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Should You Buy Organic Produce?

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What governs nutritional value is freshness -- and that means fruits and vegetables, regardless of how they're grown, have to get to the consumer pronto. It's one reason why farmers' markets are a good place to buy produce, Denison says.

But supplying supermarkets involves trucking, and whereas conventional farmers have long had refrigerated trucks to keep produce fresh, organic farmers couldn't always afford them, says Mark Lipson, spokesman for the Organic Farming Research Foundation. "That's changed. Anybody who is marketing to a large chain supermarket is getting it there by refrigerated trucks, delivered fresh to the store," he says. "The organic industry is very professional on that level now."

Once any type of produce gets to the store, its freshness is in the hands of supermarket managers. "If organic produce ever looks less than fresh, it may be because retailers leave it on shelves longer than they should because they've paid more for it," Givens tells WebMD. "Or it could just be a different variety of broccoli.

"Farmers choose a variety because it works better in their soil, in their climate, or because they think it tastes better," Givens says. "Just because it looks different doesn't mean it's any less nutritious."

Pesticides used in conventional farming are a major reason why people drift to organics. Whether those fears are still justified is still not known, Denison tells WebMD. Thirty years ago, DDT and dieldren were banned from use because they were determined to be carcinogenic, and today's standards on pesticides are "very strict," Denison says.

While there are some data, they point to minimal carcinogenic hazards from current levels of pesticides, he tells WebMD. However, the sheer number of toxins naturally occurring in the environment makes the issue complex.

However, "I haven't seen anything that made me think there's a big health risk from eating vegetables with pesticide residues in countries that have regulatory systems," Denison says. "I don't worry about pesticide residue in vegetables grown in the U.S. by conventional methods."

Also, "organic people" have concerns about bioengineered produce -- those fruits and vegetables that are genetically bred to have a "pesticide factory" in every cell, Lipson says. "Every cell in those crops is producing a pesticidal toxin -- which is different from being able to resist the effects of insect pests. That's the subtle difference that the propaganda of the seed industry glosses over."

Whether that's a problem, Denison says, is still being debated. "It's not that anybody made the determination that all those crops are dangerous to human health," he says. "The USDA just banned them from being used in organic production because people are skeptical about them."

As for fears about irradiation, "they remind me of the fuss over microwave ovens," says John Allred, PhD, professor of nutrition at Ohio State University in Columbus. "You don't want to crawl into a microwave oven and turn on the power, but eating food that comes from it doesn't harm you. It's a different form of energy; it would be hazardous if you were exposing yourself to the energy. But you're exposing the food. That doesn't make food radioactive."

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