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Is Organic Food Better for You?

We sort through the data to give you the answers


(This article previously appeared on Grandparents.com.)

On September 29th, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the USDA is awarding $52 million dollars to support organic, local and regional food systems. The grants, Vilsack said, recognize that “consumers are increasingly demanding more local and organic options.” He’s right about that, and the grants are good news for farmers and food-lovers alike.

There's been a lot of talk about the food we eat — organic and non-organic. We want to feed our families the best and most nutritious food available, but with so much conflicting information to sort through, it’s sometimes hard to separate the hype from the help.

The one thing almost everyone can agree on is that fresh fruits and vegetables are the mainstay of any healthful diet. They provide fiber, macronutrients and micronutrients in unique combinations that no pill can duplicate. Where fruits and vegetables are concerned, the whole is definitely worth more than the sum of its parts.

(MORE: Fiftysomething Diet: Should You Go Gluten-Free?)

But are the organic versions better for you, or is it okay to buy the conventional kinds, which usually are less expensive? Here are some common questions and answers about shopping and eating organic:

What makes organic food organic?

To earn the USDA’s Organic Seal, foods must be raised in a way “that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity.”  In other words, organic farmers must raise crops and livestock in ways that promote soil and water conservation, while also reducing pollution.

The system outlined in the Organic Foods Production Act is designed to improve on conventional farming methods by being better for the soil, the plants that grow in it, and for animals and humans, too.

Organic farmers don’t use pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, relying instead on natural fertilizers like manure and compost. They optimize their yield by using crop rotation and/or mulch to minimize weeds. These standards make organic farming better for the earth, which contributes to improved public health. But are they significantly better for you and your family?

Is organic food more nutritious?

A study done by Consumer Reports earlier this year found that 84 percent of Americans purchase some organic foods, up from the 78 percent reported by the Organic Trade Association  three years ago. In addition to concerns about the environment and wanting to avoid harmful chemical residue, many consumers say organic produce tastes better.

(MORE: 6 Foods That Are Surprisingly Bad For You)

But there is spirited debate about whether organic produce is more nutritious than conventionally-grown.

"One recent study examined 50 years' worth of scientific articles about the nutrient content of organic and conventional foods. The study showed no difference in the quality of the nutrients," says nutritionist Dr. Pam Peeke, Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Maryland and author of The Hunger Fix: The Three-Stage Detox and Recovery Plan for Overeating and Food Addiction. "Instead, the main difference between organic and non-organic produce was found in the level of pesticide."

There is some evidence that organic foods have more phenolic acids than their conventional counterparts, which may be significant, since these compounds are powerful antioxidants and are thought to have anti-inflammatory properties, as well. But the most honest answer science can give to the question of whether organic produce contains significantly more nutrients is “maybe.” This doesn’t mean organic produce is a waste of money, though.

What are the health benefits of organic?

As Peeke mentioned, conventionally-raised fruits and vegetables often contain residue from pesticides and herbicides that cannot be washed away.

The debate about the relative safety of these chemicals for human consumption is likely to go on for years, with the chemical companies arguing for their safety. While the levels currently allowed by law have been deemed safe for human consumption, many consumers are wary of ingesting substances known to contain toxins that can affect the nervous system and have been linked to infertility, brain disorders like depression and dementia, and certain kinds of cancer. When you buy organic produce, you are minimizing your exposure to these chemicals.

"If you want to understand the amount of pesticide in your foods, a great resource is the Environmental Working Group’s Guide," says Peeke.

Why is organic so expensive?

Currently, less than 1 percent of the world’s arable land is devoted to organic farming, and there is a high and growing demand for organic produce. Add this to the fact that organic farming is more labor intensive than conventional farming and that organic produce must be handled carefully to avoid cross-contamination, and it’s easy to understand why you pay more for it.

Sara Cowlan, a registered dietician based in New York City, encourages her clients to eat organic food when possible. “Sometimes prices of organic foods are not that much higher than what you’d pay for conventional produce, so I encourage everyone to compare prices and go for organic if you can. And remember, produce costs less when it’s in season, and that includes organic produce.”

If your food budget is feeling the strain, here’s a bit of good news: not all organic foods are created equal. Read on for tips of how to make your organic choices wisely.

(MORE: Fiftysomething Diet: 5 Foods You Should Never Eat or Try Not To)

What do I need to know when shopping for organics?

The skin of the fruit or vegetable can let you know whether you should spend the extra money for the organic variety or spend a little less for the conventional version.

The rule of thumb is: the thinner the covering nature has provided for the fruit or vegetable, the more likely it is to contain high levels of pesticides. Conversely, items with thick rinds are less likely to have a high toxic load. So, for example, you might want to spend a bit extra for apples and berries, but buy conventionally-grown avocados and bananas.

The Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists will tell you at a glance which foods are most and least contaminated. (It changes slightly from year to year.) The website offers a free download of the lists that you can take to the grocery store with you.

“One thing to keep in mind,” Cowlan notes, “is that organic food may be more important for young children, pregnant women or those with compromised immune systems." These people might want to be especially careful about the foods on the Dirty Dozen list.

What do labels mean?

When shopping in the grocery store, Peeke suggests keeping the following in mind: "All 'organic' products must be USDA certified. Look for the 'USDA Organic' label, which means it has met USDA standards. Also note that this seal is voluntary, but most producers use it. Products that are completely organic (fruits, vegetables, eggs) are noted on the label as '100 percent organic' and can carry that USDA Seal. However, many foods have more than one ingredient and may then carry the '95% organic' label. If products have at least 70 percent organic ingredients, the label will say 'made with organic ingredients' and you may or may not see the USDA Seal.

For more information on deciphering food labels, read GP.com's What Do Food Labels Really Mean.

What’s the bottom line?

Organic food may be better for your body than conventionally-grown produce, but doctors agree that the conventional variety is almost certainly better than no produce at all. Most of us get far less than the recommended five to nine servings a day.

Whether you choose to spend money on organic produce, most health professionals agree that one of the best things you can do to support your health is to eat your fruits and veggies. Cowlan shares this opinion: “Whether they’re organic or not, be sure to eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, and try to hit every color group — green, red, orange, purple — the whole rainbow, every day. The benefits of doing this outweigh the risks of pesticide residue.”

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