Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Should You Go Organic?

With the increasing availability of organic foods in the supermarket, the choice to buy organic is an ever-confusing decision. This discussion is however, very relevant today. And it was all over the media last week, after the release of a new study evaluating whether organics were healthier. Should you buy organic foods all the time? Are there some foods you should buy organic and others in which it doesn't matter so much? Are organic foods really healthier? Overall--is organic worth the higher price tag?

Like for many nutrition-related questions, there is not a simple answer. There are nutritional, economic, health and environmental factors to consider when you make the decision to purchase, or not purchase, organic.

1. Are organic foods and food products really nutritionally superior?
Overall, they are not. So if your reasons for buying organic are to reap a nutritional reward, it's not worth the added cost. According to the newest study on organically-produced foods, a literature review of over 200 studies, there are not significantly more nutrients in organic fruits, vegetables and animal products. You get the same nutritional "bang" from conventionally-produced foods.

2.  Do organic foods contain fewer pesticides?
According to the Stanford review, yes. Organic produce contained about 30% lower incidence of pesticide residue (80% lower in the conclusion of a peer-reviewer of the study). That certainly sounds significant, but keep in mind that conventionally-grown produce was still within the EPA-set allowable safe limit for pesticide residue. If your goal is to minimize your intake of pesticides (since there have been some studies linking even low levels to harm), organics may be a better choice. However, there are other ways to minimize pesticide intake and not always buy organic.
  • Use a produce wash that helps to remove waxes and pesticides.
  • Choose certain organically-grown produce. Most simply, if the produce you're buying has a skin, peel or rind that you are not going to eat, you don't need to buy organic (like an orange). You've probably heard of the "Dirty Dozen," or the fruits and vegetables that tend to have the highest levels of pesticide residue (again, still within the allowable limit, but nonetheless...). You may choose to buy these items organic. For other produce, you're likely not ingesting much pesticide residue. The Dirty Dozen app (created by the Environmental Working Group) provides an easily-referenced list of produce that may carrier higher levels of pesticides.
3. Do organic foods carry less risk of bacterial contamination?
The Stanford study concluded that organic meats were not less likely to be contaminated by E. coli bacteria. But when meats were contaminated, organic meats were less likely to be contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Overuse of antibiotics in the medical field and in agriculture is contributing to the increase of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which makes bacteria-related illness more difficult to treat. Look for antibiotic-free meat and dairy products; they don't necessarily have to be organic.

4. Hormones in meat and dairy products.
There is an increasing body of research examining the effect of hormones used in the growth or production of the foods we eat. Puberty is occurring earlier in some individuals than it did decades ago. It could be related to obesity (70% of our population is overweight, and that includes children) or it could be related to hormones used in the production of our food. Is the verdict out yet? No. But to be on the safer side, here too, look for hormone-free meat and dairy products; they don't necessarily have to be organic. Many "conventional" food producers offer antibiotic- and hormone-free products.

5. Taste
This is a personal conclusion. Many people who buy organic say they do so because the taste of organic products just can't be matched in their conventionally-produced counterparts. If you have the extra money to spend on groceries, and this is important to you, buy organic.

6. Price
If you've compared organic versus non-organic foods at the supermarket, you have probably realized that organic foods cost more, as much as twice the cost of conventionally-produced foods. That's because organic foods are produced without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, without hormones and it isn't industrialized. It may take more fertilizer and a longer growth time to yield a mature product. If you are buying some things organic, make sure it's worth it (read this entire article). Also make sure that you're limiting your portion sizes of higher-priced foods, like meat. Most adults need no more than 6 ounces of meat per day. Making sure you're not eating more than the recommended amount can certainly help reduce your grocery bill.

7. Supporting small businesses and smaller, local farms.
If you're a small business advocate, don't forget about small farms. Support local farms and farmers by buying local produce at the grocery, a produce stand, from a local co-op, your farmers market and restaurants that use local produce. Locally grown produce has far fewer miles to travel until it hits your doorstep, so it's often picked at the peak of freshness, making it taste better too.

8. Environmental protection, farming practices and farm-worker health.
This is a much deeper reason to buy organic, based more on core values than health and nutrition. Overall, organic foods are not more nutritious nor are they healthier. But--organically-grown foods may have a lesser environmental impact and reduce the risk of pesticide exposure in farm workers. Animals raised on organic farms may be treated more humanely. These things are important too. That said, larger agricultural companies argue the opposite--that by using synthetic fertilizers, they can use less and are therefore reducing environmental impact. Foods that are imported from other countries, having traveled hundreds or thousands of miles, certainly have a large carbon footprint. Buy locally-grown foods whenever you can to reduce the travel time of your food. Buy seasonal produce so that you're not relying on imported food that is simply out of season (like strawberries in the middle of winter).

There are many reasons for and against buying organic foods. First and foremost, many Americans don't eat enough fruits and vegetables, don't eat high quality foods and don't have balanced diets. This is leading many of us to become unhealthy and overweight. Organic foods can still be junk. An organic cookie is still a cookie and an organic chip is still a chip. The first goal should be to pay attention to which foods you choose to eat everyday, organic or not. Pick mostly lean meats and low-fat dairy (possibly hormone and antibiotic-free), lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and more plant-based proteins such as beans, legumes and nuts. You'll get the same important nutrients from conventionally-grown options as you will the organic type. Use a pesticide wash to wash away extra pesticides and if your pocketbook allows, buy the "higher risk" produce organic; if you already eat a healthy, balanced diet, you may tip the scales to make your healthy diet even healthier. Buy locally-grown produce when you can to support your community.

If the reason you choose to buy organic is because of the environmental effects, that's a whole different story, and certainly a good reason. But if you're struggling to pay your bills or buy enough "good" foods to feed your family in the first place, don't pay extra for organic. Focus on the basics first to eat as nutritiously as possible.

Here's a good summary of the Stanford study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Read Charles Benbrook's rebuttal here.

What do you think? Why do you choose to or choose not to buy organic?