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The Organic Debate
The Organic Debate
What it means to be organic and when you should care the most

Whether or not to buy organic is a hotly debated issue. As a dietitian I am asked about buying organic all the time. Before I dive into my answer, I want to explain what organic means and what we know so far about organic versus non-organic, or conventional, foods.

The word organic is a labeling term defined by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). To be considered organic, a product must meet federal standards for production, processing, and certification under the Organic Food Production Act of 1990. Simply put, organic means that meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products must come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones, and the animals’ food must be 100 percent organic. Organic fruits, nuts, vegetables, and grains must be produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. If these standards are met, a food can be certified as organic and display the USDA Organic label.

Research about the nutritional benefits of organic foods is ongoing. Some studies have shown that organic fruits and vegetables have higher levels of some nutrients, including vitamin C and phytochemicals: the cancer-fighting components found in fruits and vegetables that I’ve recommended in previous blogs. Since the use of antibiotics is not permitted in organic meats, poultry, eggs, and dairy, these products contain less antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In general, organic produce has less pesticide contamination than conventional produce as well. 

The simple fact is organic costs more. Growing crops without herbicides and pesticides causes more losses from crop damage, and labor costs are higher for weeding and pest control. Animals raised to produce organic meats must be fed more expensive organic feed. And there’s a fee for organic certification.

The good news, however, is there is a way to get the most potential health benefit for your money. Choose organic produce when it’s in season, because it’s more likely to be locally grown and cost less to transport, leading to lower prices. Try other organic food sources such as local farmers markets and community-supported agriculture programs that may sell organic food but are not necessarily certified. Buying in bulk, using coupons, and getting what’s on sale can also help you save. Many stores now have their own private label store brand organics that are priced much lower than the brand names. Don’t waste money on organic junk food (e.g., cookies, snacks like chips, and candies). Finally, try using the guidelines from the Environmental Working Group, which has tested thousands of foods for their pesticide content and developed a list of fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide content and those with the lowest: The Dirty Dozen and The Clean Fifteen.

Whether or not to buy organic is a personal decision. Now that you know the basics, you can make an informed choice. No matter what you decide to buy, always thoroughly wash all produce with water before cutting into it or eating it to reduce the bacteria and pesticides you consume. I believe it is most important to enjoy a wide variety of foods — including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, nuts, seeds, and beans — and do your best to get at least five to seven servings of fruits and vegetables every day!

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