Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D., C.D.E.
Remember when it was just a hippie fringe thing? Peace, love and organic vegetables. Well, it’s come a long way. The organic food industry has gone mainstream, growing by 20 percent each year and getting the attention of big players like Kraft, Kelloggs and Wal-Mart. If they haven’t already, organic foods will probably make their way into your grocery store soon, as more supermarkets sell organic produce, meats, milk and packaged goods like cereal and frozen pizzas.
However, organic foods usually cost more than conventional products, and some favorites can be hard to find. Organic milk, for example, may be double the price of regular, and a box of organic cereal often costs a dollar more than its conventional counterpart. And while you may be able to get non-organic cherries off-season, you‚Äôll likely have to wait until the heat of summer for organic ones. Here’s what you need to know to decide whether going organic is worth the extra cost and effort.
In 2002 the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued national standards defining the term organic.An organic claim refers to the way crops or livestock are raised and processed. The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) prohibits the use of most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, genetic engineering and irradiation. Livestock must be raised without growth hormones and antibiotics and must eat only organic feed free of animal byproducts. The animals must also have outdoor access.
Before a food may bear the organic label, a government-approved certifier must inspect the farm to verify it follows the rules of the NOP and the food meets USDA organic standards. Inspections are then done every year to ensure compliance. Food processors and companies handling the food before it hits the supermarket must also be certified.
You pay more for organic products because organic certification is expensive, says registered dietitian Keecha Harris, spokesperson of the American Dietetic Association. For their foods to be labeled organic, farmers and producers must take precise, documented steps. Organic feed for livestock is more expensive than conventional feed, and small-scale organic producers have a higher proportion of overhead than larger scale organic and conventional producers, she adds.
Of the 25 percent of Americans who shop for organic goods weekly, and the more than 50 percent who buy them occasionally, most say they do it to avoid pesticides, antibiotic residues and hormones, says Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA).
After people shift from conventional to organic foods, they show significantly lower pesticide residues in their bodies, says Cummins. When 23 school-age children had their diets switched from conventional foods to a largely organic regimen, urinary markers for pesticides disappeared until their usual diets were reintroduced. The study authors concluded that an organic diet provides an immediate and striking protective effect from pesticide exposure, which, according to Cummins, is linked to increased cancer risk and decreased immune function, though this is a subject of much scientific debate.
Eating organic foods is the best way to lower your exposure to pesticides says Lauren Sucher, director of public affairs for the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. It’s the one thing we can control, and it’s empowering. We can’t always control our exposure from a neighbor’s lawn, a golf course or from a recently treated playground. But choosing organic foods might decrease your exposure to pesticides by as much as 90 percent, she suggests.
Growth hormones are used in hogs, sheep and cattle to fatten up the animal, and some studies suggest that meat from these animals is a potential cancer-causing agent. The widespread use of antibiotics to keep cattle and other livestock healthy, treat illnesses and speed growth has helped create antibiotic-resistant bacteria, making treating people for life-threatening and non-life-threatening illnesses like pneumonia and ear infections more difficult, cautions Cummins. However, a recent report by the Institute of Food Technologists refutes this claim and encourages the continued use of antibiotics in raising livestock.
Another reason people choose organic is to do their part to keep the environment cleaner. Organic farmers are careful stewards of the soil, water and animals they manage says registered dietitian and food and nutrition educator Mary Saucier Choate of the Co-op Food Stores in New Hampshire. Additionally, farm workers and their families are protected from high, health-damaging exposure levels to synthetic farm chemicals and pesticides.
While it’s clear that organically produced foods contain reduced levels of pesticides, there is no definitive evidence that the minute levels of contaminants in conventional foods are harmful to adults or to children. In large amounts pesticides are detrimental to health, says Choate. But, the mere presence of a trace amount of pesticide does not mean that a food is unhealthy or harmful. Health risk depends on the toxicity and the amount of the chemical exposure. It’s the dose that makes the poison she adds.
And skipping your fruits and vegetables to dodge pesticides isn’t going to improve your health. Experts estimate that for optimal health and disease prevention, Americans need roughly two more cups of fruits and vegetables daily than they’re currently eating. Sucher advises that you avoid the Dirty Dozen, 12 conventionally produced fruits and vegetables with the most pesticide residue. Opt for the organic version instead, she says.