To go organic or non-organic, that is the question! The more I read and hear, the more confused I get. Am I paying more for the same product just because the label reads “natural,” “hypoallergenic,” or “free range?” Is it all just a lot of marketing hype? What makes a product organic and is it really better for you?
I recently came home with a carton of organic half and half and expected it to taste better than the usual brand I had been buying in our local super market. My wife quickly raised the question, “What makes this organic?” I really didn’t know for sure but I just assumed the quality would be better.
Why? For one thing, the cows that produced the milk had access to the outdoors and had not been given antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones. Not only that, they were fed organic grains that had not been exposed to pesticides. It seemed to make sense that the taste and quality would be superior.
I guess I’m not alone when it comes to thinking organic is better. Nearly a quarter of American shoppers now buy organic products once a week, up from 17% in 2000. In an effort to avoid the threat of toxins and in essence prevent cancer, people are running to Whole Foods and other markets that offer a line of organic products.
The reasons for going organic may be more than just taste. Organic food meets a comprehensive set of standards that are verified with enforceable regulations. “Organic farmers build soil, reduce greenhouse gases, and reduce the loss of nitrogen into the groundwater. They promote biodiversity, they don’t kill bees, they don’t kill frogs, and they don’t kill beneficial insects.”
I’m all for eating healthy and helping the planet at the same time. But just because something is organic does it mean its better? A 2009 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found no nutritional difference between organic and conventional produce, with non-organic edging out organic in one category. So what are the advantages of paying more money for organic if the food tastes pretty much the same and the nutritional value is comparable to conventional products?
I decided to dig a little deeper on this subject just to satisfy my own dilemma. Allow me to share some of my findings so you can decide for yourself.
Is Organic Food Overpriced?
A few of the reasons that organic food costs more is because crops are rotated more often, there are higher animal welfare standards, and restricted use of chemicals leading to lower yields. The government subsidizes conventional farmers, which helps them keep their prices lower.
Let’s do a comparison:
• Eggs – cost about $.60 more than conventional
Benefits of organic – Hens are fed supplements, which increases vitamin A and omega-3 acids and improves taste, not to mention the living conditions of the birds…more room to move around.
• Milk – Big difference in cost, $3.5 more than conventional
Benefits of organic – Cows are not treated with hormones, which is especially important with early-onset puberty in girls on the rise.
• Beef – Approximately $2.00 more per lb. for 85% lean ground beef
Benefits of organic – Grass fed cattle have a higher ratio of omega-3 acids that help reduce cancer and heart disease risk. Cattle have more room to move, higher standards for living conditions, less risk of E. Coli transmission.
• Fruits/Vegetables – About $.09 per banana
Benefits of organic – Pesticide risk is lower and tastes better providing it is grown locally than if it ripened during shipping. Nutritional difference is negligible.
Rule of thumb when deciding what products to buy that are organic, consider what gives you the biggest bang for your buck. Why pay more for produce that needs to be peeled or skinned, such as bananas, squash, or watermelon? Pesticides will not be a threat in this case. On the other hand, meat treated with hormones might be worth the extra dollar.
Which is Healthier and Safer – Organic or Conventional Food?
There are five reasons why organic farming is considered better than conventional production.
1. Organic animals eat a diet free of excrement
Conventional farming picks up chicken litter from the bottom of the coop along with garbage, plastic roughage pellets, and claim it to be protein supplement.
2. Organic is free of antibiotics
Conventional farming treat animals with antibiotics contributing to antibiotic resistance; a huge public health problem in the world today
3. Organic farming allow animals to feed in their natural environment
Conventional farming feeds animals toxic heavy metals, like arsenic every day. This arsenic seeps into the ground and contaminates groundwater.
4. Organic farming does not use synthetic pesticide or fertilizer, which means no residues exist. Organic crops build up a defense against chemicals, which act as antioxidants to better protect the body from cancers and heart disease.
5. Organic prohibits composting human waste for fertilizer
Of course there are always two sides to every debate and it wouldn’t be fair not to present a rebuttal from the nonorganic supporters. Here’s what they have to say:
1. Organic farmers use pesticides of too, and although not synthetic, it doesn’t mean this type of pesticide is non toxic
2. Natural pesticides may pose a health risk but who knows because there is no evidence to show health gains from organic food
3. There is a concern that manure used a fertilizer could lead to contamination of produce with bacteria such as E. Coli potentially leading to food poisoning.
Due to the difficulty of conducting studies that prove or dispel either position, it remains a matter of opinion as to which is better for your health. The underlying problem is keeping up with feeding a global population that is projected to be 9 billion by 2050. The argument being that back to the land farming without the use of pesticides will not be able to feed 309 million mouths in this country let alone 6.8 billion worldwide.
“To say that organic agriculture could never feed the world sidesteps the fact that conventional agriculture isn’t feeding the world, and it’s dependent on oil at $45 a barrel, on a steady climate, and readily available water. There is no doubt that conventional agriculture is doomed. The only question is how soon.”
As you can see, the issue of organic vs. nonorganic is multi-faceted. From a personal standpoint, it boils down to what’s most important to you and what you can afford to pay. If you are on a tight budget trying to feed your family healthy, nutritious meals, you will have to pick and choose your products. If you can afford to pay more and are concerned about the bigger picture, you may want to go organic.
Let’s face it; there are inadvertent benefits to helping the environment while helping yourself. Organic production was designed to better the world by being kinder to the animals we raise. It does this by not pumping them full of chemicals, or keeping them in quarters with barely enough room to turn around. Organic farming does not leave the ground soaked with drugs, and heavy metals either.
To me the choice is fairly simple. Help the environment, help the animals, and most importantly, help keep myself and those I love as healthy as possible. More money, maybe but well worth it!
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.