March is National Nutrition Month and you now feel inspired to make the conscious effort to choose more nutritious foods for yourself and your family. (Or you know that summer is around the corner and you can’t hide for much longer under that sweatshirt!) Wherever the inspiration came from, is the decision to eat healthier as easy as that? Of course not. As you peruse the produce section (and almost every aisle for that matter) you notice another choice — should you buy organic? And if so, which items are worth it and which are not. This seems to be a pretty hot topic these days and I find that there is a lot of misinformation on the subject, so I am hopefully going to debunk some of the myths and help you determine whether that hefty price tag for organic foods is actually worth it.
Among individuals who promote the organic eating lifestyle, there seem to be 3 main arguments supporting the “organic is best” philosophy:
- Organic foods are safer.
- Organic foods are healthier.
- Organic foods are better for the environment.
So let us take a moment to dissect these arguments one at a time and actually look to the scientific and medical literature for answers.
In 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) stepped into the food production arena and set standards for what could be labeled as organic. The term “organic” means that these items have been produced without pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, bioengineering, sewage sludge, or ionizing radiation. In addition, organically raised animals must be fed organic materials and may not be treated with hormones or antibiotics. So you can rest assured that if the product has the “USDA Organic” logo, it contains at least 95% organic ingredients and that the government is inspecting the farms and the produce coming out of these farms on a regular basis to ensure compliance.
So that brings up the first claim: do all of these practices make organic products “safer”? The literature is clear that you certainly consume less pesticides and toxins in organic products (about 30% less to be exact), but it is not clear yet whether this reduction has an impact on our overall heath. We cannot be sure of the long-term effects because we really haven’t had enough time to study the effects of this reduction. We are in what I would consider to be the ultimate experiment on organic outcomes. Studies that came out prior to 2002, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture took action, cannot truly be counted or relied upon for accurate information because there were no standards for organic products at that time. Numerous studies have found lower pesticide levels in the urine of children eating organically and lower amounts in the blood of fetuses in utero when mothers consumed organic produce during pregnancy. However, whether this leads to a long-term health advantage, or whether the relatively small amount of pesticides allowed in conventionally grown produce leads to a health concern, is not yet clear.
The second claim that organic is more nutritious is another unclear subject when looking to the literature. There are some studies that show slightly higher levels of vitamins and minerals in organic fruits and vegetables, but the reason may be misleading. Organic farms tend to be smaller in size, thus they may get their products to market faster than large scale farms. Since we know that vitamin and mineral content of fruits and vegetables decline over time, this may lead to an advantage for organic produce, which may be simply fresher at the time of consumption rather than naturally higher in nutrition content).
Finally, we come to the question of the environmental footprint of organic food production and consumption. This is the only area in which the literature is fairly clear, and the advantage goes to organic. Less pesticides and herbicides used on crops means less of these products seeping into the ground water and being released into the environment. Additionally, animals raised using organic practices have more humane environments. Mandatory access to outdoor pastures and restrictions on numbers allowable per housing unit reduce the need for antibiotic administration.
Now you may be sitting there saying to yourself: “Great. A lot of unclear research that still hasn’t answered any of the questions.” Although I haven’t been able to clearly advocate for or against the organic lifestyle, I hopefully have been able to debunk some of the seemingly concrete claims out there and have encouraged you to take what you read with a grain of salt, so to speak.
So where do we go from here and what are my recommendations? My first thought is, if you can afford to buy organically, and the idea of a smaller environmental footprint resonates with you, go for it! But please look at the label. Make sure you find products with the USDA Organic symbol because these are the only ones that you can be sure follow the guidelines. The words “natural” or “no-hormones” or “cage-free” do not automatically mean the products are organic and I think this confuses a lot of people. Second, if you like the idea of eating products with less pesticides and additives, then organic is for you as well. A good place to start is with the “Dirty Dozen” which is a list of fruits and vegetables with the highest level of contamination if grown conventionally. You will get the greatest bang for your buck by eating organically off of this list. Finally, if you are doing it simply for the nutritional content, don’t waste your money because the evidence is not clear enough to support this claim. And most importantly, do not pass up eating fruits and vegetables just because they aren’t organic. It is more important to get those vital nutrients into your body in whichever means your family can afford and maintain!
Read Part 1 of Sara’s series devoted to improving nutrition in children here.
*** Sara DePierre is a board certified Physician’s Assistant. She has completed the IBLCE’s Lactation Consultant program requirements and is scheduled to sit for Board Certification in the spring of 2016. Sara sees patients at Pediatric Alliance Jefferson Hills.