Is Organic Food Worth the Price?

Author: Winston Craig, MPH, PhD, RD.


Organic foods are desirable and have advantages, but their cost can be prohibitive.

Organic food has hit mainstream America. Wal-Mart has introduced its own organic brands. Because of consumer interest, the organic food industry has been growing annually about 20 to 25 percent over the past several years. Organic foods are a step forward in terms of lessening the burden of pollution of planet earth – the pollution of our soil, air and water supply.

Why Do People Choose Organic Foods?

They want to protect their families from chemicals such as synthetic pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics. Others are concerned about the contamination of the environment leading to the loss of fish, animals and birdlife. Organic agriculture, which uses 30 percent less fossil fuel than conventional agriculture, could impact the global warming scenario.

But questions remain. Can organic food production be sufficient to feed large populations? How can you guarantee a food is really organic? And what makes a food organic anyway? Is the extra price for organic food really worth it? Are organic foods any healthier?

What Are The Requirements For Labeling A Food Organic?

For fruits and vegetables to be labeled organic, they must be grown without synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or sewage sludge, and they must not have been irradiated or genetically engineered. Organic milk comes from animals that, for the past 12 months, were fed 100% organic feed and were not given antibiotics or growth hormones. For packaged food, the “Organic” label means at least 95% of the ingredients are organic. The label, “Made with Organic Ingredients” means that at least 70% of the ingredients are organic.

Of the many ingredients in pesticides that can legally be used, some 20 cause cancer in animals and are classified as possible human carcinogens. Those people who experience occupational exposure to pesticides and herbicides, such as farmers, migrant workers, and crop-duster pilots, face the greatest risk to their health.

Epidemiological studies on pesticides have found associations with long-term effects on health in three main areas: cancer (especially leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, skin, liver, stomach, and prostate cancers), reproductive disorders (infertility, birth defects, and adverse pregnancy outcomes), and neurotoxic effects (Parkinson’s disease). Pesticides may impact the developing brain and nervous system. Babies exposed to common chemicals, including pesticides, may be more susceptible to attention deficit disorder, asthma, cancer and other health problems.

Nevertheless, there is little data that pinpoints the risk to consumers from eating vegetables and fruits contaminated with any particular pesticide residue. The pesticides now used in farming (organophosphates, carbamates and pyrethroids) are metabolized quickly by the body and it’s hard to find traces of the chemicals. And we don’t store these chemicals in the body. In addition, it’s hard to detect any damage from a particular pesticide when we are exposed to tiny amounts of so many chemicals. Regularly eating red meat, being over-weight, and exposure to cigarette smoke pose greater risks to your health than consuming foods that have been exposed to pesticides.

Are Organic Fruits And Vegetables More Nutritious?

They may have a bit more vitamin C, but for all of the other vitamins and minerals there is no significant difference between organic foods and conventionally grown foods.

Many fruits and vegetables test positive for two or more pesticide residues. The produce found to be most contaminated with pesticides includes peaches, apples, bell peppers, strawberries, cherries, pears, and spinach, while the least contaminated includes onions, sweet corn, peas, bananas, cabbage, avocado, and broccoli.

About 15% of the vegetables and 35% of the fruit consumed by Americans last year were imported. With an increasing volume of fresh produce being imported from Latin America and Asia, the pesticide picture is not improving. Imported produce contains, on average, about three times the pesticide residue level found on domestically produced food. Only about 1% of imported foods are tested by the FDA.

So What Is The Take Home Message?

Pesticides are potent chemicals. It is appropriate to minimize our intake of them whenever possible. Fruits and vegetables contaminated with pesticides should be thoroughly washed before eating. Choosing organic produce, whenever it is available at a reasonable price, is a healthy alternative.

Here is a video from a registered dietitian that summarizes this topic pretty well:

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