Throughout recent years it has become increasingly trendy to opt for organic products over their conventional counterparts. What used to be found only in health stores, specialty shops, and Whole Foods is becoming more and more prevalent in grocery store aisles nationwide. The growing support and enthusiasm for organic options begs the question… Why? And what does that even mean, organic vs. conventional?
The word “organic” (not to be confused with “natural”) refers to the manner in which farmers grow, harvest, and process agricultural products. Whereas a conventional farmer, for instance, uses chemical fertilizers to promote plant growth, organic farmers apply natural fertilizers like manure or compost. Instead of the insecticides and herbicides generally used to manage weeds and pests, organic farming utilizes natural methods for reducing pests (beneficial birds, mating disruption, etc.) and crop rotation, tilling, hand weeding and mulching to manage weeds. And in lieu of the antibiotics and growth hormones typically given to animals to prevent disease and induce growth, organic farmers give animals organic feed, allow plenty of outdoor access, and employ preventative measures to minimize disease.
But let’s get down to it. Despite all the scary talk of insecticides, herbicides, and growth hormones, is organic food actually more nutritious? Probably not. Is it healthier? Probably so.
Although research is ongoing and somewhat new, the general consensus is that organically and conventionally produced foods are comparable in their nutrient content. However, many consumers prefer the organic option for several other reasons. Although the pesticides used in conventional farming do not exceed government safety thresholds, the USDA does verify that organic produce carries significantly less pesticide residues, and many people prefer to limit their exposure to these potentially harmful chemicals. Increasingly controversial food additives (such as preservatives, artificial sweeteners, etc.) are banned or severely restricted in organic farming, and organic farming positively affects the state of our environment by reducing pollution and conserving water and soil quality.
There are, of course, some disadvantages to buying organic. Organic fruits and veggies aren’t treated with wax coating and preservatives, so they may spoil faster. And if you are used to conventional produce, the varying shapes, colors, and sizes of organic fruits and veggies may seem odd to you. The major deterrent to going organic? Price! Because of more expensive farming practices, organic foods are often at least slightly more expensive than their conventional counterparts. If you are interested in organic options but intimidated by the financial commitment, check out the EWG’s report on the “Dirty Dozen” and the “Clean 15” to get an idea of how much or how little pesticide residue individual fruits and veggies have to help you decide where to make the organic switch (if you so choose). And don’t forget about your local farmers markets! Local farms provide fresh produce appropriate to the season, so prices are oftentimes comparable to out of season or imported fruits and veggies provided by the standard grocer.
Organic? Conventional? A little bit of both? Whatever your decision, don’t just jump on the organic bandwagon! Do your research, educate yourself on the different labels and what they actually mean (“100% organic” vs. “organic” vs. “made with organic ingredients” vs. “natural,” etc.), and always eat an array of foods from a variety of sources to ensure a healthy mix of nutrients and less exposure to a single pesticide.
Happy eating! (And, seriously, if you haven’t made it to a City Market yet this season, there is nothing like the hustle and bustle and endless array of fresh goodies on a Saturday morning, so get to one soon!)
*All information gathered from the Mayo Clinic website.