Diet & Nutrition
Organic Foods: Are They Safer and More Nutritious?
Organic foods are harvested or produced from crops grown without synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, industrial solvents, radiation, or chemical food additives. Organic meats and poultry are from free-range animals raised on organic feed. This type of farming and husbandry is an FDA-regulated industry that originated in the 1940s. By the 1960s it was known as “the green revolution.” More recently, the definition of “organic” was widened to exclude genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Genetic modification is a process designed to make plants resist pests, tolerate herbicides, and survive weather changes, all in the interest of increasing crop yield.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
A 2013 Stanford University study—actually an analysis of 237 previous studies—found no substantial differences between organic and conventional foods in terms of nutrient levels as well as bacterial and fungal contamination. However, the team did find an important difference in the levels of pesticides—and that alone is enough to convince many people to buy organic.
The researchers found that only 7% of organic foods had detectable pesticide residue, presumably because of contamination from nearby fields. Yet a whopping 38% of conventionally grown food had pesticide residue. The study also showed that the two groups of food had about the same levels of E. coli bacteria, which can cause serious illness and even death.
A QUANDRY AT THE SUPERMARKET
Organic foods, once found only in health food stores, are now staples at most supermarkets. You stroll through the produce department of your favorite grocery store looking for, say, pears and apples. Do you choose conventionally grown items or organic ones? Both are nutritious. Both provide plenty of vitamins and fiber. You have no way of knowing how much pesticide residue each contains. Do you go with the odds that the organic versions will be cleaner? Do you go by appearance? Organic fruits and vegetables often don’t look perfect; they may have unusual shapes and colors and be smaller than their conventional counterparts. Or do you decide based on cost? Conventionally grown produce typically costs less, but are the savings worthwhile? Are you sacrificing safety? Is the organic produce really more nutritious, despite the findings of the Stanford University study?
There are no definitive answers to those questions, but keep in mind that organic foods are even more strictly regulated than conventional foods. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has established an organic certification program that requires all organic foods to meet rigorous government standards. These standards control how such foods are grown, handled, and processed.
The label on an organic product tells you a lot about that product. Here is what you need to know about organic labeling:
*A product labeled as organic must be USDA- certified unless the producer sells no more than $5,000 a year in organic foods.
*Even the smaller producers must follow the USDA’s standards for organic foods.
*The USDA Organic seal is voluntary, but most producers display it.
*Single-ingredient foods such as fruits, vegetables, and eggs can be labeled “100% organic.”
*Foods with multiple ingredients such as breakfast cereals and packaged mixes must specify whether or not they are “100% organic” or simply “organic,” which is the case if they only have up to 95% organic ingredients.
*Products with at least 70% organic ingredients may say “made with organic ingredients” on the label and are not permitted to use the USDA seal.
*Products with less than 70% organic ingredients are not allowed to use the USDA seal or the word “organic” when referring to the entire product on their labels, but they may list the organic ingredients.
NATURAL VS ORGANIC
Don’t assume that “natural” means the same as “organic.” As I just explained, the word “organic” on a label means something very specific. That’s not the case with “natural.” Keep in mind that food manufacturers use food labels to get your attention. A label such as “100% natural” or “all natural” makes the food seem so wholesome, healthful, and nutritious, doesn’t it? However, the word “natural” hasn’t been well defined and isn’t routinely regulated by any government department.
This is the FDA’s stated policy: “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”
The USDA does regulate the use of the word “natural,” but only for the labeling of meat, poultry, and eggs. It means that the product contains no artificial ingredients or added colors and is only “minimally processed,” although the specifics of processing are not defined. Worse from the standpoint of the consumer, the meat, poultry, or eggs may contain hormones or antibiotics.
The FDA and USDA policies obviously give the food industry tremendous leeway. Unhealthy foods could be labeled “natural.” GMO foods could also bear that label. So could foods containing high fructose corn syrup. Or meat containing antibiotics.