Healthy Debate: Should You Choose Organic?

by in Food News, January 3, 2013

organic produce
This topic just won’t seem to go away. Is it worth the extra cost to buy organic or does healthy conventionally grown food trump pesticide-free? It’s really not a black and white issue. To get to the bottom of things, you have to look closely at different types of food.

Defining Organic
An organic food is grown without the use of any chemicals, herbicides and pesticides. Such toxins are potentially detrimental to the nervous system and may also play a role in the development of cancer, hormone dysfunction and damage to tissues like the skin, lungs and eyes. It’s well understood that one serving of conventionally produced food won’t cause harm. The big question is whether or not long-term consumption is problematic.

Way back when, foods were simply organic or they weren’t. As more organic products have become available, the issue became more complex. To keep up with the variations, the USDA has designated specific nomenclature for organic foods. For example, a food labeled “100 percent organic” contains all organic ingredients; the “organic” designation means that all agricultural ingredients must be organic. Foods with 70 percent organic ingredients can only state that they’re “made with organic ingredients.” For the complete breakdown of organic labeling definitions, visit the USDA Organic Certification web page.

Produce and Grains
The organic story began with basic produce and grains and expanded to just about every other food you can think of. The good news about produce is that it’s pretty much a yes or no issue, it’s organic or it’s not. But . . . that’s not the whole story.

Organic or not, produce and grains like wheat and rice are packed with all kinds of vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants, plus not all conventional agriculture is teeming with toxins.

The potential toxin load in agricultural foods can vary significantly depending on the type of food and where it’s grown. Here’s where the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list comes in very handy. Using frequently updated USDA data, the EWG can point consumers to produce items that carry more chemical residue – then consumers can make educated decisions on how they want to spend their money.

Organic flours and rice typically have an affordable price point but when used as ingredients in other foods, the price tends to go up, (more on that below). For this reason, your organic dollar is typically better spent on the single grain products.

For fruit and veggies, there’s also local products to consider. Many local farmers’ can’t afford to become a USDA certified organic operation but adhere to very responsible growing practices. Shopping at a farm stand or farmers’ market is a win-win situation – you can support a local farm and get safe and affordable produce at the same time.

Eggs, Dairy & Meats
For eggs, milk, cheese and meat to be organic, the animals that produce them must be fed an organic diet. Foods like yogurt would also be subject to having other organic ingredients like fruit and sugar. The organic bonus here would be that the use of hormones, antibiotics and other chemicals are prohibited. But it’s becoming and more and more common for conventional producers of these foods to avoid the use of hormones and other controversial additives.

It’s also worth reminding consumers that organic is not the same as grass fed so the organic label doesn’t indicate exactly what type of feed the animals receive.

Prepared Foods
Here’s the thing – an organic cookie is still a cookie! Many people incorrectly assume that organic is synonymous with healthy and it’s certainly not. Prepared organic foods like cookies, snacks and canned and frozen meals often have few organic ingredients, but come loaded with sodium and added sugars. In this case, the organic price tag is probably not be worth it.

Bottom Line: It shouldn’t be all or nothing when it comes to organic foods. Fruits, vegetables, grains, leans meats and dairy are plentiful with nutrients whether they’re organic or not. Do your homework and designate part of your grocery budget to certain organic foods.

Tell Us: Where do you spend your organic dollar?

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