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Is Going Organic the Way to Go?

by Amy Campbell, MS, RD, CDE

Many grocery retailers are taking things a step further by becoming “certified organic retailers,” a designation offered by the USDA that ensures the retailer will follow appropriate handling standards. For example, organic peaches can’t be stacked next to regular peaches, and organic deli meat can’t be sliced with the same meat slicer used for regular cold cuts.

Why go organic?
There are several reasons people choose to “go organic.” Many people buy organic foods out of concern for the environment. Buying organic foods helps to support organic farmers, who use farming techniques that promote healthier soil and a healthier environment, ensuring quality and availability for future generations. Still other people choose to eat organic foods out of concern for animal welfare.

Then there are health reasons, which range from concern for the health of farmers and livestock, to more personal health-related reasons. For example, organic farmers are protected from the harmful effects of many pesticides. Consumers can avoid the effects of pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and other potentially harmful substances that may be found in foods. Pesticide residues can cross the placenta into a developing fetus. And children who eat organically have lower levels of pesticides in their bodies compared with children who eat a more conventional diet.

Some studies indicate that the use of synthetic hormones may increase cancer risk. The use of antibiotics by many conventional farmers to increase the growth rate in animals is linked to the development of drug-resistant bacteria. This means that there’s a chance that some antibiotics will no longer do the job to treat an infection. Finally, animal feed can sometimes contain toxins such as arsenic or heavy metals, which can be passed along to humans who eat products from these animals, accumulating in the body and leading to serious health problems.

Benefits of eating organic foods
Talk to anyone who has “converted” to eating organic foods and they’ll likely give you an earful about the benefits of going organic. Apart from the concern about pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics, there is some evidence that organically grown fruits and vegetables are more nutritious than conventionally grown produce. For example, a small handful of studies have shown that organic fruits and vegetables are, overall, higher in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients compared to conventional produce. Carotenes and polyphenols, two types of phytonutrients that have disease-fighting properties, may be found in higher amounts in organic produce. In fact, a recent study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry reports that organically grown tomatoes have higher levels of flavonoids (types of phytonutrients) than conventionally grown tomatoes. And according to a review published in the journal Nutrition Bulletin, organic potatoes are higher in vitamin C than conventionally grown potatoes.

However, this same review, as well as other studies, goes on to state that overall, there is limited data to show that organic foods really are more nutritious. The USDA makes no claims about organic foods being healthier or safer than conventionally produced foods. And critics of the organic movement claim that even 100% organic foods are not completely free of pesticides or toxins and that people can obtain the same health benefits from conventional foods. The American Dietetic Association’s position on organic foods is as follows: “Research shows that nutritionally there is no evidence that organic produce is better or safer than conventionally grown produce. Organic foods differ from conventional foods only in the way in which they are grown and processed.”

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