The number of food choices these days can be overwhelming. Simply buying milk involves numerous decisions and most people have never considered the carton marked organic. Perhaps now is the time to try something new. Variety is a key to any diet, and organic foods are another way to lead a healthy lifestyle.
The word organic is not related to the nutritional value of the food. Instead, it applies to the way a food is grown, processed, and handled. Organic foods are based on a natural, earth-friendly system of farming and processing. The USDA organic standards do not allow the use of pesticides, fertilizers with synthetic materials or sewage sludge, biotechnology, and irradiation in the production of organic foods. Use of growth hormones and antibiotics is prohibited on any livestock. An organic label is placed on foods only after a USDA certifier inspects the production process and the farm. Any company that handles or processes the product before it gets to the supermarket must also be inspected.
The USDA has developed different types of labeling to let consumers know the amount of organic content in the product. When a food is labeled “organic,” at least 95 percent of it must be made from organic ingredients. “Made with organic” means at least 70 percent of it must be made from organic ingredients. And “100 percent organic” is self-explanatory.
These organic labels should not be confused with “all-natural” food labels, which simply mean no artificial substance was added to the food during processing. In regard to meat or poultry, “all natural” says nothing about how a food was raised or what kind of food and medications the livestock was given.
A recent poll conducted by the National Center for Public Policy Research shows that the USDA seal misleads about two-thirds of the population into thinking organic foods are safer or healthier than regular foods. But the USDA has made no claims that organic food is healthier than conventional foods. In fact, scientific research has not yet concluded whether or not organic foods are significantly healthier than regular foods.
Organic food supporters argue that there is growing evidence that organic foods contain more nutrients than regular foods. Alyson Mitchell, a food scientist at the University of California, claims that natural fertilizers supply vegetables and fruits with anti-cancer compounds. The results of her experiments show organically grown berries had 50 percent more antioxidants than regularly grown berries. Katrina Claghorn, a nutritionist and oncologist with Penn Health System in Philadelphia, acknowledges the research that is being done on organic foods, but says that the health benefits of organic foods is still debatable.
“We don’t know the full impact [of organic foods]. There’s a brou-ha-ha about the impact of non-organic foods and cancer…but it is negligible in comparison with other things, like diet and cigarettes,” Claghorn said.
Supporters of organic foods also claim the food tastes better because the plants are healthier and stronger from natural fertilizers. Gwen Toffling, a senior at Temple, agrees with this claim. “Fruits and vegetables that are grown without pesticides don’t have that waxy taste on their skin,” she said.
The presence of pesticides in foods is another concern of some consumers. Farmers lose less crops when pesticides are used, therefore, farmers are able to grow more food on less land and conserve water. In turn, the prices of the foods we eat are lower.
Although the full effect of pesticides on human health is unknown, studies have shown that small doses of pesticides can have subtle, negative effects, especially on children. Katherine Dimattero, executive director of the Organic Trade Association in Greenfield, MA, said that “pesticide use may be linked to weakened immune function in humans.” Even though today’s farmers use fewer pesticides than ever before, most experts agree that lowering our intake of food that contains pesticides and hormones will lead to a healthier life.
Carlos Ramirez, a senior at Temple, believes that “purchasing and consuming organic foods…ensures a safer product free of synthetic pesticides and fertilizing agents.”
An important factor for any college student to keep in mind is the cost of organic foods. On the average, organic foods are about 14 to 20 percent more expensive than regular foods. The price should lower within the next couple of years due to the recent rise in popularity of organic products. Organic food sales have grown by 17 to 21 percent each year since 1997. As the market continues to grow, competition and distribution will increase, pushing prices down.
One way to beat the added expense of organic foods is to know when it is most important to buy organic foods. Claghorn advises that “you may want to save your money on fruits and vegetables with tougher skin” because softer skin fruits and vegetables, such as strawberries, apples and celery, are more likely to contain chemicals. But Claghorn points out that simply getting enough fruits and vegetables in your diet is more important than whether these fruits and vegetables are organic.
The most important thing to remember as a college student when choosing the right types of food to consume is variety. Since organic foods contain less chemicals than regular foods, you may want to include a few organic products in your diet to reduce your exposure to chemicals. However, organic foods have not been researched enough to supply concrete evidence they are healthier than regular foods. Whether the food is organic or non-organic, eating healthy means variety.
Morgan Ashenfelter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.