Should I be buying organic? This is a question that invariably pops into my head every time I go to the grocery store. I do a cost comparison and see the products. It is the conventional product that usually appeals to me - it is less expensive, it looks nicer and sometimes bigger than organic products. But is it safe for my family?
According to the USDA, organic is a labeling term that indicates that a food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering were not used to produce these products. The term organic for eggs, poultry, meat and dairy includes products that come from animals that were not given antibiotics and synthetic hormones.
USDA (US Department of Agriculture) is responsible for verifying the agricultural practices used to produce food and certifying them as organic. Only after the agricultural practices are verified and approved by USDA, or USDA certified agencies, can the label 'organic' be used on these products. For the most part we can be sure that a product labeled "organic" in the grocery stores is truly organic.
Most of the non-organic products are grown with the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides such as Roundup, Atrazine and Benefin. These pesticides protect the crop from diseases during cultivation; some of them are weed killers, and fertilizers provide additional nourishment for the crops. Research is showing that these chemicals could have harmful impacts on humans and animals. These chemicals also cause considerable environmental damage because they are not biodegradable. Most of the pesticides/fertilizers get washed away by the end of the growing season. However, the small amount of these chemicals that leach into the soil are going to stay there and no amount of organic farming is going to get rid of them.
Even after considerable amount of washing, there is a certain amount left behind on food. They usually reside in the outer rind or skin of foods. So foods that we consume after removing the skin or outer rind are quite safe to be bought and eaten as non-organic. The Environmental working group has identified the 12 most contaminated products that are safer to be eaten as organic and the 12 least contaminated foods that are quite safe to be eaten as regular versions.
"The Dirty Dozen" includes Peaches, Apples, Sweet Bell peppers, Celery, Nectarines, Strawberries, Cherries, Pears, Grapes (imported), Spinach, Lettuce and Potatoes. The 12 least contaminated includes Onions, Avocados, Sweet corn (frozen), Pineapples, Mango, Asparagus, Sweet peas (frozen), Kiwi fruit, Bananas, Cabbage, Broccoli and Papaya.
There is a popular notion that organic is more nutritious than regular foods. Studies are showing that there is no significant difference in nutritional value of regular and organic foods. One another aspect that people usually get confused about is the term 'Natural'. 'Natural' and 'Organic' do not mean the same things. Natural means that the product is free of any synthetic products such as artificial flavors, additional colors or preservatives. But there is no promise on what agricultural practices were used to grow these products.
So it is left to us to decide, taking all these factors into consideration, whether we want to buy a food as organic or regular. Try to buy the 'Dirty Dozen' foods as organic. But if you can not afford it, its OK to stick with conventional foods. The most important thing here is to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables for good health and always, always wash them before eating.
Srilekha Karunanithi of Kirkland is a Master's student in Nutritional Sciences at University of Washington who is training to become a Registered Dietitian. Her master’s program focuses on the influences of diet on health and how positive dietary changes help in the control and prevention of many diseases.