Today’s conversations are abuzz with talk about organic food. Topics of interest range from the environment to health and taste, and there is a lot to learn to make the right decisions on the best food purchases. With all the contradictory information in the media, some clear information based on facts and science is the best place to start. Getting the right information, and weighing what is important to you and your family, can help you make decisions with ease.
First, what exactly is organic produce? It’s officially defined as that which is produced or grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides, growth hormones, antibiotics, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, ionizing radiation or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The definition, however, is much more expansive within the organic farming community—it includes not only chemical exclusions to their farming practices, but also consideration of the environment and working conditions on the farm. Organic produce is that which is produced or grown on an organic farm that joins with nature to conserve and maintain water and soil quality, minimize health threats to farm workers, and encourage biodiversity (in which a natural variety of plant life positively affects the soil) and a sustainable biosystem, without altering or controlling natural processes with synthetic chemicals. Regardless of the definition, organic food is grown and handled according to strict procedures without persistent use of chemicals. And there’s no question—it’s good for us! So why the chemicals?
Since the advent of chemical farming, conventional farms have depended on these synthetic chemicals to grow their crop. Unfortunately, as a result, our environment and our food have been depleted of many important minerals and nutrients. In simple terms, the chemicals used leech into and pollute the soil and groundwater. The issue is then twofold: the chemicals affect the quality of soil and water, which in turn affects the quality of the food grown in that soil and hydrated by that water. Even worse, the chemicals affect and even kill animals living in the soil and drinking the water, which in turn affects the necessary variety of life on this planet. From the perspective of the environment, it is clear that organic farming practices support a more sustainable environment—and a more sustainable us!
Take a moment to consider the effect of chemicals on our health. Recent studies reviewing nutrient values of commercial and organic produce published in peer-reviewed journals indicate that there is significant nutrition difference between organic and commercial produce. While the variation in nutrients between conventional and organic produce remains under debate, the specific effect of pesticides on human health is more widely accepted. Pesticides are toxic chemicals intentionally released into the environment to kill weeds, insects, fungus, rodents and the like. Over the past few decades, a number of studies link pesticides to a vast array of health hazards ranging from headaches, skin irritation and nausea to cancer, ADHD and infertility. The studies revealing links between diseases and pesticides grow by the year, making it clear that use of pesticides affects an individual’s potential short-term and long-term health. The degree to which produce is affected by pesticides is measured by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an environmental health advocacy and research organization in the United States. The EWG provides insight regarding the impact of pesticides on our health and environment in a consumer guide that ranks 48 fruits and vegetables with pesticide residue. The higher the rank, the lower the residue. In this ranking, the 12 most affected fruits and vegetables belong to the “Dirty Dozen,” and the least affected are part of the “Clean Fifteen.” These lists help identify the produce that is most—and least—dramatically affected by pesticides.
The official consensus on whether or not taste is affected by organic practice is chalked up to personal preference. However, most agree that organic produce has bolder and more distinct flavor than its commercial counterpart. For example, in my practice, many assert that eating an organic strawberry as opposed to a conventional strawberry, is like eating two different fruits.
If you cannot buy all of your food organic—and many of us cannot—create a strategy that works best for you. Perhaps only buy organic produce listed on EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” list, or set aside a specific amount of money each week for the organic produce that looks best in your local grocery store. Whatever changes you make to swap some conventional produce for organic produce will make a difference for both your health and your taste buds. Consider this payoff: the savings you sacrifice now to buy organic will come back to serve you in your long-term preventive health.
- Trust the organic label. In contrast to the more lenient government regulation of processed foods, organic produce is highly regulated by the United States government. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP) sends a government-approved certifier to inspect the farm and to ensure that the farmer follows all of the necessary rules to meet its standards. A farm must pass these inspections to use the organic label. If produce is labeled organic, you can feel confident that it is, in fact, organic.
- If you cannot buy organic, opt for local produce. If buying organic food is just too expensive, or there is not much available in your local supermarket, seek out local food options. While many local farmers are not officially certified as organic, they often follow organic-like practices. You can even research the farms from which your food originates to understand their practices. And, of course, going to a farmer’s market is the best way to talk to the farmer directly.
- Make organic food shopping easy. Organic farmers do not receive federal subsidies like conventional farmers, and organic farming is more labor and management intensive. That’s one reason the cost of organic produce may be higher. If that price hike is too much for your budget, or you just need help separating the “must-buy-organic” from the “conventional-will-do” produce, download the Environmental Working Group’s app “The Dirty Dozen” on your phone. When grocery shopping, simply power up the app to check the list for guidance.