Last week I came across this blog looking at whether organic food is healthier than conventionally grown foods. I missed the story on NPR, but it sounds like organic fruits and veggies just might be more nutritious than “regular.”
(Regular, of course, is a relatively modern invention — “conventional” foods WERE organic for, oh, thousands of years.)
Every so often, I see contrarian opinions saying that it’s a big waste of time to buy organic foods, and that conventionally grown foods are just as good as organic, if not better. For instance, this person has written a couple of columns in our local paper that make my head spin (not because I am confused; I mean in an Exorcist-like manner). Among other things, she writes,
The USDA Organic label does not mean that there is any difference between organic and regular food products. Organic farms simply employ different methods of food production.
To me, “different methods” means there IS a difference. That author also wrote,
Organic milk certainly is not fresher than regular milk. Regular milk is pasteurized and has a shelf life of about 20 days. Organic milk is ultrapasteurized, a process that is more forgiving of poor quality milk, and that increases the shelf life of milk to about 90 days …
Anti-organic folks love to jump to conclusions — such as that because some organic producers ultrapasteurize their milk, it means the milk is poor quality; or that people choose organic milk because it is perceived as “fresher,” rather than because of the food and raising methods of the milk cows.
Argh! Head spinning!
For a fairly balanced look at organic milk production, check out this article from The New York Times in 2005. And, for the record, it notes that
Many connoisseurs say the best milk comes from cows who eat mostly grass. The flavor is more complex, and varies with the seasons. In addition, a grass diet leads to milk with as much as five times the amount of conjugated linoleic acid, which some studies using animal models show can help fight cancer. And grazing is better for the cows’ health than a diet of grain.
Not that all cows who produce organic milk are grass-fed. And as far as ultrapasteurization, I bought my milk about a week ago, and its expiration date is June 3.
Fruits and veggies really healthier?
And as for fruits and vegetables?
Last fall, an article in the London Times claimed irrefutable evidence that organic produce is healthier, citing a 12-million pound EU-funded study.
The study found that organic fruit and vegetables contained as much as 40% more antioxidants, which scientists believe can cut the risk of cancer and heart disease, Britain’s biggest killers. They also had higher levels of beneficial minerals such as iron and zinc.
A 2003 New York Times article pointed to earlier studies:
A study in the January 2003 Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found 52 percent more ascorbic acid, or vitamin C, in frozen organic corn than in conventional corn, and 67 percent more in corn raised by sustainable methods – a combination of organic and conventional farming. Polyphenols were significantly higher in organic and sustainable marionberries compared to conventionally farmed ones.
A three-year study in Italy, reported in the August 2002 issue of the same journal, found higher levels of polyphenols in organic peaches and pears, and about 8 percent more ascorbic acid in organic peaches.
And a study in the February 2002 European Journal of Nutrition found more salicylic acid in organic vegetable soup than in nonorganic soup. Salicylic acid is responsible for the anti-inflammatory properties of aspirin, and bolsters the immune system.
Critics criticize the studies for various reasons. Believers cite well-conducted studies showing higher levels of minerals and vitamin C.
The Mayo Clinic has a balanced overview on its site, although it leans away from suggesting people choose organic (it says pesticides pose a “very low health risk,” not no risk, and it doesn’t deny that organic is better for the environment).
What’s your take?
My opinion, as you might have guessed from the headline, is that organic foods are at least somewhat healthier. After all, pesticides are chemicals designed to poison living creatures. If you get used to eating organic apples and then taste a conventional apple, you can taste the difference.
If you can afford organic — and especially if you buy locally and in season, or grow your own, there is no reason to think you can’t afford organic — I think it’s a good idea. It supports farmers trying to do the right thing, it supports the environment and it supports your health.
If you can’t afford it? Don’t beat yourself up. It is, after all, more important to eat than to eat organic. Just do the best you can.
But this kind of evidence is swaying me toward buying more and more organic produce.
And for starters, check out this list of the most important foods to buy organic.
What do you insist on buying organic? Do you think it costs more? Is it worth it? When is it not worth it?