The organic industry is hot; it's the fastest growing sector of the supermarket, increasing in sales from $3.6 billion to $24.4 billion between the years of 1997 to 2011. The topic of organic foods has received even more attention recently in response to a study released from Stanford University last September, which concluded that there isn't much difference between organic and conventional foods. The study set off a firestorm of dialogue among consumers and nutrition professionals about whether choosing organic foods is the best strategy for your health, as well as for the environment.

Debate on organic nutritional payback

The Stanford researchers reviewed a collection of about 240 previously published studies, developing a statistical compilation of these findings. The studies they examined were performed over multiple years and took into account the nutrient and bacterial, fungal or pesticide contamination levels in various foods, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, milk, poultry and eggs, as well as the impact on humans. For most vitamins and minerals, no significant difference between organic and conventional produce was found in nutrient content, with the exception of phosphorous, which was higher in organically grown varieties. Yet researchers did find organic produce to have a 30 percent lower risk of pesticide contamination, and organically farmed chicken and pork had lower levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Despite these findings, other studies have documented health and environmental advantages of organic foods compared to their conventional counterparts. A similar analysis of studies conducted by researchers at Newcastle University in England found higher levels of vitamin C and phenols (plant antioxidants) in organically grown crops. In a study published in the March 2012 issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, which examined the effects of organic and conventional cropping systems for spinach, researchers found the organic variety to have higher levels of certain flavonoids and vitamin C.

Beyond nutrition

One of the main attractions for eating organic goes beyond increased nutrient content to lowering one's exposure to pesticide residues. "Don't buy organics to increase phytochemical intake, but because organics generally have lower levels of pesticides," urges Alyson Mitchell, Ph.D., professor and food chemist at the University of Califonia, Davis.

A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives detailed a dramatic and immediate protective effect against exposure to pesticides among 23 elementary school children who participated. They were fed organic food items as substitutes for the conventional foods in their diet. "Although the FDA assures that pesticide residue on individual food samples are within safe limits, what we do not know is how that cumulative load of organophosphorous pesticides affects children, pregnant and breastfeeding women, and seniors," says Angie Tagtow, M.S.. R.D., L.D., dietitian and owner of Environmental Nutrition Solutions, a company that focuses on environmental approaches to food and nutrition.

Impact on Mother Earth

The organic food movement also takes into consideration how agricultural practices affect the environment. The Rodale Institute's Farming Systems Trial is the longest-running U.S. study to compare conventional and organic agricultural practices. The project found that organic farming uses 45 percent less energy, produces 40 percent less greenhouse gas emissions, and better supports soil organic matter compared to conventional systems. Additional evidence-based studies indicate organic farming methods create healthy soils, which yield crops that are consistent with, or better than, those grown by conventional agricultural methods.

Organic food considerations

Consider these factors when deciding whether to go organic in these food categories.

Fruits and vegetables.

When it comes to eating your daily quota of fruits and vegetables, it may be best to start at square one by simply focusing on increasing your daily intake. According to a 2010 report released by the National Fruit and Vegetable Alliance, only 6 percent of people are eating enough vegetables and only 8 percent are eating enough fruit each day. If budget is an issue, you may decide to prioritize your organic purchases by choosing organic produce, which incurs greater pesticide exposure. "I choose to purchase fruits with thin skin, like strawberries and grapes, in the organic variety. When I buy conventional fruits, I select fruits with a thick peel such as oranges or bananas," says Mitchell. Check out the "Dirty Dozen" for a list of the produce with the highest levels of pesticide residues.

Junk foods.

When health is a priority, it's important to keep in mind the type of food eaten, not just the farming or production method it undergoes.

Surveys continually report that consumers believe organic food -- regardless of its ingredients -- is nutritionally superior to conventional foods. Spending your money on low-nutrient organic junk foods, such as cookies, chips and sugary beverages is not the best use of your organic dollars.

Dairy.

Because of organic regulations, organic dairy farmers are prohibited from using antibiotics or synthetic hormones, including the artificial growth hormone rBST or rBGH, and cows must feed on organic pasture at least four months out of the year; organic pasture has been associated with higher omega-3 fatty acid content in milk, which have been linked to protection against heart disease and cognitive decline.

Meat.

Like organic dairy, animals used for the production of organic meat cannot receive synthetic hormones or antibiotics. The less-confined organic cows on organic farms are given space to roam freely, reducing their potential to contract disease, which also gives the meat a better fatty acid profile than animals living in confined spaces.

What does it mean to be "certified organic?"

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) mandates the regulations behind any food with the "organic" label by using a third-party certification system. According to the USDA, organic foods support biological diversity and ecological balance by fostering a system of recycling resources and nutrients into the soil. Organically labeled foods are restricted in the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and the use of irradiation and sewage sludge is prohibited.

Prioritize your organic purchases

The Environmental Working Group provides a shopper's guide to pesticide in produce to help direct consumers to where their money is best spent. The guide provides two lists: the Dirty Dozen, consisting of the most contaminated fruits and vegetables with pesticide residues, and the Clean Fifteen, those with the least pesticide residue.

Clean Fifteen:

Asparagus

Avocado

Cabbage

Cantaloupe (domestic)

Eggplant

Grapefruit

Kiwi

Mangoes

Mushrooms

Onions

Pineapple

Sweet corn

Sweet peas

Sweet potatoes

Watermelon

Dirty Dozen

It's recommended that consumers buy produce items of the Dirty Dozen in the organic variety.

Apples

Blueberries (domestic)

Celery

Cucumbers

Grapes

Lettuce

Nectarines (imported)

Peaches

Potatoes

Spinach

Sweet bell peppers

Strawberries

 

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