Is organic food healthier?

The popularity of organic and natural foods continues to increase with the growth of ethical consumerism. Environmental, social and political issues are as important as nutrition in organic farming and whether a consumer decides to go organic. The organic food industry and sales are growing at the rate of 20% per year.

There are at least one good argument for eating organic: fewer pesticides. Pesticides can be absorbed into fruits and vegetables, and leave trace residues. Organic produce is 30% less likely to be contaminated by synthetic pesticides than conventionally grown produce.

For a food to earn the designation Organic, 95% or more of the ingredients must be organic and must have been produced in fields that use renewable resources and conserve soil and water to enhance environmental quality. The other 5% of ingredients must be nonagricultural substances on an approved list that are not available in an organic form.

Products labeled ‘made with organic ingredients’ must contain at least 70% organic ingredients. Processed products that contain less than 70% organic ingredients can list those ingredients as organic, but they cannot be labeled as organic.

Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy comes from animals grown without antibiotics or growth hormones and fed 100% organic feed. Organic meats like chicken and pork are less likely to harbor “superbugs” (that is, bacteria that are immune to several types of antibiotics) making it more difficult treat infections in both animals and people.

Organic milk is one of the most popular organic foods chosen by consumers. Organic milk contains fewer trace minerals: copper, zinc, selenium, and iodine, than regular milk. Conventional farms add mineral supplements to cow feed, whereas organic cows fill up on plants—which could have fewer nutrients. After all, research doesn’t yet support the idea that organic milk is healthier than conventional. Just make sure to shoot for 2 to 3 servings of dairy (that’s 8 ounces of milk in one serving) to fill up on the nutrients you need. Milk is still a good source of protein, calcium, vitamin D, and potassium, so keep on drinking whichever kind you prefer.

Fruits and vegetables are grown without conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage sludge-based fertilizers. The land on which organic crops are grown is required to be pesticide and herbicide free for 3 years before a crop is harvested. In addition, bioengineering or genetic modification or ionizing radiation cannot be used in the production of the food. But organic standards allow for the use of organic pesticides, some of which may be just as dangerous as synthetic ones.

Is organic food healthier? In terms of promoting organic agriculture as environmentally sustainable agriculture, it is. But there is no conclusive evidence that organically grown foods are more nutritious or concentrated in nutrients than conventionally grown foods, except perhaps vitamin C, zinc and iron which may be higher in organically grown leafy vegetables and potatoes. One study comparing organically grown vs. conventionally grown berries and corn showed statistically greater amounts of polyphenols (phytonutrients with antioxidant capabilities, that help prevent cardiovascular disease) in the organically grown produce compared to that conventionally grown. With organic methods, the nitrogen present in composted soil is released slowly and therefore plants grow at a normal rate, with their nutrients in balance. Vegetables fertilized with conventional fertilizers grow very rapidly and allocate less energy to develop nutrients. Nutrient values in produce peak at prime ripeness, just after harvest. As a general rule, the less produce has to travel, the fresher and more nutrient-rich it remains. Buy local whenever possible. Local food only has to travel a few miles—rather than hundreds—which means it will be fresher, have more flavor, and have less of a carbon footprint.

One study of children eating either conventional or organic foods found that, after eating organic foods for just 5 days, the levels of organophosphorous pesticide metabolites in their urine fell to undetectable levels. Eating organic certainly changed the children’s exposure to, if not their risk for, cancers that may be linked to pesticide exposure.

Eating more fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains (organic or not) in general is the point. It is one of the easiest ways to improve your health. Good nutrition is a key factor in leading a healthy lifestyle and reducing the risk of disease. 

So if you are concerned about pesticides and if buying all organic isn’t a priority you might opt to buy organic specifically when you’re selecting foods that are most heavily contaminated with pesticide and insecticide residues.

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