Organic or Not Organic? That is the Question!

1 08 2014

I am sure everyone has noticed the increasing trend toward purchasing organic foods. So what is organic agriculture? According to the USDA National Organic Program:Cathy head shot

“Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.”

Before a product can be labeled organic, the farm where it is produced, as well as companies that handle and process organic foods, must go through a rigorous certification process to make sure they are meeting USDA organic standards. Sounds good, right? Who wouldn’t love to eat food that has been raised without harmful pesticides, in a manner that helps decrease the impact on the environment?

There are 2 big barriers we face as consumers. These are the ones I hear most often in my practice (note that these concerns don’t focus on nutritional value):

  1. Availability: Obviously, if the products aren’t available, we can’t buy them. Many of us live in areas with a very small, or even no selection of organic foods. Many organic operations are small, and organic farming methods usually produce less yield. This availability is starting to improve, but food deserts are still very real in our society.
  2. Cost: This is the biggest issue for many people. Many factors contribute to why organic foods cost up to 50-100% more than conventionally grown foods. Production costs are high due to more intense labor needs, need for suitable organic land, need for livestock and seeds from organic origin, need for special processing equipment and handling of organic products, and expensive certification fees. It also costs more to handle and ship organic foods as policy dictates that they must be completely segregated from conventional food items.

A couple of other points to keep in mind:

*Organic foods are not necessarily local foods. They may have been shipped long distances and thus may not be as fresh as local foods. I always check to see where my food is coming from!

*Organic foods are not all “healthy”. Have you noticed organic cheese puffs, organic candy bars, and even organic soda? Don’t be fooled by the health halo! These are still loaded with empty calories and have virtually no nutritional value.

So when faced with the dilemmas of availability and cost, what do we do? Start with produce and check the “Dirty Dozen”. The Environmental Working Group has released its current list of produce that they feel should be purchased organic if possible due to high levels of pesticide residues. According to data from the USDA, these fruits and vegetables, when conventionally grown, tested for at least 47 different chemicals (some as high as 67) even after washing. Here are the culprits:

Apples, strawberries, grapes, celery, peaches, spinach (and kale and collards), sweet bell peppers, imported nectarines, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, imported snap peas, and potatoes.

They have also published their “Clean 15” which have little or no pesticide residues and are safe to consume non-organically:

Avocado, sweet corn, pineapple, cabbage, sweet peas (frozen), onions, asparagus, mangoes, papaya, kiwi, eggplant, grapefruit, cantaloupe, cauliflower, and sweet potatoes.

As always, wash your produce thoroughly, whether conventional or organic, to reduce risk of not only pesticide exposure, but bacterial contamination and food borne illness.

For more information on organics go to:

http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?navid=organic-agriculture

http://www.ewg.org/consumer-guides

For a couple of recipes using some of the “Clean 15”:

Tomato and Corn Salad: http://www.tasteofhome.com/recipes/contest-winning-tomato-corn-salad

Caribbean Salsa (try to use organic bell peppers!)

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