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By Laurie Wertich
Wander the produce aisles of any grocery store and you’ll face a wide array of choices: organic, conventional, natural, local, and more. With so many options, no wonder it’s hard to decipher what the optimal choices are. Do you need organic food—along with its hefty price tag? There is no definitive answer, which is why you must learn to discern the pros and cons of conventional versus organic food as well as identify your own nutritional motives and goals.
What Is Organic Food?
Organic food is grown without the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, biotechnology, and irradiation. Organic farming practices help promote soil and water conservation and reduce pollution. Furthermore, organic foods carry lower levels of toxins such as pesticides.
In contrast, conventional farming practices employ the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, and growth hormones.
Identifying Organic Food
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has established an organic certification program with strict standards that regulate how foods are grown, handled, and processed. Only foods that are grown and processed according to USDA Organic standards can be labeled “organic.” Many organic producers choose to use the USDA Organic seal to indicate that their products meet organic standards; however, identifying organic products is not always so simple.
When produce and animal products are labeled “USDA Organic,” you can rest assured that farmers have followed organic farming practices. Packaged foods,on the other hand, are a bit trickier to decipher:
Is Organic Food Better?
Anna Torpe, RD, LDN, a clinical oncology dietitian at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Zion, Illinois, says that organic food is not necessarily “better”—just different. “As far as the nutrient content of foods, there is really no statistically significant difference in organically grown versus conventionallygrown food,” she explains. She adds, however, that research in this area is ongoing and that some organic fruits, vegetables, and juices may contain more phytochemicals than their conventionally grown counterparts.
One thing is for sure: conventionally grown foods carry higher levels of toxins such as pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, and hormones.
What Are the Benefits of Organic Food?
Organic foods can provide a variety of benefits. For starters, organic foods contain a lower pesticide load than conventional foods. This means that organic produce doesn’t have chemical pesticides and herbicides and that organic meats and dairy products don’t contain antibiotics and growth hormones.
Furthermore, organic farming can provide environmental benefits such as reduced soil erosion and less air and water pollution. It may also help prevent human antibiotic resistance. Proponentof organic farming argue that it creates a more sustainable food system and supports local economies.
Should You Switch to Organic?
Torpe says that organic foods have certain benefits. Unfortunately, organic food often comes with a hefty price tag, which means it’s not an automatic choice for many people.
“Organic is great, but I hate for people to stress about it if it is not financially feasible,” Torpe says. “The most important thing is moving toward a more plant-based diet, whether it’s organic or not. Improve the quality of your diet first. Then if you want to switch to organic, you can take steps in that direction.”
She says that individuals who are eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fiber are already doing a lot of great things and should not become overwhelmed by the idea of switching to organic if it’s not in the budget. Furthermore, Torpe points out that organic does not necessarily mean healthy, especially when it comes to packaged foods. It’s still important to read labels and to choose products that are high in fiber and whole grains and low in fat and sodium.
When to Choose Organic
If you want to reduce your exposure to pesticides without breaking the budget, you may choose to buy a mix of organic and conventional produce. The Environmental Working Group produces a
list of fruits and vegetables that carry the highest toxic load of pesticides—the “Dirty Dozen” (see sidebar). For example, conventionally grown celery has tested positive for 57 different pesticides. If it’s financially feasible, you may want to choose organic for the produce on the list.
In contrast, the “Clean Fifteen” (see sidebar) lists the 15 fruits and vegetables that carry the lowest levels of pesticides. These conventionally grown foods are considered safe to buy.
Grow Your Own
If you have a green thumb and you want to go organic, starting your own garden can help reduce your grocery bill—and it can be a fun, meditative experience. Building an organic garden requires an initial investment of time and money, but the payoff can be significant.
A good first step is to seek out a local gardening class or workshop to about gardening in your unique climate. Then, once you understand the basics and have identified a plot of high-quality soil on your property, you can choose to break ground yourself, or you can seek help from a local nursery or landscaping company that can provide the manpower and supplies to build your garden.
If a garden sounds like too large of an undertaking, you may consider joining a CSA (community-supported agriculture) farm. Many local farms offer a CSA program, which means you can buy a “farm share”—a weekly box of produce that is available for delivery or pickup. This is a fun and economical way to incorporate more locally grown organic produce into your diet. Most people find that they are delighted with the variety thacomes in their farm share—and often they are introduced to new fruits and vegetables they may not have otherwise tried.
The Bottom Line on Organics
The bottom line is that research on differences between organic and conventionally grown produce is ongoing, but one thing is clear: plant foods, regardless of organic status, are a wholesome choice and contribute to a healthful diet. Choose organic when you can—especially for “the Dirty Dozen”—and focus on eating a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables.
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