The health benefits of organic food are one of the most intensely debated issues in the food industry.
What is Organic?
By definition, organically grown foods are produced without most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge. Livestock aren't given antibiotics or growth hormones. And organic farmers emphasize renewable resources and conservation of soil and water.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the National Organic Program, says that organic is a "production philosophy" and that an organic label does not imply that a product is superior. Moreover, some say there's no need to eat organic to be healthy: Simply choose less processed food and more fruits and vegetables.
The crux of the argument often comes down to the nutritional benefits of organic foods, something that's hard to measure. To compare the nutrient density between organically and conventionally grown grapes, for example, researchers would have to have matched pairs of fields, including using the same soil, the same irrigation system, the same level of nitrogen fertilizer and the same stage of ripeness at harvest, said Charles Benbrook, chief scientist at The Organic Center, a pro-organics research institution.
Last summer, the debate came to a head after the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a comprehensive systemic review that concluded organic and conventional food had comparable nutrient levels.
The outraged organic community criticized the study for not addressing pesticide residues, a major reason people choose organic. The study also did not address the impact of farming practices on the environment and personal health.
Maria Rodale, a third-generation advocate for organic farming, urges consumers to look beyond nutrition to the chemicals going into our soil, our food and our bodies. "What we do to our environment, we are also doing to ourselves," said Rodale, chairwoman and CEO of Rodale Inc., which publishes health and wellness content.
Here's a closer look at some of the factors that may influence your decision whether to buy organic products.
Fruits and Vegetables
Farmers using conventional practices treat crops with pesticides that protect them from mold, insects and disease but can leave residues. Organic fruits and vegetables have fewer pesticide residues and lower nitrate levels than conventional fruits and vegetables, according to a 2006 scientific summary report by the Institute of Food Technologists.
One French study found that, in some cases, organic plant products have more minerals and antioxidant polyphenols. But although mounting evidence suggests that soil rich in organic matter produces more nutritious food, "we are never going to be able to say organic is always more nutrient-dense; that's going beyond the science," said Benbrook of The Organic Center.
Dairy and Meat
Organic dairy and meat products come from animals not treated with antibiotics or genetically engineered bovine growth hormones, which are used to stop the spread of disease and to boost milk production. Past rules on "access to pasture" were vague and didn't require that the animals actually venture into it. But a new regulation requires that animals graze for a minimum of 120 days. In addition, 30 percent of their dietary needs must come from pasture.
Though the FDA says milk from cows treated with bovine growth hormone is safe and indistinguishable from other milk, consumers are spooked. Dean Foods, the nation's largest dairy producer, no longer sells milk from those cows, and Kroger, Walmart, Costco, Starbucks, Dannon, Yoplait and several other companies have pledged not to use it.