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Organic Food: Buy or Bypass?

What's the deal with organic food?


While browsing through the produce section at Wal-Mart, I found myself in a bit of a pickle. Staring at me were two seemingly identical cucumbers with the only noticeable difference being an "organic" sticker slapped on one. The conventional cucumber soon became the obvious choice as it was cheaper and packaged by a familiar brand. However, as I balanced those chilled cucumbers in my hands I found myself wondering what the real difference between the two was. This cumbersome cucumber catch-22 had me baffled. Why does organic cost more? Is it healthier than the conventional alternative? What does organic even mean?

The term "organic foods" refers to the way the food is produced rather than the quality of the food itself. Organic foods lack the pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides sprayed over conventional foods to protect them. Should we be worried about protecting ourselves against our food?

The Environmental Protection Agency has linked many pesticides to cancer and others to birth defects and hormone problems. The EPA also encourages consumers to wash their produce before eating it. However, the Food and Drug Administration claims that the amount of chemical residue on food is so minuscule that it is safe to consume. Which is it? Should we worry about what we eat or not? Obviously no one wants to consume harmful chemicals, but can't our government agencies reach a consensus on the safety of our food?

Well, I suppose I have been consuming "conventional" food for as long as I can remember and I haven't grown a third arm (yet). Maybe organic food is just a gimmick--a clever marketing scheme to scare us into buying their so-called untainted health food. After doing some careful research I discovered that Wal-Mart has been discreetly adding more organic food to its market. Why the sudden change? Organic food has been increasing an average of 18 percent a year since 2007 with an annual market of over $52 billion. It comes to no surprise that Wal-Mart wants a piece of this pesticide-free pie and because of its size and power, Wal-Mart usually gets what it wants. This large demand for organic foods has driven the supply down, which has caused the prices to skyrocket. Because of the increasingly large market for organic food, it is safe to assume that the supply will eventually be met and prices will drop.

What exactly does it take for produce to become organic? There is actually a rigorous certification process put on by our very own US Department of Agriculture. In order to qualify as organic, the product must be made with at least 95 percent organic ingredients. Extensive paperwork is also required of the farmer detailing farm history and marketing records.

Nearly every food category now has an organic alternative, but why should a frugal consumer spend almost twice as much for a seemingly identical product? One of the most common beliefs about organic foods is that they taste better, but taste is really a matter of opinion. Are organic foods really healthier for you?

This discussion has stirred up a whirlwind of disagreement within the scientific community. In a paper published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, a team from the University of California demonstrated that organically grown tomatoes have considerably more Vitamin C than conventional tomatoes. Even so, the same study shows no significant differences between conventional and organic bell peppers. A recent study by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine indicated that "the small number of differences in nutrient content that were found are unlikely to be of any public health relevance." It appears as though the scientific jury is still out.

I like to think of myself as a careful consumer, but at what point did food become "healthy" if it didn't contain potentially harmful chemicals spewed over it? I suppose what this organic hullabaloo really boils down to is a matter of opinion, risk taking, and relying on your gut feeling. But in the end, it's still safe to say, you are what you eat.

Conventional vs. organic farming

The word "organic" refers to the way farmers grow and process agricultural products, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products and meat. Organic farming practices are designed to encourage soil and water conservation and reduce pollution. Farmers who grow organic produce and meat don't use conventional methods to fertilize, control weeds or prevent livestock disease. For example, rather than using chemical weedkillers, organic farmers may conduct sophisticated crop rotations and spread mulch or manure to keep weeds at bay.

Here are other differences between conventional farming and organic farming:

Conventional farmers

Organic farmers

Apply chemical fertilizers to promote plant growth.

Apply natural fertilizers, such as manure or compost, to feed soil and plants.

Spray insecticides to reduce pests and disease.

Use beneficial insects and birds, mating disruption or traps to reduce pests and disease.

Use chemical herbicides to manage weeds.

Rotate crops, till, hand weed or mulch to manage weeds.

Give animals antibiotics, growth hormones and medications to prevent disease and spur growth.

Give animals organic feed and allow them access to the outdoors. Use preventive measures — such as rotational grazing, a balanced diet and clean housing — to help minimize disease.


Organic food: Buy or bypass?

Many factors may influence your decision to buy — or not buy — organic food. Consider these factors:

  • Nutrition. No conclusive evidence shows that organic food is more nutritious than is conventionally grown food. And the USDA — even though it certifies organic food — doesn't claim that these products are safer or more nutritious.
  • Quality and appearance. Organic foods meet the same quality and safety standards as conventional foods. The difference lies in how the food is produced, processed and handled. You may find that organic fruits and vegetables spoil faster because they aren't treated with waxes or preservatives. Also, expect less-than-perfect appearances in some organic produce — odd shapes, varying colors and perhaps smaller sizes. In most cases, however, organic foods look identical to their conventional counterparts.
  • Pesticides. Conventional growers use pesticides to protect their crops from molds, insects and diseases. When farmers spray pesticides, this can leave residue on produce. Some people buy organic food to limit their exposure to these residues. Most experts agree, however, that the amount of pesticides found on fruits and vegetables poses a very small health risk.
  • Environment. Some people buy organic food for environmental reasons. Organic farming practices are designed to benefit the environment by reducing pollution and conserving water and soil.
  • Cost. Most organic food costs more than conventional food products. Higher prices are due to more expensive farming practices, tighter government regulations and lower crop yields. Because organic farmers don't use herbicides or pesticides, many management tools that control weeds and pests are labor intensive. For example, organic growers may hand weed vegetables to control weeds, and you may end up paying more for these vegetables.
  • Taste. Some people say they can taste the difference between organic and nonorganic food. Others say they find no difference. Taste is a subjective and personal consideration, so decide for yourself. But whether you buy organic or not, finding the freshest foods available may have the biggest impact on taste.

Buying tips

Whether you're already a fan of organic foods or you just want to shop wisely and handle your food safely, consider these tips:

  • Buy fruits and vegetables in season to ensure the highest quality. Also, try to buy your produce the day it's delivered to market to ensure that you're buying the freshest food possible. Ask your grocer what day new produce arrives.
  • Read food labels carefully. Just because a product says it's organic or contains organic ingredients doesn't necessarily mean it's a healthier alternative. Some organic products may still be high in sugar, salt, fat or calories.
  • Don't confuse natural foods with organic foods. Only those products with the "USDA Organic" label have met USDA standards.
  • Wash all fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly with running water to reduce the amount of dirt and bacteria. If appropriate, use a small scrub brush — for example, before eating apples, potatoes, cucumbers or other produce in which you eat the outer skin.
  • If you're concerned about pesticides, peel your fruits and vegetables and trim outer leaves of leafy vegetables in addition to washing them thoroughly. Keep in mind that peeling your fruits and vegetables may also reduce the amount of nutrients and fiber. Some pesticide residue also collects in fat, so remove fat from meat and the skin from poultry and fish.