Day 247–Why Eat Organic?

National Public Radio featured a story this week about a study done on research regarding organic foods and nutrition that left me a little irritated. The story missed some large points and implied that buying organic was more feel-good than health-based. The survey in question looked at pre-existing articles published in academic journals. It found that studies of organic produce do not show that organic fruits and vegetables have more vitamins and minerals than chemically treated produce. Well, duh. The use of chemicals on crops does not add or diminish nutrients in food and organic produce does not inherently have more vitamins just because it is organic. And, to be judgemental for a moment, a “survey of articles” sounds like an intern sitting in the library all summer. I kind of expect better of NPR.

What does diminish the nutrients in food? That would be picking it before it is ripe and trucking it across the country (or two), storing it in a warehouse and then shipping it to a grocery store where it sits for several days before being purchased, after which it sits in someone’s refrigerator for another several days. From the moment produce is picked, it begins to decompose, albeit slowly at first. That’s what nature does. That’s how those seeds inside are supposed to become a plant. Or compost. Eating local produce, whether it is organic or not, is still the best way to boost the nutritional value of your produce. If you can find local, organic produce, then win-win for you, but the organic part of that equation isn’t what makes your apple more nutritious–it’s the quick trip from the farmer directly to you.

If more vitamins in your produce isn’t the point (and it isn’t), what IS the point of paying $4.00 for a head of organic cauliflower?

1.  Organic Produce Reduces Your Exposure to Pesticides and Other Environmental Toxins

Chemically treated produce and meat from animals who receive antibiotics and growth hormones exposes you to synthetic hormones and toxic chemicals. Period. The FDA will make the claim that these levels are acceptable and do not pose harm. These are the same people who brought us finely textured beef (pink slime) and a slaughterhouse process so devoid of oversight that ground beef contaminated with fecal matter literally kills people. And there has still been no conclusive study about the effects of even small amounts of residual pesticides on small children or pregnant women and their babies. Nor has there been conclusive, long-term studies on the effects of growth hormones in meat on growing teens, whose own hormones cause enough trouble 🙂 So the easiest way to reduce your exposure to chemicals and toxins is still to eliminate them as much as possible from your diet, especially if you are pregnant or a growing young person.

How can you reduce your pesticide and toxin exposure without breaking the bank? The Environmental Working Group makes this easy with their Dirty Dozen + list of the produce with highest and lowest residual pesticide levels, giving you a great way to prioritize your organic shopping.

2.  Organic Farming Reduces Our Overall Environmental Toxin Levels

The act of organic farming itself is a process of detoxing the land and adding natural nutrients back to the soil for crop growing. There are many methods for doing this and I’m not a farmer so I can’t detail them all here, but organic farming includes integrated pest management, the use of beneficial organisms and insects to control pests, the use of natural fertilizers including cover crops and compost, a reduction in animal waste levels through small-scale farming and a significant reduction in antibiotics/growth hormones in our soil and drinking water. Organic farming benefits the complete environment–soil, water and air. And, if you needed an additional benefit, organic farming is better for the health of those who live on farms and who pick the produce.

3.  Pasture Raised, “Organic” Farm Animals Have More Nutritious Meat

While the NPR piece focused more on produce, one aspect of organic farming that was not fully addressed is the issue of pasture-raised, antibiotic free meat and eggs. Granted, not everyone eats meat, but for those of us who do, locally produced, organic meat does have health benefits. You will not find anyone in our house who believes that factory raised, grain fed beef, chicken or pork is anywhere near the equivalent of the locally produced, organic meat we purchase from our local farmers (that is purely anecdotal and not scientific). Beef, especially, seems to benefit. Grass-fed beef is lower in calories, lower in cholesterol and the digestive systems of pasture-raised, grass-fed cattle have 80% less ecoli than their grain-fed, factory-raised cousins. The flavor is better, the texture is better and it is far healthier.

So what is a shopper to do? Everyone has the right to buy what makes them comfortable, but having accurate information is a good start. If you’re looking for taste and high nutrition, buy local. If you want to improve the overall environment and reduce your toxin exposure, buy organic. If you want the best of all worlds, buy local organic!

The issues surrounding food are numerous and there is a lot of room for scientific study about the local and global impacts of organic and sustainable farming. So all you budding food scientists and environmentalists, get working! Imagine how much media time you could have if you actually proved something conclusive!