The health value of organic food is a frequent talking — and even fighting — point in the media. The debate heated up after a large research study published last year suggested organic produce and meat is no more nutritious than nonorganic, “conventional” food.
With farmers market season upon us, you might wonder: Are organic foods really more healthful? Or, is this just another example of a food belief system, as in “I believe this food is healthier, so therefore it is … never mind what science says”?
The study, conducted by Stanford University, has been picked apart endlessly. One criticism is that the type of study, a meta-analysis (a statistical compilation of numerous research studies done by other people), may not be suitable for something as variable as agriculture. Everything from weather, geography, plant variety and degree of ripeness when picked can affect nutrient levels in produce.
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Can we say conclusively that organic produce is more nutritious? Maybe not. Maybe never. But food scientists and plant biologists know of at least a few ways that organically grown fruits and vegetables can develop more nutrients. For example, without the protection of chemical pesticides, plants need to beef up their innate defenses by producing phytochemicals. Conveniently, these natural compounds are repellent to pests but health-promoting when eaten by humans.
If we’re worried about getting enough nutrition from our fruits and vegetables, there is a bigger issue at hand: Most people are simply not eating enough fruits and vegetables. Market research data tells us that, on average, children and adults eat slightly more than one cup of vegetables and half a cup of fruit each day. That’s a far cry from MyPlate, the United States Department of Agriculture recommendations, to “make half your plate fruits and vegetables.”
If nutrients are important to you, also consider how far your apples or tomatoes travel to get to your plate. The shorter the time and distance from harvest to table, the fresher and more nutritious your fruits and veggies. Produce is often picked unripe for long-distance shipping, before it has had a chance to reach its full nutrient potential. Shipping and storage conditions can further degrade nutrients.
Nutrition aside, are there reasons to buy organic? I think so. Eating organic foods reduces your exposure to chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Supporting organic farming reduces the exposure of farmworkers — and the environment — to these chemicals. Livestock raised under organic guidelines aren’t fed antibiotics or growth hormones. Finally, organic farming generally goes hand-in-hand with good land stewardship.
If you’re on the fence, or if cost is an issue (yes, organic produce can be more expensive), prioritize where you put your grocery dollars. Many people use the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists (www.ewg.org/foodnews/) as a starting point. Basing your organic shopping list on what’s on sale and what’s in season can save money. Finally, keep in mind that locally grown produce, even when conventional, needs less chemical processing since it doesn’t need to be shipped.
So go pay a visit to your nearest farmers market!
Next time: Nutrition, just for men.
Carrie Dennett: firstname.lastname@example.org. Dennett is a graduate student in the Nutritional Sciences Program at the University of Washington; her blog is nutritionbycarrie.com.