Tonawanda News

September 19, 2011

Organic: Is it worth it?

By Danielle Haynes
The Tonawanda News

— “Organic” has long been one of those buzzwords floating around health- and food-conscious communities and recently it’s reached fever pitch. Most grocery stores devote at least an aisle — if not several — to organic foods and some restaurants and bakeries are even making a point to use the chemical-free stuff.

The folks at the United States Department of Agriculture are the ones that set the rules and certify whether a farm or facility is officially producing organic foods — and the rules are specific.

According to a statement on the USDA website, “organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering may not be used.”

There’s a natural assumption that organic means healthy, and why not? Pesticides, hormones and antibiotics just don’t seem like the sort of things one wants to pump into their body, if not necessary.

But with the Tonawanda News’ research showing that organic can cost, on average, 78 percent more than its non-organic counterpart, are consumers really getting their money’s worth for their health?

Experts and scientific studies actually seem to contradict one another on whether organic food is healthier for the body than non-organic. The fact is, not a lot of studies out there actually confirm that people who eat organic food are more healthy than those who don’t.

“There’s very little scientific evidence that organic food is better,” said Naheed Ali-Sayeed, chief clinical dietician at Kenmore Mercy Hospital. “Most of what I’ve read is basically just articles that people have written, nothing scientific based."

A study in 2008 by Dr. Susanne Bügel in the Department of Human Nutrition at the University of Copenhagen backs Ali-Sayeed’s statement. Researchers fed animals a diet of carrots, kale, peas, apples and potatoes that were grown using three different cultivation methods involving added nutrients and pesticides.

“No systematic differences between cultivation systems representing organic and conventional production methods were found across the five crops, so the study does not support the belief that organically grown foodstuffs generally contain more major and trace elements than conventionally grown foodstuffs,” Bügel wrote in the article, which appeared  in the Society of Chemical Industry’s Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture.

Ali-Sayeed points out that in the end, eating more fruits and vegetables, regardless of whether they’re organic, is what’s really important.

“I think it’s just the perception that it’s better. It may be, but all people cannot afford to buy everything organic. We still want you to eat a well-balanced diet and if it’s not organic it can still be nutritious for you to consume,” she said.

Catherine Stack, a doctor of naturopathy and certified nurse midwife in Niagara Falls, agrees, saying getting her clients to eat produce in the first place is the battle.

“Organic is important to me, but getting people to eat healthy in the first place is the first step,” Stack said. “There are so many people across the board who don’t eat any real food over the course of the day. There was no nutrition in their whole forecast. Then these people come (to me) and they want to know why their joints are aching and it’s because they didn’t get the nutrition.”

Stack does say, however, that eating organically is the healthier option, keeping the body free of added hormones and antibiotics.

“If we took hormones in abundance, we’d have larger breasts and more body fat. What we’ve seen across the board is young girls with benign breast turmors and we feel that there’s a link between the hormones in milk, poultry and beef,” Stack explained.

“What we’re also seeing with the antibiotics, is if you constantly bombard your body with even small amounts of antibiotics then you become resistant to (them) so they become less effective in the human body. Then we develop these super bugs that aren’t easily treated like MRSA,” she said.

The USDA stopped just short of saying organic is better for the human body in a recent interview with the News. Soo Kim, of the USDA Department of Agriculture, says that organic practices are important for the health of soil, plants and animals and that it promotes sustainability, but agrees that current industry research is limited or ambiguous based on what products are being compared in studies on human health.

“If you’re talking about whether organically grown foods contain more or better nutrients, research is not conclusive,” Kim said. “If you’re talking about whether organic products have fewer pesticide residues; are grown without use of genetic engineering, sewage sludge or irradiation; without being treated with synthetic fertilizers; fed 100 percent organic feed; and not given hormones or animal drugs, farmers have to meet these standards.”

So is it worth it to go organic? It’s hard to say for sure. In the end, it’s up to the consumer to take the information available and make a decision they can live with. At the very least, organic foods are becoming more readily available so that an organic lifestyle is more feasible for some individuals.

For those looking to replace just a few items in the kitchen with the organic equivalent, the Environmental Working Group — an organization dedicated to protecting public health through disseminating information — provides a list of the “Dirty Dozen” fruits and vegetables to avoid because of typically higher levels of pesticides. Apples, celery and strawberries top the list, followed by peaches, spinach, nectarines, grapes, sweet bell peppers, potatoes, blueberries, lettuce and kale/collard greens.

On the other end of the spectrum is the “Clean Fifteen,” which includes onions, sweet corn, pineapples, avocado, asparagus, sweet peas, mangoes, eggplant, cantaloupe, kiwi, cabbage, watermelon, sweet potatoes, grapefruit and mushrooms. These items are typically grown with fewer contaminants.

To find out more about USDA organic certification, visit http://tinyurl.com/5vanen. For more information on the Environmental Working Group, visit www.ewg.org.

Contact features editor Danielle Haynes at 693-1000, ext. 116.