Is Organic Food Better for You?
Here's how to decide if it's worth the higher price.
You're trying to eat healthy, and you know that means choosing
plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein. But as you wander
the aisles of your local market, checking out the fresh produce, meats, and
dairy products, you realize there's another choice to make: Should you buy
Advocates say organic food is safer, possibly more nutritious,
and often better tasting than non-organic food. They also say organic
production is better for the environment and kinder to animals.
And more and more shoppers seem convinced. Even though organic
food typically costs more --sometimes a lot more -- sales are steadily
"We've had a strong 20%-a-year growth rate since 1990,"
says Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association
(OTA). She also says more land is going into organic production all the time --
up to 2.35 million acres in 48 states as of 2001.
But many experts say there's not enough evidence to prove any
real advantage to eating organic foods.
"There's really very limited information in people on
actual health outcomes with consumption of these products," says David
Klurfeld, PhD, chairman of the department of Nutrition and Food Science at
Wayne State University in Detroit. "We don't know enough to say that one is
better than the other."
So before you decide whether organic food is worth the price of
admission, let's take a look at the issues.
What Qualifies as Organic?
Before October 2002, states followed varying rules for
certifying and labeling organic products. But now all organic foods are grown
and processed according to strict national standards set by the U.S. Department
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
If a food has a "USDA organic" label, it contains at
least 95 percent organic ingredients, and a government-approved expert has
inspected the farm where it was produced to make sure the farmer follows USDA
"Before the standards went into effect, you never knew what
you were getting," says Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD, director of nutrition
for the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic. "My comment to people always used to be,
'Buyer beware,' so I'm thrilled that now we as consumers can be confident that
when we buy something organic, it really does adhere to certain established
Is Organic Food Safer?
"If you're talking about pesticides, the evidence is pretty
conclusive. Your chances of getting pesticide residues are much less with
organic food," says John Reganold, professor of soil science at Washington
State University in Pullman, Wash.