Organic food IS healthier

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?

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7 thoughts on “Organic food IS healthier

  1. erin says:

    We buy everything organic. It does cost more – we have a crazy food bill but we have three small children and want them to eat the healthiest food possible. I do think about the pesticides that are used to grow “conventional” fruits and veggies and I don’t want that in my food (or my kid’s food).

    I think it costs more in a side by side comparison but when you factor in sales / coupons, organic starts getting really expensive. There are a lot of sales / coupons out there for crappy food!

    If something is organic and is very expensive, some times we just don’t buy it. My kids love artichokes (one of the few veggies they love) and we buy them but not at $5 a pop! We have to draw a line somewhere.

    This year we are trying to grow more things which reminds me, I have to go harvest some of the organic lettuce / collards / kale.

  2. Cheap Like Me says:

    It is difficult to find things for kids sometimes … I am trying to eliminate as much excess packaging as I can, and lots of organic products are highly packaged, so that just adds to the frustration!

    And then the other day I refused to buy cherries for Little Cheap because they were only conventional … and today someone brought cherries to a school party and she ate so many I thought she would make herself sick. <:(

  3. jessimonster says:

    What newspaper published that about different means of production? I often say that to people who criticize me for eating “health food”, but I don’t think I mean it in the same way.
    A lot of people think that organic means diet food, and that organic means it tastes different (which, yeah, okay, it does, but most people can’t tell the difference when they’re going from conventional to organic). I have to tell them “Organic doesn’t mean the food is different. Organic sugar has just as many calories as conventional, organic butter has just as much fat, drinking a six pack of organic beer is going to get you just as drunk as conventional beer (although you probably won’t get as bad of a hang over). If I make a cake out of organic flour and eat the whole thing, it will make me just as fat as a cake made with bleached flour.” The point is that organic food is still the same food. Its just not coated in poison.
    I have joked before that I would like to set up a booth on a busy street corner with a big sack of apples. I would then ask people, “Do you buy organic food?” If I get the reply, “No”, I would then offer them an apple, but before handing it to them say “Wait! This is organic. Let me make it how you like it,” and I’d spray it down with some Raid before handing it to them. Ha ha ha ha ha.
    Yes, of course organic food hasn’t had the life stripped out of it by the conventional farming practice, and as a result does have more nutrients and better flavor, but the organic ignorant are for some reason under the impression that organic food tastes like Slim Fast, or something. The taste difference between organic and conventional is nothing like the taste difference between sugar and nutra sweet. Thats the only point I try to get across when I say that organic doesn’t mean the food is any different.

  4. Verda Vivo says:

    I grew up on a potato farm which was definitely not organic. The well water is now poisoned because of all the pesticides that were applied year after year so my father had to hook up to “city” water. My grandfather died of bone marrow cancer. Pretty rare stuff. Related? I don’t know.

    I’ve grown my own apples, cherries, blueberries, strawberries and veggies from artichokes to zucchini. My children and their friends would eat veggies right out of the garden. I don’t have a garden now (just fruit trees) but get an organic CSA from a local farm. If nothing else the veggies taste fresher.

    I don’t believe for a minute that the amount of pesticides, antibiotics, rBGH, GMO food and whatever else chemical companies manufacture and try to shove down our throats as food is good for anything other than their profit margins. I like jessimonster’s vision of spraying an apple with Raid and handing it out to people.

    Do I always buy organic? No. Because I have to live within a budget. But I do the best I can. That’s all any of us can do.

    Nice post. Keep up the good work! ~ Daryl

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