image from wholefoodsmarket.com
Organic and non-GMO foods make up an increasing proportion of food sales each year. One possible reason for this growth might be the perception that organic food is healthier. But is that really the case?
The term “organic” refers to the way agricultural products are grown. It includes not using synthetic fertilizers to add nutrients to the soil, synthetic pesticides for pest control, genetic engineering to improve disease resistance and increase yield, or antibiotics/growth hormones. Any product that is organic has a USDA label. Organic food is usually more expensive because the physical means of managing pests and weeds without pesticides or fertilizers can be more time-consuming and associated with a lower yield.
“Natural” is another term often associated with healthier, safer foods. However, it’s important to know that “Organic” and “natural” are interchangeable. Natural products don’t have preservatives or artificial flavors, but can still be produced with fertilizers and non-organic means.
Organic products aren’t more nutritious than non-organic ones. There isn’t concrete research to conclude that organic food consumption leads to health benefits. However, pesticides common in agriculture such as phorate may potentially overstimulate the nervous system causing nausea, dizziness, and confusion. Other classes of pesticides like triazenes may be linked to endocrine-disrupting effects and reproductive toxicity. However, the health risks of these pesticides from food alone do not exceed the EPA’s level of concern. The effects of exposure to a combination of such pesticides is uncertain and requires more research.
Given the lack of evidence on the long term effects of eating foods not produced according to organic standards, and the knowledge that organic food can be expensive, it makes sense to weigh the potential benefits. Wash fresh fruits and vegetables under running water to remove dirt, bacteria, and traces of chemicals. You can also peel fruits and vegetables (although this may also remove some nutrients). Buy produce in season if possible because this is more likely to be fresh, with less use of preservative chemicals. In addition, not all produce is created equally; avocados, cantaloupe, pineapple, broccoli, cabbage and corn have low levels of pesticides. In contrast, strawberries, spinach, grapes, apples, tomatoes, peppers and celery have high levels of pesticide residues.
People consider organic food when they have concerns about the uncertain effects of chemicals and they are willing to spend more. When purchasing produce for yourself and your family, make sure to understand what’s known and unknown so that you can make the best choice for you!