There’s been a lot of talk about organic eating in the news lately. A recent study conducted by researchers at Stanford University found that eating organic food was not any healthier than eating conventionally-grown produce.
But some health experts cite serious flaws in this study. So let’s set the record straight and uncover the truth about organic food once and for all.
What is organic eating?
Eating organic means that produce is grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers. Animal products such as meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy are not fed antibiotics or growth hormones.
Conventional farming methods use pesticides, fertilizer, antibiotics, and growth hormones to mass-produce large quantities of food.
Is organic food healthier?
There are several things to consider here:
According to a research study published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, there’s no clear evidence that organic food has higher nutritional value than food grown by conventional methods. However, it’s almost important to note that this study was funded by the Society of Chemical Industry, whose mission is to “advance the science of applied chemistry and related sciences.”
A 2011 review of several studies published in the Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences journal found that organic food did have a higher nutritional value than conventionally-grown food.
A 2002 research report found organic food is far less likely to contain pesticide residues than conventional food (13 percent of organically-grown food vs. 71 percent of conventionally-grown food).
Studies are just beginning to capture the extent to which even low-level exposure to pesticides are causing serious health issues.
Pesticides can be particularly harmful for children. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), pesticides can harm children by blocking the absorption of important food nutrients necessary for normal, healthy growth. The EPA states that “there are ‘critical periods’ in human development when exposure to a toxin can permanently alter the way an individual’s biological system operates.”
Organic production methods and standards restrict the use of food additives and processing aids like preservatives, artificial sweeteners, colorings and flavorings, and monosodium glutamate (MSG). I personally prefer not to eat foods that sound like a chemistry experiment.
Environmental and economic impact:
The Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial (FST) found that:
- Organic yields match conventional yields.
- Organic methods of food production outperform conventional methods in years of drought.
- Organic farming systems build rather than deplete soil organic matter, making it a more sustainable system.
- Organic farming uses 45% less energy and is more efficient.
- Conventional systems produce 40% more greenhouse gases.
- Organic farming is more profitable than conventional.
Read the entire report here.
Also, most conventionally grown foods come from thousands of miles away and often from other countries. This uses an enormous amount of fossil fuels and waste to transport your food. And, international growers don’t have the same food safety regulations we do.
Here’s another truth about organic food most people don’t think about: the majority of meat you get from the grocery store comes from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). These animals are confined to a tiny pen where they rarely move or see sunlight, are fed an unnatural grain-based diet instead of grass, and are pumped full of growth hormones so they can be slaughtered faster.
CAFOs are filled with sick, diseased animals that endure short, dismal lives wading in their own filth until it’s time to be slaughtered. That may sound harsh, but it’s a realistic look at where your food comes from if you buy the “cheap meat” from the grocery store. I personally feel responsible for knowing how the foods I eat make it to my plate.
Best places to buy organic food
Shopping at farmers markets is a great way to get the best organic produce while supporting your local economy. Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s also have solid selections of organic produce. And most grocery stores have at least some organic produce now, as a result of increased consumer demand.
Organic meat is harder to find. Farmer’s markets are a good bet. Or, you can try a web search to find local farms that raise organic cattle, chickens, pork, etc. Local Harvest is a great resource to help you find organic farms near you.
Foods to eat organic
If you’re not eating much organic food, here’s a good place to start.
The Environmental Working Group identified the following fruits and vegetables on their “Dirty Dozen Plus” list as being contaminated with the most pesticides:
3. Cherry tomatoes
6. Hot peppers
7. Nectarines (imported)
12. Sweet bell peppers
13. Kale/collards greens
14. Summer squash
Likewise, the “Clean 15″ are foods that you probably don’t need to buy organic. Most of these are protected from pesticides by their skin.
14. Sweet peas
15. Sweet potatoes
To see the full list, go to the EWG’s website.
Why does eating organic food cost more?
Substituting labor and human management for chemicals and mass production results in cheaper food.
Our government provides subsidies for commodity crops like corn, wheat, and soybeans ($172 billion between 1995 and 2011, to be exact). Here’s the issue with that: these crop farmers receive massive subsidies because much of these commodity crops are used to create cheap sources of food that fuels the meat, dairy, fast food, and processed food product industries.
So why hasn’t this changed?
Because the companies who profit from this broken system have enormous leverage and lobbying power. So every year the Farm Bill comes up in Congress, the legislators who write the bill (who also happen to be on the agricultural committee, which is heavily influenced by commodity crop farmers), keep these subsidies the same.
So while some lucky shareholders are living large, the rest of the country is left to ponder why they can get an entire meal at McDonalds for less than the price of a watermelon.
One of the biggest tragedies in all this is the millions of lower-income families who can’t afford to buy produce because of our broken system.
There’s growing evidence that if all the indirect costs of conventional food production were factored into the price of food, organic foods would cost the same or less than conventional food.
The real truth about organic food
So at the end of the day, here’s my final say on the “truth about organic food”:
Yes, it is more expensive, but is it worth the extra money to buy food that isn’t tainted with chemicals and pesticides; that promotes a healthy, sustainable environment for our future; that supports local farmers; and that may just help pave the way for social change in our food policy?
That’s up to you to decide.
 Society of Chemical Industry (2008, August 9). Organic Food Has No More Nutritional Value Than Food Grown With Pesticides, Study Shows. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 22, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2008/08/080807082954.htm
 Baker, B.P., C.M. Benbrook, E. Groth III, and K.L. Benbrook. 2002. Pesticide residues in conventional, integrated pest management (IPM)-grown and organic food: insights from three US data sets. Food Additives and Contaminants 19:427-446.