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Should You Buy Organic Produce?

WebMD Health News

Feb. 16, 2001 -- In the local supermarket or health food store, organic broccoli, carrots, and spinach lay nestled alongside their conventionally grown cousins -- both types looking amazingly similar. Yet, the price of organic produce is always higher. Recent guidelines handed down from the U.S. Department of Agriculture have leveled the playing field, making the rules regarding organic growing techniques known to all.

More than a few people are tossing organic produce items into the shopping cart, according to industry statistics. Should more of us be going organic, or would we do better to save the extra grocery money for other things?

In fact, the organic industry has grown about 20% every year since 1990, resulting in an estimated $7.76 billion in retail sales during 2000, says Holly Givens, spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association.

For many people, buying organic is an environment-friendly statement, Givens tells WebMD. "Buying organic helps maintain water and soil resources that are going to sustain life on the whole planet," she says. "Organic farmers aren't using nitrogen-based fertilizers, one of the chief causes of water-quality problems like algae growth in the 'dead zone' in the Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay, and other parts of the country. They're using farming techniques that conserve water and maintain soil quality."

For others, buying organic means taking a stand against the big conventional farms, says R. Ford Denison, PhD, director of Long-Term Research on Agricultural Systems at the University of California at Davis. "Supporting organic farmers can also mean taking a stand against the use of sulfur-containing pesticides, which have caused health problems in farm workers who pick the crops, who stand in it all day long," Denison tells WebMD.

The new USDA guidelines are directed at consumers who have been unclear about just what "organic" means, Givens says. The agency now stipulates that organically grown fruits and vegetables should be produced without use of pesticides or herbicides, synthetic fertilizers or hormones, genetically engineered seeds or sewage sludge -- and without irradiation.

All that doesn't mean that organic is necessarily healthier for you, Denison says. "When the USDA imposed standards on organic produce, it said explicitly that they did not mean that organic produce is better for you," he says. "The standards are simply the rules.

"Kosher food is a good analogy -- it may or may not be healthier for you, but it is produced according to specific rules," Denison tells WebMD. "When people buy it, they know exactly what they are getting."

In fact, the jury is still out regarding organic foods' nutritional status, simply because there haven't been many studies, Givens says. "The scientific data available right now are inconclusive. There haven't been long-term studies of how it affects people who eat specific products," she says. "Most studies have compared conventionally grown to organic carrots, and some have shown organic produce to have more of one vitamin. But those studies have not been replicated."

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