In recent years, we have become far more interested in the details of our food– what’s in it, where does it come from, how was it produced, and how much were the people who worked to harvest it paid? We’re getting smarter about what we support with our dollar, and we’re growing more cautious about the things we put into our bodies. As metabolic disorders, cancers and other health issues seem to proliferate, many of us scrutinize every aspect of our lifestyle in attempt to keep ourselves healthy as long as possible. In response to our demand for information and healthy options, the health food market has exploded. Where we once had one or two ‘safe’ options, we now find ourselves overwhelmed by choices– each one pricier than the conventional product. Gluten-free, Vegan, GMO-free, no high fructose corn syrup, natural, and humane are just a few of the labels we see every day.
In the era of health food scams and appealing but ultimately useless marketing schemes, it is only reasonable that the average consumer would develop a healthy sense of skepticism each time they are confronted with inflated price tags which are accompanied by promises of ‘improved health’ and ‘superfood benefits’. If most people purchased every ‘healthy’ option they were presented with, they would go bankrupt within a single grocery trip. Now that we have all the healthy options we could possibly want, we have to choose.
Today, one of the most hotly debated labels is the organic food label. Is organic worth it? Are conventionally grown products harmful to your health? In sum: Is organic food actually better for you?
To answer this question, we first need to define what organic means. Simply put, organic means that the food was produced without synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, ionizing radiation, genetically modified organisms, growth hormones, or antibiotics. ‘Organic’, unlike ‘natural’ and a few other common words, is a heavily regulated label. This means that a government-approved organization must inspect each farm before they can sell their products as organic.
Organic food generally costs more than conventionally-grown food because growers don’t receive massive government subsidies– meaning that the sticker price is reflective of the money it takes to produce the product. Organic farms also tend to be smaller, so the supply is lower, and organic farming requires more labor than the conventional methods.
That being said, organic food is often worth the slight increase in price. Aside from the fact that many consumers report enjoying organic food more than the conventionally-grown versions, the current research suggests that there are many health benefits to investing in organic food when you can afford it. Here are a few of the suspected health benefits of buying organic:
Health Benefits of Organic Food
1) There are no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.
This is the most commonly cited reason for going organic. In order for a food to earn the organic certification, the farmer must prove that their product is never exposed to synthetic fertilizer or harsh pesticides. This means that organic food does not contain trace amounts of any of the most dangerous pesticides used today, like atrazine, thiodicarb, or organophosphates. This can be especially important for pregnant women, because several studies have suggested that exposure to organophosphates during pregnancy can lead to a reduction in overall IQ and working memory. These were observational studies, so more research is needed, but the results are enough to give cautious parents pause.
Exposure to these synthetic pesticides has also been shown to correlate with breast cancer, neurological disorders, hormonal imbalances, and reproductive problems. There are also suspicions that pesticides may increase the risk of testicular cancer and lowered sperm counts in grown men.
Several studies performed on children have shown that, after switching to an organic diet, the organophosphate levels in the urine drop significantly. The effect of a switch, for many, has an immediate, measurable impact on physical health.
2) There are no cloned or genetically modified organisms in organic food.
Cloning and genetic modification are relatively new fields of food science, so it’s hard to know exactly what kind of an impact these new food products will have on human health in the long run. That hasn’t stopped the food industry from incorporating them into food sold across the country. Many scientists and health professionals believe that these products should be thoroughly tested before we eat them regularly, and many health-conscious consumers agree.
Today, 30% of crops grown in the United States are genetically modified organisms, including over 85% of corn and soy crops– which, if you read the ingredients on most packaged foods, you will realize make up a large part of many cereals, protein bars and other products. Even if you never eat corn on the cob or soybeans, it is very likely you are exposed to genetically modified corn and soy on a regular basis! The organic label is the best way to ensure you never eat GMOs.
3) Organic food is not irradiated.
Conventional food is often treated with radiation to prolong shelf life or kill pests. Organic foods are never exposed to ionizing radiation.
If you’ve decided to buy organic (as many people do), but you fear for your budget, take a deep breath. While it’s ideal to reduce your exposure to conventionally-grown foods as much as you can, some foods are safer than others. Some foods ‘hold onto’ more pesticides and dangerous chemicals than others.
Here is a list of the foods that you should, if at all possible, purchase organic. They are the most heavily pesticide-laden crops today.
-Sugar snap peas
Other thick-skinned produce, like pineapple, avocados, mangos, pomegranate and kiwi, are usually safe to buy conventional. Cauliflower, asparagus, onions and frozen sweet peas are generally low in pesticides, too.
While many food fads will come and go with little effect on your health, the organic label is more than just a marketing tactic. Organic food costs a little bit more than its conventional rivals, but purchasing certain items organic can greatly reduce your risk of developing chronic or even life-threatening illnesses. Organic food, for the products which are exposed to high levels of pesticides, is worth the investment.