Organic Foods: Worth the Cost?
By Beth Bence Reinke, MS, RD
If cutting pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics off the menu appeals to you, organic foods may be just the ticket. In a recent poll, two-thirds of Americans surveyed stated they would like to be able to fit organic foods into their budgets.
Higher cost is a downside, but many organic consumers think less exposure to unsavory substances is worth it. Experts suspect that even small doses of pesticide residues in conventionally grown foods are potentially harmful to humans, especially unborn babies and children. And even though we're just beginning to understand the hazardous health effects of eating hormone-laden and antibiotic-treated foods, common sense says minimizing intake is better.
What does "organic" mean?
Organic foods are produced without the use of most synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, pesticides, antibiotics, added growth hormones, ionizing radiation, or genetic modification. Fields must be free of prohibited materials for three years before the soil can be used to grow organic crops. In the United States, organic foods and organic farming have been regulated by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) since 2002.
On organic farms, animals are allowed to grow and develop naturally, without synthetic growth hormones. Antibiotics are not used routinely either. Livestock eat organically grown feed and spend time in pastures instead of being confined to buildings.
What are the benefits of organic foods?
1. Lower pesticide levels. Despite stringent regulations for organic farming, the foods produced are not always pesticide-free. Cross contamination from surrounding fields via air and water can occur. But overall, organic produce has much lower pesticide residues than conventionally grown. Always wash organic produce anyway, just to be safe.
2. More nutrients...maybe. Proponents of organic foods claim that organic fruits and vegetables are higher in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals than conventionally grown produce. Many studies confirm this position, but other studies show conflicting results. Improved research designs are needed before we can be sure that organic produce is more nutritious.
3. No antibiotics. On industrial livestock farms, antibiotics are routinely administered to enhance growth or prevent disease. Overuse of antibiotics leads to resistant strains of bacteria – a grave concern for everyone.
4. No added growth hormones. Experts say the majority of U.S. beef cattle are injected with extra growth hormones to make them grow faster. Many dairy cows are given a synthetic hormone to increase milk production. Scientists question whether hormone residues in meat will alter hormone function in people, leading to all kinds of health problems. The manure from hormone-treated animals is a problem, too, because it contaminates groundwater.
5. Environmental responsibility. Ideally, organic farming uses less energy. It also minimizes pollution of air and groundwater and helps maintain long-term soil fertility.
Where can I find organic foods?
Many chain supermarkets and specialty grocers carry organic foods. Look for the official USDA seal (a green and white circle with the words "USDA Organic" inside) on the food package. Foods must contain at least 95% organically-produced ingredients in order to bear the seal.
It's always good to buy locally grown produce. But don't assume that fruits and veggies at a farmer's market or roadside stand are organic – they often aren't. The only way to know for sure is to ask if the foods have been treated with pesticides and artificial fertilizers.
Which organic foods should I buy?
Many experts recommend eating organic meats, dairy, and eggs whenever possible. Organic baby food is a good idea, too – buy it at the supermarket or make your own from organic foods.
For produce, it's wise to buy organic for the "dirty dozen." These twelve fruits and veggies contained the most pesticide residues when tested by the not-for-profit Environmental Working Group. The dirty dozen include peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, lettuce, imported grapes, pears, spinach and potatoes. The cleanest twelve were onions, avocado, frozen sweet corn, pineapples, mango, frozen sweet peas, asparagus, kiwi, bananas, cabbage, broccoli and eggplant. For a printable, pocket-sized shopper's guide to pesticides in produce, visit www.foodnews.org .
How much do organic foods cost?
Be prepared for sticker shock. At my supermarket, organic butter, milk, and eggs cost twice as much as their conventional counterparts. Organic beef and chicken range from 30 cents to a dollar more per pound. Organic produce prices vary widely - from as little as 50 cents more per pound to almost triple the cost of conventional produce. Remember, these are just examples from one store in my area. Prices vary widely throughout the United States and the world.
Take a notebook to your store, jot down prices to compare with conventional and then decide which organic items fit into your budget. Watch store flyers because different organic foods may be on sale each week
What if I can't afford organic foods?
Don't despair. There are things you can do to minimize your exposure to chemicals even when eating conventional foods. First, remove all visible fat from meats because chemical residues tend to accumulate there. Second, remove and throw away the peels from fruits and vegetables. (Unfortunately, you lose nutrients along with the pesticides.) Toss the outer leaves of leafy greens. Third, grow your own vegetable garden or a little herb garden on the window sill. If you live in the city, find out if there are gardening co-ops around your area. Fourth, and most important, thoroughly wash all fresh produce to remove as much pesticide residue and bacteria as possible.
Guidelines for washing produce:
(Source: Penn State University, College of Agricultural Sciences)
- Firm fruits or veggies – hold under warm, running water for 10 to 15 seconds, scrubbing with your hands.
- Fragile fruits like berries – place in a colander and gently tumble the fruit as you rinse.
- Salad greens – wash in cold water to maintain crispness.
- Potatoes and other "underground" veggies – scrub vigorously with soapy water.
- Melons or citrus fruits you cut (like lemons) – scrub the outer rind with warm, soapy water so the knife won't drag surface bacteria into the fruit.
Beth Bence Reinke is a registered dietitian who writes about food, nutrition, and health topics. She is a mom of two sons and the author of numerous magazine articles for adults and children. Beth and her husband have been CBN partners since 1998. Visit her at www.bethbencereinke.com .
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