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Organic Food - Your Options

By Mandy - 2007-10-27

As organic food is increasing in popularity, many people are left wondering if organic food is right for them.

Unfortunately, this can be a complicated subject, and there are strong advocates on both sides of the issue.

First of all, it is important to understand what the term "organic" means.

Since October 2002, all organic foods must be grown and processed in accordance to strict national standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. To meet these standards, organic crops must "be produced without conventional pesticides (including herbicides), synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. Organically raised animals must be given organic feed and kept free of growth hormones and antibiotics. Organic farm animals must have access to the outdoors, including pastureland for grazing." The terms natural and organic are not interchangeable. Also, terms such as hormone-free and free-range do not mean that a food item is organic.

To weigh the benefits of organic over conventional foods, there are a few different points to consider.

First, are organic foods more nutritious? Despite their organic foods standards and labels, the USDA makes no claims that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious. According to the American Dietetic Association, no scientific evidence shows that these foods are healthier or safer than non-organic foods. However, there are groups, such as The Soil Association, that are reviewing evidence from other research that may suggest higher nutritional values of organic foods. A few studies have reported organic produce is higher in Vitamin C, certain minerals, and antioxidants; however the differences are so small that they likely have no impact on overall nutrition.

Secondly, are organic foods safer? Your chances of getting pesticide residues are much less with organic foods. But the amount of man-made pesticide residue found in non-organic foods is still well below the level that the Environmental Protection Agency has deemed unsafe. The real issue is if these small doses add up over the years to pose health threat later in life. Right now, we don't know. But it is important to remember that man-made pesticides are not the only food safety threat. Plants can produce natural toxins themselves, and because organic crops have to contend with more pests and weeds, they may produce more of these natural food safety threats. This is just something to consider.

Another important point to consider related to safety is that not all produce is affected the same way by pesticides. For example, be aware that non-organic items such as lettuce, spinach, apples, and strawberries are a few foods that may carry higher levels of pesticides than others.

Lastly, whether or not going organic is safer or more nutritious, the health of the environment as a whole must be considered.

Environmental health related to land usage, chemical impact, waste, and animal welfare leads to many, many further considerations when evaluating your diet motives. And organic or not, have you ever considered the huge amounts of fossil fuels burned in order to deliver all foods from field to store? Consider checking out your local farmer's market. Not only will you save fuel energy used to transport the produce, you will also have an opportunity to support your local community's agriculture and meet the people who actually grow your food.

While the big picture is important, you have to decide what makes the most sense to you. If you can handle the higher prices (up to 40% more) and you like the idea of fewer pesticides and a more environmentally-friendly food system, then organic may be for you. Or, you may choose to eat only locally grown foods so that you can understand what you are consuming by asking questions of the growers. Identify your motives and make decisions from there.

Remember, organic or not, fruits and vegetables are vital to your health and play a role in disease prevention. And one nutritional certainty is that if you want to get the most out of your fruits and vegetables, eat them while they are still fresh.

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