Is organic food healthier or better than conventional food?

As we round the corner of each aisle at the grocery store we are surrounded with an abundance of choices. Thinking about what to select can be quite overwhelming for anyone, especially if you have cancer. Should you buy organic produce only and is conventional produce as good? Is it really worth the extra money for organic?

If you are asking yourself these questions it shows that you are focusing on eating healthier and making better choices, which is outstanding. Becoming aware is the first step to making any lifestyle changes if you have cancer or are trying to prevent reoccurrence. When it comes to food we all have many potential pre-held beliefs, which affect our shopping decisions. These beliefs are generally formed from claims that friends, family, coworkers, or the news have made and from what we’ve read in books or online. Unfortunately not all of this information is always based on facts and may be based on partial truths. We are often exposed to conflicting information and good marketing that it’s no wonder we don’t know what to buy. Let’s review some of your options so you have more information to make the decision that’s best for you.

Conventional

Conventional produce is considered anything that is not labeled organic typically and is allowed to use natural or synthetic pesticides. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for evaluating the safety of pesticide use on produce and determines what is a safe level for us to consume. The upper limit that is set has a margin of safety to ensure that the levels are safe for everyone, including vulnerable populations like children and pregnant women. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will then make sure that conventional produce sold in the US meet these safety levels and that all imported goods have to meet those standards as well. It is important to note, that the amount of pesticides found in food are usually found in concentrations that are much lower than the concentration the EPA has deemed as safe and generally are considered to be in minute amounts. Even when foods are found to have detectable amounts of pesticide residues, it does not necessarily mean that it’s usually unsafe and will pose a health risk. If you’d like you can read more on the EPA’s website for more detailed information.

Conventional agriculture is also able to use genetically modified organisms (GMO) if they choose to do so. If GMO technology is used in conventional food, then it undergoes a highly rigorous regulatory process by three individual industries to ensure safety – the FDA, EPA, and USDA – more on GMO technology in another post to come.

Organic

If you ask people what the definition of organic is, you will find that there are many ideas of what the term organic can mean to each one of us. Common held beliefs are that organic foods have no pesticide residues, no food additives, increased nutrients, are safer than conventional foods, no hormones or antibiotics are used, and can prevent or cure cancer. When I was in undergrad I worked at a health food store and was convinced that organic meant most of the above. I quickly learned that I was not 100% correct. You can see what I mean by clicking on this link to the USDA’s website for their organic labeling fact sheet for more information or continue reading below. The legal term for organic means that:

  • The US government monitors the organic claim and requires that products labeled “organic” must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt). So there can be some natural pesticides and some synthetic pesticides used on organic foods (most people are shocked to learn this! I know I was).
  • Products can be labeled as 100% organic, but they must contain (excluding water and salt) only organically produced ingredients.
  • Processed products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients can use the label made with organic ingredients.
  • Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation.
  • Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.

When it comes to the nutrient content of organic foods, research scientists at Stanford report that organic produce, meat, and dairy do not contain more nutrients than conventional foods. Here’s a short video that recently came out summarizing this study’s findings among others. Additionally, something to consider when buying organic, is that there has been a rise in safety recalls compared to conventional foods. This can be due to things like bacterial infections such as E. coli, which can be a result of some farming methods. The Stanford study also found that organic foods are not safer than their conventional counterparts like many of us have thought. A final consideration before deciding to splurge for the organic label is that thus far there have not been any direct studies on humans to show that organic foods can prevent or cure cancer or other diseases unfortunately. More research is being done every day so information can change or more studies can support similar trends.

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Food for Thought

Conventional foods do have more pesticide residues usually, but levels are almost always under allowed safety limits. It’s also possible that some natural pesticides used on organic produce may not be better and may actually be equivalent to those pesticides used on conventional crops. Just because something is natural doesn’t mean that it’s non-toxic or safer than a synthetic substance. In some cases natural pesticides may be more harmful to people or the environment. Each pesticide (natural or synthetic) should be judged on a case-by-case basis. I know this may seem quite surprising! This blog post in Scientific American summarized about this very topic that I highly recommend you read if you have time. Many plants, bacteria, and fungi produce natural poisons, toxins, and chemicals that you definitely don’t want to have on your food – so natural is not always better. The take home message is that natural isn’t always good and synthetic isn’t always bad.

People eat organic foods for many reasons (which I can’t cover all of them in this single blog post), but it’s good to have the facts, as it’s not always so black and white. Many people cannot afford the expense of the organic label and it can be discouraging to hear misinformation that organic can only benefit them nutritionally and that conventional produce may be harmful so they choose to avoid produce all together out of fear.

When it comes to produce, any fruit or vegetable is better than no fruit or vegetable. Having more cancer fighting phytochemicals to help your body stay healthy is key. Eating organic has some benefits, but it’s not required for a healthy diet. I know that this might go against everything you’ve ever heard, but eating any produce outweighs any potential health risk than not eating produce at all.

Other Options to Consider Outside of the Grocery Store

If you prefer the organic label, it’s helpful to know that it is a voluntary label. If food isn’t labeled as organic it doesn’t mean it is not meeting organic standards. Often you will find that local farmers markets offer cheaper produce and are practicing organic or near organic standards, or even use less pesticides than the organic brands do, but they simply cannot afford the organic label and choose to forgo it. Going to your local farmer’s market is a great way to meet with your community farmer and ask what types of farming practices they are using to find out if it’s what you are looking for in a produce item. Some of them will even let you tour their farms!

Farmer’s market produce items are usually higher in nutrients since they have been freshly picked and the less that food has to travel the better! There is usually no comparison in terms of taste of freshly picked produce and everything else pales in contrast. Since you are buying local you will be eating in season unlike at most grocery stores.

If you would like to find your nearest local farmer’s market you can check online or check out these sites:

localfarmmarkets.org

localharvest.org

pickyourown.org

If you can’t make it to your local farmer’s market or don’t have one, you can also consider community support agriculture (CSA) as an option. CSA’s are another method of being able to buy produce (and sometimes eggs and homemade bread too) from your local farmer by purchasing a membership or subscription. The subscription allows you to receive a produce box or basket delivered to your home or available for pick up at regional locations on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.

A third option is to grow a garden of your own or participate in a community garden. This can also be quite therapeutic and cause you to feel more connected to your food.

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Take Home Message

It’s important to note that there are pros and cons to each farming method and one industry should not be vilified over another. Whatever method is best for you is completely up to your personal preference and sometimes doesn’t have to be confined to just one method. I eat both conventional and organic foods myself and frequent my farmer’s market. Remember, eating produce is better than not eating produce and most of us are not eating enough of it. The American Institute of Cancer Research recommends filling 2/3 of your plate with fruits and veggies for cancer prevention. More on this soon….happy eating!

 

 

 

 

 

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