Should we eat organic or conventional foods?
The answer is not that simple.
Take, for example, the choice between a conventional apple or an organic apple.
Both apples are firm, shiny and red, points out Mayo Clinic officials. Both provide vitamins and fiber, and both are free of fat, sodium and cholesterol.
What is your choice?
If you can afford organic food, it may be better for your family as well as for the environment, says Kelly Rumpf, Health Educator for the Dickinson-Iron District Health Department.
The organic farming movement arose in the 1940s in response to the industrialization of agriculture, according to Wikipedia.
Promoted by the organic foods industry, many believe that organic food is safer, more nutritious, and tastes better than conventional food.
As a result the demand for organic foods has increased despite higher prices and lack of scientific evidence.
Organic food prices, by the way, can be twice that of conventional foods.
Whether organic food is more nutritious is an ongoing debate.
The answer is not yet clear, the Mayo Clinic says.
A recent study examined the past 50 years' worth of scientific articles about the nutrient content of organic and conventional foods. The researchers concluded that organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs are comparable in their nutrient content.
Research in this area is ongoing, Mayo Clinic officials said.
Before you go to the super market, area residents need to be informed consumers, Rumpf says.
Below, she lists some information that can help.
What makes a food organic?
Organic is a term that identifies how farmers grow and process produce, dairy products, and meat. Farmers who practice organic methods don't use chemicals to fertilize, control weeds, or prevent diseases. Instead they use more natural approaches that help to nurture the soil. They spread mulch to keep weeds at bay and rotate crops to keep the soil free of pests.
For example, instead of spraying synthetic insecticides to reduce pests and disease, organic farmers spray pesticides from natural sources; use beneficial insects and birds, mating disruption or traps to reduce pests and disease.
Instead of giving animals antibiotics, growth hormones and medications to prevent disease and spur growth, organic farmers give animals organic feed and allow them access to the outdoors. They also use preventive measures - such as rotational grazing, a balanced diet and clean housing - to help minimize disease.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program has established three levels of organic labeling:
- A green "USDA organic" seal can be used if the product is 100 percent organic.
- Foods labeled "organic" are at least 95 percent organic. Any remaining ingredients must consist of approved non-agricultural substances on a national USDA list, including specific non-organically produced agricultural products that are not commercially available in organic form.
- Processed products, such as crackers or canned soup, labeled "made with organic ingredients" must have at least 70 percent organic ingredients.
Additionally, Rumpf says, any product with less than 70 percent organic ingredients cannot use the term "organic" in the main label or display area of the product, although they can list organic ingredients in a more detailed information panel.
Also be aware that foods labeled "all-natural," "hormone-free," and "free-range" are not organic, she said.
Is organic food more nutritious?
It's up for debate. There is some preliminary information (www.everydayhealth.com/diet-nutrition/101/food-safety/is-organic-better.aspx) that perhaps organic has some higher levels of nutrition. Others, however, are saying not so much.
"The nutritional value often depends on the distance and time it takes to ship the food," Rumpf said. "If you live in Michigan and buy an apple from Washington state, it won't be as fresh and nutritious as an apple picked in Michigan. What's better is if you can find a local farmer who grows organic. If that's not feasible, frozen organic food is certainly a great option."
"Another problem is the cost of buying all organic," she said. "If you look at the vast majority of people in this country, most are all struggling financially. So making a hard recommendation about whether to buy all organic for kids is not realistic."
"If people can afford it, they should at least buy organic dairy, poultry, and produce," she said.
Here are other considerations as you debate the merits of organic vs. conventional food:
Organic farmers are helping save the planet. That's a big reason why people may choose to buy organic food. Organic farmers produce food in ways that are intended to benefit the environment, reduce pollution, and conserve soil and water.
Most conventional farmers use pesticides. Washing or peeling the skin of fruits and vegetables can help get rid of pesticides, but it may also decrease the nutrition and fiber found in the otherwise edible peels. Some people choose organic food to completely avoid these chemicals. (Experts currently agree that the small amount of pesticides found on produce is harmless.)
Organic food costs more. Farming practices, such as mulching and weeding instead of spraying pesticides, are more expensive and the amount of food produced is less.
Organic food doesn't always look as perfect. Since organic food is not treated with preservatives or sprayed with wax to extend shelf life, the vegetables and fruit may be somewhat oddly shaped or have a shorter shelf life.
"Be as thoughtful as you can and focus more on buying locally produced food, which is always the best option," Rumpf said.