There is a perception among consumers and the general public that organic foods pose some added property of increased quality, nutrition and safety. But, are these perceptions accurate, truthful or justified? Organic foods are foods that are grown in manure and/or soils treated or found to be free from pesticides and other harmful residues.
Using manure from animals could pose a health risk, since there is a real possibility of disease organisms being transferred from infected animals or carriers to plants through their feces. It is therefore scientifically feasible that organic foods may pose the same health risk to consumers when compared to conventional foods.
They are no more nutritious than conventional foods, and may even contain pathogens that may have been internalized in the plant tissues that may be difficult to remove through normal cleaning and sanitizing and may therefore pose a greater threat to human health and well being.
Introduction: Organic foods are defined as foods grown under controlled conditions in the absence of pesticides, artificial fertilizers and genetically modified organisms, using good agricultural practices in the planting, growing and harvesting of crops and livestock. Organic foods are quite different from foods labeled as "natural" since natural foods are not grown under the USDA organic requirements and guidelines and may contain non-organic preservatives, artificial colors and flavors.
Organic Certification: Organic certification is the process of verifying the standards used in organic production in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.
There are three main requirements to the certification process:
1. The Organic Plan.
This plan purposes how the organic farmer and/or processor will meet organic standards while raising their crops or producing their processed product. It would describe in detail all processing methods and all ingredients used, as well as storage, cleaning and waste disposal methods at the facility.
2. Record Keeping.
This provides an audit trail for inspectors and competent authority to verify material and methods used in growing or processing organic foods. It allows for traceability and enables a food on the store shelf to be traced back to the processing facility and farm.
3. Annual Inspections.
This is done by authorized personnel of the USDA or other certifying agencies that monitors and ensures compliance with the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.
Organically Labeled Foods: In order for a food product to be labeled organic it should contain at least 95 % of certified organic ingredients.
This means that the other 5 % could be minerals or products which are natural but simply not available in organic form. Foods containing organic ingredients can be labeled with the words "organic" meaning that the food contains at least 50 % of the ingredients that have been certified as organic. However, foods containing less that 50 % of ingredients being organic cannot be labeled as such.
Are Organic Foods more nutritious than Conventional Foods?
There is presently a growing body of conflicting data that suggests that organically grown foods may not be more nutritious than conventional foods. The nutrient content of plants is determined primarily by heredity. The mineral content of plants may be affected by the mineral content of the soil. If essential nutrients are missing from the soil the plant will not grow or grow very poorly. Experiments conducted to date show that there is no significant difference in the nutritional content of organic and conventional grown foods.
Are Organic Foods more Safer than Conventional Foods?
Food safety is the assurance that food when consumed in its usual way will not pose a threat to human health and well being. There is a perception that organic foods may be safer because they have lower levels of pesticide residues. This may not be true since, the FDA set tolerance levels in foods and conducts frequent market basket studies.
These studies have shown that 60 % of fruits and vegetables had no detectable pesticides and only about 1.2 % of domestic and 1.6 % of imported foods had violative levels. Most studies since the early 1970s found that the pesticide levels in conventional foods were similar to organic foods and they were basically within the accepted international and Environmental Protection Agency Standards.
Are Organic Foods Tastier than Conventional Foods?
Organic foods are not inherently tastier than conventionally grown foods. Organoleptic properties of foods are influenced by freshness and storage conditions; that is, how the product is shipped from farmer to consumer. Consumer reports found no consistent differences in appearance, flavor, color or texture between organic and conventionally grown foods.
Are Organic Foods more Environmentally Friendly than Conventional Foods?
There may be some benefits of growing organic foods in terms of preserving the environment. Organic farming utilizes a number of methods that are environmentally friendly, but these methods are also used in growing conventional foods. Some of these methods include: crop rotation, which ensures that one crop does not deplete the soil of the nutrients that it uses most; cover crops to protect against soil erosion; the planting of special crops known as "green manures" that are plowed back into the soil to enrich it and; the addition of aged animal and plant wastes, also known as compost to the soil.
Does Organic Foods have any special Healing Powers?
Organic foods do not offer any significant healing powers over conventionally grown foods. In, fact both organic and conventionally grown foods are nutritious and can provide equal benefits in providing nutrients needed for growth, repair and maintenance of bodily functions.
Other Areas of Concern Regarding Organically Grown Foods:
It is purported that the genetically modified ingredients are subjected to DNA testing and documentation from ingredient suppliers, but how is the presence of genetically modified ingredients tested and what documentation are requested from suppliers?
What measures are taken to protect organic foods from the prevalence of genetically engineered crops in the environment and increased use of genetically modified ingredients?
Can organic foods be considered as being 100 % free of genetically engineered ingredients? There is a real possibility that organic foods may contain genetically modified ingredients either through pre or post harvest contamination.
Organic foods are deemed to be free from pesticides. What does "free from pesticides" mean? Is there a zero tolerance level? Is this pesticide level the same for conventional foods? Have sufficient scientific studies been done to compare pesticide residues in organic and conventional foods?
Are the organic standards consistently maintained for all organic foods?
Is the Organic Food Production Act of 1990 suitably enforced and are there adequate surveillance measures in place to detect deviation from established procedures and guidelines regarding organic food production?
Is the increased cost of organically grown foods justifiable and affordable especially for the underprivileged and poor or needy populations?
Is organic food production sustainable for supplying food to a growing population in the 21st century, in light of increased pest resistance, hardy environmental conditions and world wide climate changes, in particular global warming?
Organically grown foods are perceived as being more nutritious, healthier and safer than conventionally grown foods.
This perception is not accurate since organically grown foods may have a shorter shelf life, have the same nutrition content as conventional foods, may have the same minimum levels of pesticide residues as required by the FDA and USDA and there is a possibility that they may contain genetically modified ingredients depending on where they are grown, harvested or processed.
Consumers and the general public should be aware that organic foods are not necessarily better than conventional foods and evidence-based decision should always be exercised in selecting and purchasing foods to ensure, maintain and promote human health and well being.
References: FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Pesticide Program: Residue Monitoring1999, August 2000.
Boume D, Prescott J. A comparison of the nutritional value, sensory qualities, and food safety of organically and conventionally produced foods. Food Science and Nutrition 42:1-34, 2002.
Newsome R. Organically Grown Foods: A scientific status summary by the Institute of Food Technologist's expert panel on food safety and nutrition. Food Technology 44 (12):123-130, 1990.
Organic Produce. Consumer Reports 63(1):12-18, 1998.
Organic Food Standards and Labels: the facts. USDA Web site.
Pattron, D. Recent Research in Public Health. Scientific Publishers: New York, 2004.
Dr. Pattron is a Public Health Scientist and Scholar.
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