Each week a nutritionist from the University of Maryland Medical Center provides a guest post. This week, Shanti Lewis, RD, CNSD, CSP, weighs in on organic food.
Should you choose the organic strawberries versus conventional ones? Both are bright and colorful at the perfect ripeness and provide vitamins, antioxidants and fiber while being low in sodium. Is there an advantage to organic cookies versus regular cookies? Conventional products do cost less, but does it mean the organic is safer and better for you? Learn more about organic food before you shop.
Traditionally, organic refers to food products, especially fruits and vegetables, free from chemicals and pesticides, and produced in a way that protects the environment. The term "organic" creates numerous debates and disputes among environmentalists, farmers, supermarkets and food producers. Currently, some of the organic foods labeled at supermarkets are not locally grown products, but are imports from another country. One of the driving forces behind this trend is that consumers are often looking for organic produce out of season at a reasonably low price.
Here are the main differences. Organic farmers use natural fertilizers, provide animals with organic feed and access to outdoors, reduce pests and manage weeds without insecticides and herbicides. Conventional farmers may use chemical fertilizers, treat animals with antibiotics and growth hormones and use insecticides and herbicides.
The USDA maintains these guidelines for marketing organic foods:
Organic: At least 95 percent of ingredients are organically produced.
100% Organic: 100 percent organic ingredients.
Made with Organic Ingredients: 70 percent must be organic.
Free Range/Free Roaming: Term that applies to chicken, eggs, and other meats. Government does not have a strict policy in terms of the amount of time animals must be outside.
Natural: USDA defines it as "not containing an artificial flavoring, coloring, chemical preservatives or artificial ingredients" for meat and poultry products. It does not mean that it is organic.
Should you choose organic?
The USDA has found that certain fruits and vegetables carry higher amount of pesticide residue even after they have been washed. The Environmental Working Group is a research and advocacy agency in Washington, D.C., that tested more than 10,000 pesticides in different fruits and vegetables and developed a 'dirty dozen" list. The conventional versions of these fruits and vegetables on this list have been found to have high levels of pesticide residues. While the organic versions of these fruits and vegetable may cost more, it may be worth it to buy organic in certain cases, the group says.
The "Dirty Dozen" list includes apples, peaches, potatoes and spinach. Among the "Clean 15" are sweet corn, avocado, mangoes and watermelon. For the full list go to ewg.org/foodnews.
Does organic mean better nutritional value?
While some people may prefer the taste of organic foods, the jury is still out if organic foods have a higher nutritional profile. Some studies have found that organic food has a higher antioxidant percentage compared to conventional produce. On the other hand, another large study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at 50 years of data regarding organic versus conventional foods and found both are comparable in nutrient content.
Downside to eating organic
Organic foods often cost more than conventional foods as a result of more expensive farming techniques. Also, organic produce may spoil faster than conventional foods since they are not treated with waxes or preservatives. However, buying more organic foods does send a message with your food dollar to store owners and producers. If more people buy organic, this increases the demand, thus improving the supply. This grass-roots effort has been showcased recently as many large retail stores are selling organic produce.
What does the dietitian say?
If organic food fits in your family's budget, go for it. Ideally, it is best to try to choose organic versions of foods listed on the "Dirty Dozen" list. Those who are more budget conscious may want to take advantage of local farmers' markets when produce is in season. Produce, meat and poultry at local farmers' markers are less likely to be treated with lots of pesticides because they do not have long-shipping times. You can also ask the grower if they spray or use integrated pest management. When purchasing conventional fresh food products, it is important to trim and wash fruits and vegetable to remove outside layers that are more likely to be exposed to pesticides. Also, you may want to avoid produce imported from other countries since it is not grown under the same regulations enforced by the USDA.
Organic is not an excuse to consume an abundance of processed foods with the label, "organic." It is still important to choose an array of fruits and vegetables from a variety of sources. In the end, a cookie is a cookie whether it is organic or not.