Body Sense: Opting for organics, are they worth it?

By C. Claire Armagnac, B.S.

“Certified organic,” “100% organic,” “all natural,” “free range.” These and many other food labels have been showing up at grocery stores and produce markets a lot lately, but do we really know what they mean?

Under the current laws, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is in charge of inspecting produce and manufactured foods and labeling them as certified organic if they meet certain criteria. In order for produce to be certified organic, it must be grown on farms that use renewable resources and avoid the use of chemical pesticides and bioengineering.

Farmers market

Farmers market. Photo credit: Marisa McClellan

Certified organic meats, eggs, milk, and dairy products come from farms where animals are not given growth hormones or chemical antibiotics. Free range refers to meat or eggs that come from animals that were allowed to leave their pens or cages for at least part of the day. Other food labels, such as natural and all natural, could indicate that a product is made without artificial chemicals, but since the USDA doesn’t monitor these labels it’s hard to know what you’re really getting.

Personally, I have noticed that organic, natural, and free-range foods taste the same as conventionally produced foods but that they come with a higher price tag. Currently, the price difference comes from the increased cost of production for the farmers. Organic pesticides are not necessarily more expensive than traditional pesticides, but organic farming processes are more labor-intensive than traditional farming processes. Because of this, farmers need to hire more people and wait longer to turn a profit, and they charge a slightly higher price to the consumer.

If you have a little extra room in your budget and you’re considering buying organic produce, you should know that some fruits and vegetables are more likely to be laced with pesticides when produced non-organically. For example, even after you wash and/or peel celery, peaches, nectarines, raspberries, and blueberries, their thin skins mean that pesticides are still likely to linger. Foods like watermelon, cantaloupe, and green peas have thicker outer skins that protect them from absorbing as many pesticides, so it is probably fine to buy their non-organic varieties.  Nutritional experts have not definitively agreed that organic foods are healthier for us, but many argue that farmers weren’t using the current types of pesticides 10 or 15 years ago and worry that there are potential unforeseen consequences resulting from their use.

A recent article on the website for The Daily Green stated that pesticides are more likely to have a negative effect on children, people with compromised immune systems, and pregnant women. I don’t fall into any of those three categories so I don’t buy organic foods at the supermarket on a weekly basis, but I’ve found that I enjoy buying fresh produce at a local farmers’ market. Many farmers are happy to talk about their farming processes, and the produce they sell is likely to be fresher than what is available in stores. Small farms that make a profit of less than $5,000 per crop per year don’t have to have their crops certified as being organic by the USDA, so don’t expect to see the traditional labels on many farmers’ market finds.

If you’re interested in learning more about organic growing processes or if you would like to find a farmers’ market near you, head on over to Local Harvest. Talking to the produce manager at your supermarket is another way to find out more about what crops are in season. Growing your own fruits and vegetables during the summer months is another option.

What do you think, readers? Do you have a favorite organic fruit or vegetable? Have you had any luck growing your own? Feel free to email your feedback to me at carmagna@stetson.edu. For more information about nutrition and healthy eating, visit the Nutrition section of MyStudentBody.

References

http://www.thedailygreen.com/healthy-eating/eat-safe/Dirty-Dozen-Foods

http://dailycollegian.com/2011/04/26/organic-foods-benefit-health-but-at-a-cost

http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/ofp/ofp.shtml

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