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What Is "Organic" and is it Worth the Price?

Jul 25, 2014
Grocery stores, farmers markets, gas stations, restaurants and even some fast food establishments have jumped on the organic food craze.  According to the 2009 Organic Trade Association survey, sales of organic food in the U.S. are growing substantially and are now a 23 billion dollar industry.  However, with all the organic health food claims it can be difficult to decipher conflicting and confusing terms such as "organic," "locally grown," "sustainable" and "natural."  It is important to understand that organic does not necessarily mean local.  A USDA survey showed that 38% of organic distributors, processors and handlers imported some or all of their organic products.  Not to mention you need to decide if organic food is worth the extra cost and/or if it will improve your health or play a role in disease prevention.  

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The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP) has specific guidelines for organic production and manufacturing.  When considering purchasing organic foods, you must take into consideration that the NOP only regulates the production and labeling but does not regulate nutritional or food safety information.  By definition organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products must come from animals that were given no antibiotics or growth hormones.  Plant based organic foods must be grown without using conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or ionizing radiation.  Organic labeling falls into one of three categories: "100% organic", "organic" and "made with organic ingredients."  An organic tag that does not say 100% means that at least 95% of ingredients are organic quality while "made with organic ingredients" products must contain at least 70% organically certified ingredients. 

It is important to consider the reason why you want to eat organically.  If the motivation is limiting exposure to pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics and hormones, then organic products will help accomplish that goal.  If you want to prevent or manage chronic diseases, food dollars may be better spent on improving the overall diet.  It is well documented that Americans do not consume enough fruits and vegetables.  Thus the question must be asked; will we receive more of a benefit by eating organic fruits and vegetables or just more fruits and vegetables in general?

Food costs and budgets must be taken into consideration.  Due to smaller production scale and higher labor costs, organic products cost 40 to 120% more compared to their conventional counterparts.  In order to stay on budget, it may be best to target and substitute high risk conventional produce for organic.  Some fruits and vegetables notoriously use more pesticides, chemicals and fertilizers than others.  Fruits and vegetables that contain large amounts of chemical residue include peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, kale, lettuce, imported grapes, carrots and pears.

Many consumers are concerned about the safety of conventional produce; however, all foods are covered under U.S. food safety laws and regulations, regardless of production method.  Thus, both conventional and organic foods undergo the same food safety regulations and testing.  Pesticide residue is lower on organic products while Escherichia coli and Salmonella contamination is higher.  

Nutrient content is another widely debated topic of organic foods.  Comparing the nutrient content of conventional and organic produce is extremely difficulty due to differences in cultivation, growing conditions, growing season, mineral content of soil and waste and fertilizer source and minerals in water.  Some reports have shown higher amounts of iron, magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants in organic produce and meat; however, other studies have shown no differences.

The most important thing to remember is eating a variety of healthy foods, organic or conventional, is key to overall health. Eat more fruits, vegetables, low-fat and non-fat dairy and whole grains will help meet dietary recommendations.  While organic food may contain less pesticides, they still contain the same amount of calories and portion sizes should be monitored. 

Laura N. Kenny is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Dietitian in the state of Indiana.  She received both her Bachelor of Science degree in Dietetics and completed her dietetic internship at Purdue University. She is currently pursuing her Master of Science degree from Central Michigan University. Laura works for the Indiana Obesity Center PC under the supervision of Dr. Keith McEwen. She specializes in both surgical and non-surgical weight loss including nutritional adherence, meal planning, and macro/micro nutrient status. Kenny also promotes healthy eating through various speaking engagements throughout Indianapolis and teaches indoor cycling and Pilates classes in her free time. Since staring her dietetics career, she has worked with a variety of populations and chronic diseases.  Each summer Laura volunteers at Camp John Warvel, a camp for children with diabetes.  She also enjoys writing, sports, exercise, and reading "hot topics" in nutrition.  Laura has a true passion for guiding people to choose healthy nutritional choices for each and every individual lifestyle. She can be reached via email at at lkenny@ecommunity.com.


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