Switch to organic foods?
I've been thinking about switching to organic food because of the supposed drawbacks of inorganic food, but I'm having trouble finding unbiased information on the subject. What are the advantages and disadvantages of eating, buying, and producing organic food versus inorganic food? Should I make the switch to organic?
Concerned Global Citizen
Dear Concerned Global Citizen,
You bring up a common debate — to go organic or not. The reality is that one type of food isn’t inherently "better" or "worse" for you in terms of health. They each come with their own advantages, so it would depend on your own lifestyle and preferences to determine what makes the most sense for you. That being said, organic foods are often grown with minimal pesticides and use more natural means of crop management, so if those practices align with your nutrition goals, then organic may be a good option for you. Read on for the juicy details.
So, what exactly makes a food organic? The organic food movement originally started in the 1980s due to concerns about exposure to pesticides and other synthetic compounds used in farming. Over the years, the definition of organic foods has shifted to focus more on the "natural versus synthetic" debate. Organic producers typically don’t use any chemical pesticides, additives, or preservatives in their farming methods. They also use more "natural" techniques, such as crop rotation to protect the crops and soil. Some countries, such the United States, also have regulations for organic livestock. This includes specific land requirements or banning the use of antibiotics in animals. You can find organic produce anywhere from farmer's markets to natural food stores to nationwide grocery chains. Since use of the term "organic" is regulated in the US, buying organic pasta, crackers, carrots or beef means you’re getting a product that’s at least 95 percent organic. If your favorite cookies bear the label "made with organic ingredients" that means that 70 percent or more of the ingredients are organically grown. To learn more about what “organic” means, you can check out the United States Department of Agriculture standards. It’s also worth noting that the term “natural” doesn’t mean “organic.” In fact, any product can be labeled with phrases such as "all-natural" because the government doesn’t regulate these terms.
As far as benefits to the environment, the jury is in and has concluded that organic farming practices can increase biodiversity (the number of plants and animals that live in an area) and improve soil quality, as well as decrease contamination from pesticides and other chemicals. However, the jury is out on the health benefits of eating organic. There’s evidence that some organic foods have higher levels of vitamins, and some studies have demonstrated that people with organic diets tend to be healthier. However, these results may be due to a factor called uncontrolled confounding, or differences between groups that can't be controlled. Instead of organic foods contributing to better health outcomes, it may be that those who typically eat organic are healthier at the outset. The misconception that organic is healthier may be due to organic foods having fewer synthetic pesticides, which may reduce the risk of developing some types of cancers, such as breast cancer or non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. However, uncontrolled confounding could also explain these results in that those who are already healthier are consuming organic foods. While there may be some benefits to going all organic, the long-term benefits are still unknown and inconclusive.
People who buy organic are sometimes interested in supporting family or local farmers and may associate buying organic with a smaller-scale, more environmentally friendly type of farming. While there are small, family-run farms that provide their local area with seasonal goods and are committed to preserving their land, many organic farmers are also large agribusiness operations who ship their food far and wide to consumers of organics around the world. If you do decide to buy organic, it’s good to know that some people choose to buy all organic food, some people buy a mix of organic and local food, and some people buy primarily local foods, regardless of the organic status. Others may base food buying decisions on factors such as price, seasonality of produce, and whether produce looks fresh.
Making the switch to organic foods is your decision, and it ultimately comes down to what you value when it comes to food choices. You may want to think about what you value when it comes to produce shopping to help you guide your grocery purchasing:
- Are you concerned about the health benefits of the produce you consume?
- Are you interested in supporting local farms and businesses?
- Are there particular growth practices that you’re interested in supporting or not supporting?
- What types of food does your budget support?
- In what ways would buying organic foods support these goals? In what ways would purchasing conventionally grown food support them?
Your answers to these questions can help you decide what combination of organic, conventional, local, or seasonal foods makes sense for your diet, budget, and lifestyle. Navigating your food choices may seem daunting (or maybe thrilling — you do have a lot of options!), but when it comes down to it, enjoying your meals, eating a variety of foods, and buying in a manner consistent with your values will serve you well. If you need more guidance, there are a bunch of answers to similar questions in the Optimal Nutrition category in the Go Ask Alice! archives. Best of luck!
Originally published Sep 21, 2007
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