In a perfect world, a food label like “organic” would be plain and simple.
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We don’t live in a perfect world. Instead, “organic” can apply to everything from an apple (which I recommend) to a sugar-packed cookie (which I do not recommend). Organic means health-boosting fruits and veggies or health-zapping junk food.
Also, as I’ve written about in the past — with heated debate! — many assume organic foods pack a bigger nutritional punch than their conventionally grown counterparts. For most foods (produce especially), evidence does not back that idea. And for shoppers on a budget, it’s tough to justify the added expense of organics.
But what about other reasons for going organic? For certain fruits, veggies, meat and dairy, savvy shoppers do get benefits — both physical and personal.
Produce and pesticides
What is organic? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), organic refers to sustainable agricultural practices that exclude the use of pesticides, fertilizers, bioengineering or radiation. Organic meats, poultry, eggs, and dairy must come from animals that receive no antibiotics or hormones.
Organic farming often goes further. Some farmers practice crop rotation and use compost, for example. Many people choose organic for its environmental advantages.
But what about health? With certain fruits and veggies, your benefit comes from avoiding pesticides.
In conventional farming, pesticides control unwanted insects, animals, fungi, bacteria and viruses that damage crops. But studies show pesticides also pose serious health risks. They can harm the workers who mix and apply them to crops. They also can harm those of us who consume pesticide residues on food and in drinking water.
The Dirty Dozen
In the past, I’ve written about the “Clean Fifteen.” That’s a list of the conventional fruits and vegetables least likely to contain pesticide residue.
Then there’s the “Dirty Dozen.” Those are the conventional fruits and veggies most likely to contain pesticide residue.
The nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes both lists in an annual guide for consumers. The EWG compiles the lists by analyzing 48 fruits and vegetables based on more than 32,000 samples from the USDA.
For these 12 foods, you can avoid unwanted pesticides by buying organic:
- Sweet bell peppers
- Imported nectarines
- Cherry tomatoes
- Imported snap peas
When it comes to meat and dairy, people have varied reasons for choosing organic, including environmental sustainability or better living conditions for animals.
Organic farmers don’t give animals antibiotics, growth hormones, certain drugs or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as food. In some cases, those practices affect animal health and, possibly, human health.
Growth hormones offer an example. Growth hormones increase milk production in dairy cows, but they also can raise the level of cow birth deformities and infections of the udder. More infections also mean more antibiotic use. The use of hormones remains controversial.
Organic dairy, on the other hand, is free of antibiotics and growth hormones. Research also shows that certain organic dairy products contain more protein and healthy fats such as omega-3 fatty acids than conventional dairy products.
Cows raised for beef are similar. Growth hormones and antibiotics increase yield. But the use of growth hormones has led to concerns about potential risks in humans, too. Research about those risks is not definitive — but many people choose the side of caution by buying organic beef. Grass-fed organic cows also tend to produce beef that has a healthier profile — more omega-3s, for example — than conventionally raised cows.
The bottom line: If you want to go organic, be an informed consumer. Know which foods are the biggest pesticide offenders. If you’re concerned about the environment or animal welfare, look into farming practices that improve them. If you want to avoid GMOs, look for the “100 percent organic” label, because foods with other organic labels may actually contain them. (See, things aren’t always so clear.)
Look beyond the marketing hype. Make decisions based on your preferences, your concerns and — when necessary — your budget.
Suzanne Hinck contributed to this post.