Increasing scrutiny of conventional, particularly industrial, farming practices have fueled consumer interest in food products cultivated and grown or raised using more natural methods. In fact, organic food is now the fastest growing segment of the food industry. For all its popularity, however, how can an otherwise healthy diet benefit from going organic?
What’s Wrong with Chemicals?
First, there’s the issue of what organic doesn’t have. Organic crops, by most production standards, are grown without chemical pesticides, insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides. The chemicals used in these treatments have been increasingly linked to cancer, neurological disorders, hormone disruption and autoimmune diseases.
Although contention still exists regarding consumer exposure levels and risk, many experts argue that accumulation from normal but continual exposure is enough to cause harm. Most experts, however, generally concur that young children and developing fetuses are particularly susceptible to even small levels of these toxins. Advocates for organic food argue that these chemicals have no place in a healthy diet. To learn about the typical chemical load on the foods you commonly eat, you can consult the online searchable database at What’s On my Food?
Additionally, most countries exclude genetically modified varieties from organic classification and prohibit GMO feed for organic livestock. Although agribusiness companies claim their GMO products are safe, critics say the industry conducts only very limited research and obstructs external safety studies with intellectual property arguments.
Eating Well, Feeling Good
Other benefits of organic foods include an enhanced nutritional profile. Most research suggests that organically raised produce contains significantly more antioxidants than conventional counterparts. When organically raised livestock are also raised on pastures rather than in confined, crowded pens, they yield meats, eggs, and dairy products that contain higher levels of certain vitamins and antioxidants (e.g. vitamin E, beta carotene, lutein) as well as greater amounts of healthy fats like , omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) which offer protective benefits against many serious health conditions, including inflammatory diseases, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Look for organic animal products that are also labeled as ‘pasture raised,’ or ‘grass-fed and finished’ to reap the additional benefits of these foods.
How Do I Choose?
Of course, consumers pay an added cost for organic food. If you want to incorporate organic food as part of your healthy eating plan but have to pick and choose for financial purposes, some products offer more bang for the buck. In terms of limiting overall contaminant exposure, organic meat and dairy generally come first. Because toxins and hormones settle in fat, they accumulate in animals over the course of their lifetime. The higher the fat content of an animal product, the more toxins it’s likely to contain.
Second on the organic priority list are thin-skinned produce items like peaches, apples, bell peppers, lettuces, berries and pear. Check out the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides for the full list of worst and best produce items to help guide your organic purchasing dollars most wisely. You might also want to look for organic when buying dried herbs and spices, since you won’t be able to wash them. Additionally, conventional brands are generally irradiated, a controversial practice not permitted for organic foods.
Is It Certified?
Finally, be aware that labels matter. USDA Organic or Oregon Tilth Certified Organic (OTCO) labels ensure the most reliable domestic standards for certification. Products without these labels might meet all organic standards, but they can’t promise the oversight of USDA or OTCO. To read more on organic labeling or to find organic product brands/sources, check out The Good Guide and the Organic Consumers Union websites.