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Organic: yay or nay?

posted Dec 7, 2010, 7:31 AM by Hildreth England   [ updated Dec 8, 2010, 9:22 AM ]
A question I'm asked a lot recently - especially as friends try to cut back on the grocery bill - is when and what to buy organic, and whether it's really 'better' for you.  Some friends who buy only organic will preach to me until they're blue in the face that it's the only way to purchase food.  That's a lot of peer pressure, folks...Is buying organic really the new way to 'keep up with the Joneses?'  Like a lot of people, I fall in with a group of people who purchase organic foods very selectively - because I frankly just don't have the ducats to buy everything organic.  And while I feel like it's an important way to use my purchasing power for good in terms of agricultural and environmental policy, I'm still on the fence about whether organic food is truly an equitable, "healthier" way to consume food.

The List to Use

I'll be honest - the research on 'how' and 'when' to select organic foods has been done, a lot, and by people who are eminently more qualified to say which products are best purchased organic.   I confess to blatantly copping to a list developed for consumers who just need the quick and easy when they're at the store.  Because - let's face it - our brains are on information overload already.   There's even an app you can download for your smartphone.   This list was developed by the ever-amazing consumer watchdog, the Environmental Working Group, who has a great way of keeping up with the food and agricultural industries and their effect on our health. The recommendations made to the right are here, in a handy wallet guide.

Is it more nutritious for me and my family?

There has also been more research on whether organic foods are 'better' for you.  The good scientific method lover that I am, this really is the information upon which I base my decisions.   So far, only two major studies have been (one in 2008, and one in 2009 done in the UK, reported in 2010) and both point out that, in terms of nutrient value and general nutrients, organic foods can't yet be claimed as being 'healthier' for you.   Some nutrients like vitamin C, iron, and phosphorus are more bioavailable in certain produce varieties, but there's still not enough evidence to say that 'organic food' is superior to conventional products in terms of nutrition.  There are a bevy of smaller studies, but so far, study design, funding, and small scale have kept the evidence pointing to 'organic is healthier' somewhat scarce and unreliable.

Other Benefits of Organic

Photo: Gene Alexander/USDA
What studies haven't yet taken into account are the other health benefits and holistically beneficial aspects of consuming organic foods.  Purchasing organic food products have other benefits besides the nutrition you get from eating them - especially in terms of the environment and its inhabitants, including their lack of pesticide use, their low-impact on the environment, their support of a more equitable agricultural trade.   The Organic Trade Association has a good run-down of where the smaller research studies stand in support of purchasing organic for these reasons - which go beyond nutritional health.  If you want even more information, check out the Organic Consumers Association.

Your Dollar, Your Health

While they're not necessarily nutritionally superior, if you've got the power to buy even just a few organic items each time you shop, I think it's a good decision.  Even though more research is needed on their specific health benefits, it's clear "organic" isn't just a food fad and that people, our planet, and our animals are better off by supporting the organics industry.  Not everyone can buy everything organic right now, some even say that it's just an elitist thing that gets in the way of the food justice I've talked about.  But even just a few organic purchases each week will eventually bring prices down, and that makes the holistic benefits of organic food fair and accessible for everyone - the people who cultivate it, farm it, distribute it, and eat it!