Organic or conventional? It’s a choice many grocery shoppers are faced with, over and over. The price difference is easy to see; it’s right there on the product. The quality difference is much harder. Is the organic milk better for your kids? Is the conventional lettuce more likely to carry pathogens? Do organics do us more good (in the form of better nutrition), and do they do us less harm (in the form of fewer contaminants and pathogens)?
When I first heard the term “organic” several years ago, I dismissed it. It implies a “status” that conjured up two different images: lifestyles of the rich and famous or perhaps some alternative, hippie thing. The term “organic” refers to the way farmers grow and process agricultural products, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products and meat. Organic farming practices are designed to encourage soil and water conservation and reduce pollution.
Products labeled “100% Organic” and carrying the “USDA Organic” seal adhere to a strict legal standard: national organic standards require that organic growers and handlers be certified by third-party state or private agencies or other organizations that are accredited by USDA. Anyone who knowingly sells or mislabels as organic a product that was not produced and handled in accordance with the regulations can be subject to a civil penalty of up to $10,000 per violation. Admittedly, the high price of organic food can irritate anyone. But the scrutiny that these foods undergo is enormous and expensive, driving prices at the cash register and for those producing them on the farm.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has established an organic certification program that requires all organic foods to meet strict government standards. These standards regulate how such foods are grown, handled and processed.Farmers who grow organic produce don’t use conventional methods to fertilize and control weeds. Examples of organic farming practices include using natural fertilizers to feed soil and plants, and using crop rotation or mulch to manage weeds.
Organic foods may have higher nutritional value than conventional food, according to some research. The reason: In the absence of pesticides and fertilizers, plants boost their production of the phytochemicals (vitamins and antioxidants) that strengthen their resistance to bugs and weeds. Some studies have linked pesticides in our food to everything from headaches to cancer to birth defects — but many experts maintain that the levels in conventional food are safe for most healthy adults. Even low-level pesticide exposure, however, can be significantly more toxic for fetuses and children.
From a scientific perspective, there doesn’t seem to be a clear answer on whether organic or traditionally-grown foods are “better.” Health wise, the studies don’t support the idea that in general organics contain fewer pesticides, are healthier or taste better. If you have a large food budget and worry about the environmental impacts of factory farms, organic may be the way to go. But, if you have a limited budget and were just trying to ingest fewer pesticides, it might not be worth the money to go organic. It largely comes down to an individual’s values, budget, and taste buds. You can invest in your health with your shopping cart. And the best medicine you can take, might just be at the end of your fork.