Once upon a time, organic food was available only at health food stores, marketed to "tree-hugging" consumers willing to pay extra for "natural," environmentally friendly foods. Today, organic foods are undeniably mainstream. Not only can they be found at most every neighborhood grocer, but even giants like Wal-Mart are getting into the act.
People who buy organic are seeking assurance that food production is gentle to the earth, and/or looking for safer, purer, more natural foods. But are organic foods really worth the added expense?
"If you can afford them, buy them," recommends New York University professor Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH. "It really is a personal choice but how can anyone think substances, such as pesticides, capable of killing insects, can be good for you?"
But American Dietetic Association spokeswoman Keecha Harris, DrPH, says, "There is no evidence that organic foods are superior over traditional foods."
Food does not have to be organic to be safe and environmentally friendly, she says. She recommends focusing on eating food grown close to where you live. She notes that some organic foods come from multinational companies and have been trucked across the country.
"They may be organic, but the ... environmental footprint includes lots of petrochemicals used in transportation, whereas if you buy produce from your local farmers market, it may not be organic but it is farm-fresh and less impactful on the environment," says Harris
One thing the experts agree on: Regardless of whether you choose locally grown, organic, or conventional foods, the important thing is to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. The health benefits of such a diet far outweigh any potential risks from pesticide exposure.
What Makes a Food 'Organic'?
Don't confuse terms such as "free-range," hormone free" or "natural" with organic. These food labeling terms are not regulated by law.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has created an organic seal. Foods bearing it are required to be grown, harvested, and processed according to national standards that include restrictions on amounts and residues of pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), "organic" foods cannot be treated with any synthetic pesticides, sewage sludge, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. They may use pesticides derived from a natural source.
When buying organic, look for the following regulated terms on food labels:
- Food labeled "100% organic" has no synthetic ingredients and can legally use the USDA organic seal.
- Food labeled "organic" has a minimum of 95% organic ingredients. It is eligible to use the USDA organic seal.
- Food labeled "made with organic ingredients" must contain at least 70% organic ingredients. It is not eligible for the USDA seal.
- Meat, eggs, poultry, and dairy labeled "organic" must come from animals that have never received antibiotics or growth hormones. "It is almost impossible to get organic meat," Nestle notes.
It should be noted the USDA has yet to set standards for organic seafood or cosmetics. Most cosmetics are blends, including ingredients that may or may not be organic.
Experts recommend spending most of your organic food dollars on produce, as it is most likely to contain pesticides.
Organic Food and Your Health
The USDA makes no claims that organic foods are safer, healthier, or more nutritious than conventional foods. There is also little research on the health outcomes of people who eat primarily organic diets.
Government limits do establish the safe amount of pesticides that can be used in growing and processing foods, and the amount of pesticide residue allowable on foods.
According to the EPA web site, because kids' immune systems are not fully developed, they may be at greater risk from some pesticides than adults. The web site also notes that the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act set tougher standards to protect infants and children from pesticide risks.
The Price of Buying Organic Food
Just how much more expensive is it to go organic? You can expect to pay 50%-100% more for organic foods. That's because, in general, it is more labor-intensive, and without the help of pesticides, the yield is not always as favorable.
To maximize your organic food dollar, the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., recommends going organic on the "dirty dozen" -- types of produce that are most susceptible to pesticide residue:
- Sweet bell peppers
- Grapes (imported)
And which organic produce is probably not worth the added expense? The group lists these 12 items as having the least pesticide residues:
- Sweet peas (frozen)
- Sweet corn (frozen)
You can help keep costs down by shopping for sale items, comparing prices, buying locally grown products either at farmers' markets or via a co-op. The sale of organic foods in large grocery store chains is also likely to help keep prices down in the long run.
Reduce Pesticide Residues
Whether or not you buy organic, you can do your part to reduce pesticide residues on foods with the following tips:
- Wash and scrub produce under streaming water to remove dirt, bacteria and surface pesticide residues, even produce with inedible skins such as cantaloupe. Do not use soap.
- Remove the peel from fruits and vegetables.
- Remove the outer leaves of leafy vegetables.
- Trim visible fat and skin from meat and poultry because pesticide residues can collect in fat.
- Eat a variety of foods from different sources.
- Join a co-op farm that supports community agriculture.