Tribune Print Share Text

Are organic foods healthier?

Created date

August 23rd, 2011

Researchers from Cornell University recently showed that if a label reads organic, people believe the item is healthier and better tasting. Study participants sampled identical organic foods that were labeled as either organic or regular. They overwhelmingly preferred the taste of the products with an organic label, and also perceived that the foods were more nutritious and worth extra money. Organic foods have a health halo, which is the assumption that they are more natural, more nutritious, more wholesome, and safer than conventional foods, says Mary Lee Chin, M.S., R.D., owner of Nutrition Edge Communications in Denver, Colo., and consultant to the International Food Information Council.

What organic means

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) formulated national standards for the use of the word organic as a result of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. An organic label means a product was produced without antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, herbicides, irradiation, or bioengineering. In addition, organic farmers have to follow guidelines regarding soil and water conservation and humane treatment of animals. People sometimes think other labels such as natural, sustainable, or local carry the same weight as organic, says Rachel Greenberger, M.B.A., managing director of Food Solutions, a cross-sector action tank at Babson College in Babson Park, Mass. But these are ambiguous terms that have no standardized definition. Claims on meats such as range-free or hormone-free, while usually truthful, do not necessarily mean organic, Chin adds.

Other considerations

Organic foods can contain toxins just like conventional foods, Chin explains. Potatoes that have a green tinge below the skin contain solanine, which can make you ill if eaten in large amounts. Whether they re organic or not, potatoes produce this toxin when they re exposed to too much light. Plants also produce toxins as a defense mechanism when a crop is infested with pests, she adds. Contrary to what some people believe, organic foods can be processed and may contain preservatives. Organic foods may have vitamin C, salt, or sugar as opposed to artificial preservatives, Chin says. Not everything at your local farmer s market is organic. You have to ask the individual farmer about their growing practices, Chin advises.

More nutritious or not?

With regard to pesticides and other residues, the amounts on conventional foods are typically far below levels that could be harmful, Chin says. But you should always wash all produce including organic to remove as many contaminants as possible. People want to know whether organic foods are better for you than foods that were exposed to pesticides, herbicides, or other substances in the growing process, says Austin Welsh, M.D., medical director at Tallgrass Creek, an Erickson Living community in Overland Park, Kans. The nutritional value of a product is more closely related to how it s handled, Chin says. With produce, factors that can affect nutritional value start with the type of seed, when it s planted, the type of fertilizer, and the temperatures and water conditions in the field. After it s harvested, the storage temperature, how it s transported, how it s handled in the store, and how you handle it at home all affect how nutritious it will be when you eat it. The longer it takes for a food to go from field to plate, the more it may deteriorate in terms of nutrition, Greenberger says.

The added expense

Organic famers typically have to hire workers to pull weeds, remove bugs, and other tasks, Chin says. A great amount of labor goes into growing produce without the use of pesticides or herbicides. Because of the higher cost, it may not be realistic to always include organic foods in your diet. If you are on a limited budget, it s better to eat as many fruits and vegetables as you can, rather than strictly buy organic and eat less, Chin advises.

The bottom line

We know through research that a diet high in fruits and vegetables decreases your risk of many diseases. These studies have been done on all types of produce, whether organic or not, Chin explains. I encourage my patients to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables regardless of where they come from, Welsh says. How organic is it? The USDA has stipulated the following standards for food labels: 100% organic. Made entirely of organic ingredients. Organic. Made of at least 95% organic ingredients. Made with organic ingredients. Contains at least 70% organic ingredients. The USDA organic seal can t be used on these products.