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Confused about organic foods?

Are organic foods worth the extra costs?

And are organic foods always healthier?

Here are the facts. Both pro and con. Keep reading and make an informed decision

You’ve heard the clamor from the food “experts” about why you should or should not buy organic foods. As with so many food issues, there is no consensus. “Organic foods are more expensive, but they’re worth it, ” says one nutritionist. “No, they’re not worth the added expense,” says another opinionated “foodie.”

So what to do? Who is right? Who should you listen to? You do, of course, want to do the right thing and maintain your health and the health of your family by making smart nutritional decisions. So let’s take a look at this timely, essential topic and shed some light on the issue.

What are Organic Foods?

Before we go any further, let’s answer the question of “what are organic foods?” Organic refers to meats, dairy products, vegetables and fruits that are not refined, processed, filled with growth hormones and steroids, irradiated and are grown naturally, without tons of chemical fertilizers, antibiotics and pesticides. Also, organic foods are loaded with a heavy concentration of flavonoids, polyphenols, vitamins, and minerals.

Another characteristic of organic foods is the way they are grown. Organic growing relies on manure to feed the crops instead of artificial fertilizer, and organic farmers practice a technique known as crop rotation. Crop rotation means that crops are rotated in a precise sequence.

An example would be to grow several different crops in the same area but different seasons or different years. This allows plants to grow easier, with fewer growing problems. As a bonus, crop rotation is environmentally-friendly, since rotating plants reduces soil erosion and depletion, boosts soil fertility by providing it with nutrients, cuts down on weeds and pests, and reduces sewer sludge. Crop rotation is a fundamental component of organic farming.

Conventional Modern Farming Does Things Differently

In contrast, large agricultural farms (known as Corporate Farms or Intensive Farming) are primarily concerned with output. Consequently, they focus on high yields per input and output of their farm area and make extensive use of fertilizers, pesticides, heavy machinery, Genetically Modified Foods (GMO’s) and cramming scores of numbers of animals into small, cramped spaces.

Here’s another problem with large farming operations: they don’t grow produce by utilizing crop rotation. If the same crop is planted in the same space, year-after-year, the nutrient content of the soil is lowered, at times drastically. The result? More profits for the big agricultural companies (Big Agra) and less nutrition in our food.

Don’t believe it? Check out these statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutritional value for fruits and vegetables today compared to 1975:

  • Apples: Vitamin A is down 41%

  • Sweet Peppers: Vitamin C is down 31%

  • Watercress: Iron is down 88%

  • Broccoli: Calcium and Vitamin A are down 50%

  • Collard Greens: Vitamin A is down 45%; potassium is down 60%, and magnesium is down 85%

  • Cauliflower: Vitamin C is down 45%; Vitamin B1 is down 48%, and vitamin B2 is down 47%

Here’s a way to explain the impact of these numbers: today you would have to devour ten servings of spinach to get the same amount of minerals you would have gained from one measly serving just fifty years ago!

More examples: largesse potatoes contain only 4% of the antioxidants of ancient purple potatoes. Onions have only 20% of nutrition of past scallions; sweet white corn has just 2% of the antioxidants of red, blue, and black corn that was available to us for centuries until Big Agra began employing intensive farming techniques.

So now you can see the need to at least consider switching much of your food to organic. But is it really that simple? Is organic always the better choice?

To help you answer that question, here are the pros and cons of both sides of the debate.

The Pros of Choosing Organic Foods

  1. Better nutrition. Look again at the numbers above that measure the declining nutritional value of much of our food. However, these figures do not refer to organic crops. Organic fruits and vegetables are jammed-packed with more antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals than mass-produced non-organic crops; some estimates claim that the difference between the two is as high as 40% more antioxidants in organics. This can go a long way to maintain your energy levels, good health and ward off dangerous diseases such as stroke, cancer, and heart attack. Finally, cows raised organically produce milk with an antioxidant content more than 90% greater than conventional farms.

  2. Organic foods taste better. Face facts. We eat more of what tastes good. The better the taste, the more you will want to eat the nutritious foods that keep you healthy. As a bonus, once you make organic foods the central part of your diet, your taste buds will change and lead you toward eating healthy and away from gobbling down junk food.

  3. Safety. An unpleasant truth: chemicals can be nasty…very nasty, and hazardous to our health. Some of these toxic chemicals in pesticides have been directly linked to a broad range of health issues, some quite serious: cancer, leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Parkinson’s disease and several endocrine system problems. Organic farming does not use a list of synthetic, potentially dangerous chemicals that you need a degree in chemistry to pronounce. And it’s not just fruits and vegetables. Cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys raised on organic farms are not pumped full of antibiotics, and the result is meat and dairy that is safer to eat. Organic meat certification by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has specific standards that ensure that animals are fed cleanly and not irradiated or genetically engineered. Finally, there is no hydrogenated fat in organic produce. Zero…nada…zippo. The adverse health consequences of this Frankenstein-like creation are well-documented.

  4. Environmentally-friendly. No question about it: our environment needs all the help it can get. The practices of organic farming (crop rotation, manure instead of fertilizer, no pesticides) promote a healthy, clean environment. Organic soil is also healthier than the ground on conventional farms.

  5. Gives a boost to your local economy. Much of the produce sold in your local farmer’s markets is organic and grown locally.

  6. Lower long-term costs. Costs less? Did you read that right? Yes, you did. Here’s why. The immediate cost may be somewhat higher. But if you are struck with a severe illness consider the costs of hospitalization…surgery…permanent incapacitation…and spending years if not decades in an assisted care facility. If eating organic can help to prevent that grim outcome it is well worth the extra initial cost.

  7. Provides protection for babies. The unborn are the most vulnerable segment of our population and are at exceptionally high risk of birth defects and autism from the toxins in non-organic food.

So there you have a few of the arguments for choosing organic. But as with so many issues, there are two sides of the story. Here are a few reasons why you may not want or need choose organic.

The Cons of Choosing Organic Foods

  1. Price. Numbers don’t lie. The initial added cost of buying organic products is enough for many people to overcome their long-term health concerns. Conventional foods are cheaper due to their use of pesticides, less manual labor, crowding animals into small spaces, and not rotating crops. Organic farmers must apply manure and perform weeding. These two activities are more labor-intensive than using fertilizer and pesticides. The result is extra costs to cover the organic farmer’s added time and effort. If all of this weren’t bad enough, there is the huge issue of government intervention. A recent study concluded that government subsidized conventional farms to the tune of $7.5 billion. However, the government largess did not extend to organic farms. They received the paltry sum of $15 million. Unfair? YOU BET! Sad but true. Who pays the difference for this grotesque misallocation? You guessed it…the consumer. Still another reason that organic is higher-priced is that obtaining the organic seal of approval from the government is neither easy nor cheap. Therefore, farmers are forced to mark up their produce.

  2. Quick spoilage. In their never-ending quest for profits, large food corporations see preservatives and irradiation as ways to enlarge their bottom line. Organic foods, being in their natural state, do not have these unnatural alterations. As a result, they are more nutritious but don’t last as long as conventional foods. This raises their cost and can lead to more foods tossed into the garbage can and more trips to the grocery store.

  3. Organic foods are harder to find. This is due to the longer time required to farm organic crops. Combine this with fewer organic farms and a smaller number of stores that offer organic produce, and we have a supply problem. A fundamental law of economics is the law of supply and demand. Less supply = more demand = higher costs. This explains the higher price of eating organic.

  4. There is no scientific consensus about the benefits of organic foods. Some studies have not been able to verify the claims of added nutrition in organic products. They may have some additional benefit, but there are questions as to whether the added cost is worth it.

  5. The E.coli problem. Due to the lack of pesticides used on organic farms, E. coli is slightly higher in organic produce than conventional, as well as a somewhat more significant risk of contamination.

  6. Different levels of organic and uncertainty of the organic label. A little-known secret: there are various levels of organic. Some products labeled organic are 95% to 100% organic — the real deal. Others are 79% to 95% organic, with as much as 30% ingredients non-organic. Then there are the less than 70% organic. Yep. Believe it or not, a food company can stuff their food products with more than 30% non-organic and still call it organic if the product label lists the non-organic ingredients. Worse, there are even organic junk foods such as potato chips, ice cream, lollipops, jelly beans, soda, cheese puffs, and frozen pizza! Also, the USDA is continually putting federally-certified organic producers on probation for falsely selling foods with an organic label that have not been inspected. This is a result of the National Organic Program being responsible for awarding this tag. Sounds great, but this is a program with deep ties to Big Agra, and therefore may be fast and loose with their label granting program. Finally, foods that have been pasteurized and irradiated may fly under the organic radar screen. Buyer beware. Confusing, but things you need to know.

So now what? As you can see, the topic of organic foods is fraught with confusions and contradictions. But don’t despair and throw up your hands in defeat.

Here’s the Good News

You don’t need to buy all of your foods organic! That’s right. Some produce can withstand the modern-day procedures of conventional farming and still retain their nutritional value and remain “clean.” According to the Environmental Working Group, here’s a list of foods that you don’t need to buy organic:

  • Sweet potatoes

  • Avocados

  • Sweet corn

  • Pineapple

  • Mango

  • Frozen Sweet Peas

  • Asparagus 

  • Kiwi

  • Cabbage

  • Sweet onions

  • Eggplant

  • Cantaloupe

  • Watermelon

  • Grapefruit

  • Onions

  • Carrots

  • Cauliflower

  • Mushroom

  • Papaya

  • Coconut

  • Honey

And here are the foods you need to buy organically:

  • Strawberries

  • Spinach

  • Nectarines

  • Apples

  • Peaches

  • Pears

  • Cherries

  • Grapes

  • Celery

  • Tomatoes

  • Sweet bell peppers

  • Potatoes

  • Dairy 

  • Blueberries

  • Cucumbers

  • Lettuce

  • Kale

  • Green collards

  • Meat

  • Soy

The Environmental Working Group produced these lists by conducting a series of tests on produce that measured the percentage of produce with detectable pesticides and the average number, maximum number, and the total number of pesticides found on each food item.

Key Points to Remember

Re-read the lists above, and keep them in mind when you shop. Eating organic doesn’t have to be budget-breaking. You don’t always have to buy organic.

Organic junk foods are still junk foods, regardless of the organic label. If it’s not raw milk, it’s not organic. Make sure the produce was not grown on a conventional farm.

When it comes to meat selection, look for range-free, grass-fed animals that were not fed grains. And drop anything with a GMO label. Genetically Modified Crops are in no way, shape, or form organic.

So there you have it; both sides of the story. Farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA’s) are two options to consider when buying organic.

Most producers involved with these outlets are more than happy to discuss their methods of growing and can provide education and advice on organic eating.

The choice is yours. Choose wisely!


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About Author: Dr Tom