce doesn’t seem to have significantly more vitamins and minerals. They do, however, appear to have more nontraditional nutrients, like polyphenol antioxidants, perhaps 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 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 three toxic heavy metals in the food supply, along with mercury and lead. What about pesticide residues? Buying organic foods may reduce your exposure to pesticides, but 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.

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 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, but the majority of organic samples were, too.

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

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