Once solely the domain of the granola crowd, organic foods have become big business. Spending on organic products has grown by nearly 20 percent over the past decade. Nearly two-thirds of American consumers purchase at least some organic foodstuffs [source: Consumer Reports]. By organic we mean foods that meet the standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Animals can't be given antibiotics or growth hormone. Farmers can't use chemical fertilizers or pesticides on their fruits and vegetables. These toxins can get into the food and be passed along to people. While the jury is out on just how harmful this can be, many people would rather not take a chance. Others prefer organic farming because its methods result in less pollution.
But other than the self-congratulatory thrill you feel after you've chosen an organic kumquat over its chemical-laden brethren in the grocery store, are there any real benefits in buying organic? While choosing foods produced without chemical pesticides and fertilizers is a "green" choice for our planet, it can also mean there's less "green" in your wallet. Organic farming is more labor intensive, and that can translate into the food being more expensive at the store. Since only the wealthiest among us can choose a diet composed totally of foods that bear the organic label, it's reassuring to know that there are only a few foods experts say should be purchased organic or not at all. Grab a pesticide-free Golden Delicious out of the fruit bowl, sit back and keep reading to find out what they are.
The outbreak of mad cow disease in the 1990s gave organic beef a big boost, but standards are the same for all animals raised to be sold as organic. Ranchers and farm owners cannot give their animals antibiotics to make them resistant to disease, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations. Some people feel overuse of antibiotics can lead to the development of drug-resistant strains of bacteria in animals and people. Growth hormone to speed the development of the animals is also banned in livestock raised for certified organic meat.
Organic meat and poultry must be fed grain that was grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. No feed that includes meat by-products -- the means of spreading mad cow disease -- is allowed. Organic beef must come from a mother that was given organic feed during the last third of her gestation.
The organic label also means the animal had access to the outdoors for some period each day. However, these requirements are not clearly defined. You shouldn't imagine a barnyard full of frolicking animals, critics warn. Outdoors may mean that a chicken was kept in a cage with a screened wall open to the outside.
Nonorganic milk can contain small traces of pesticides. Since milk is a staple food for children, this is cause for concern. Organic milk is more pure. Organic dairies give their cows feed made from grain grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Growth hormone isn't allowed. Dairy animals are not given antibiotics, which could get into the milk. Widespread use of antibiotics also increases the possibility of antibiotic-resistant bacteria developing in the future. U.S. Department of Agriculture standards say organic dairy cows must graze in a pasture for at least 120 days a year [source: Skrzycki]. The avoidance of pesticides and fertilizers in the feed and in the pasture lessens the impact of the herd on the environment. Remember, too, to look for organics in products made from milk such as yogurt, ice cream, butter and cheese.
Small amounts of pesticides may pass from chickens to eggs, and from there, on to the many foods prepared with them. Organic eggs come from birds that eat organic feed and are not pumped up with growth hormone or dosed with antibiotics.
But it's not the lack of contaminants that make organic eggs a must; it's how the eggs are produced. The philosophy here is that happy chickens lay better eggs. Proponents of organic eggs say the source makes all the difference. Top-of-the-line organic eggs come from free-range chickens that have access to a yard not treated with chemicals. As stated earlier, the definition of free-range in the U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations is open to broad interpretation, so investigate the source of your eggs if humane treatment is a factor in your purchasing.
White eggs or brown? While many people think brown eggs are more nutritious, there's no difference. The color of egg depends on the breed of chicken. White chickens lay white eggs; brown chickens lay brown. It's that simple. You don't have to limit your organic egg purchases to chicken eggs. Some organic farmers now offer a variety of exotic choices -- goose, quail, even ostrich eggs.
The morning joe made quite a journey to get to your mug. The coffee beans that produced it were probably grown in a country that doesn't regulate the use of pesticides and fertilizers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture organic label means harmful chemicals weren't used in growing or processing the beans.
But there's more to consider than just the organic label here. Look for the Fair Trade Practices label that most organic coffee carries. That designation means the people who produced the coffee beans were paid fairly and treated well.
One more item to consider before you take another sip -- is the coffee package shade-grown? Shade-grown coffee is just what it claims to be -- grown underneath the canopy of forest trees. In addition to preserving the majestic trees of the rainforest, this practice gives birds, bats and other animals a home.
Peaches (and Some Other Fruits, Too)
Ah, a peach -- the very word is synonymous with perfection. It's also No. 1 on the Environmental Working Group's list of foods with the most and the highest concentration of pesticides [source: EWG]. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a nonprofit concerned with public health and the environment. Even washing and peeling couldn't remove all the pesticides from a nonorganic peach. Peeling also takes away a lot of the fruit's nutritional benefit. Peaches aren't the only culprit for pesticide contamination, though. Many fruits have high levels of pesticides. Apples and nectarines rank high on the scale of pesticide-laden foods. Strawberries absorb a lot of poison through their thin skins. You can't peel a strawberry, either. The same goes for cherries. Grapes -- and raisins -- fall under this category, as well. Many fruit juices contain grape juice, so look for the organic label there, too, especially if the juice is for kids. Buying fruit out of season is risky since standards are lax in many of the countries where it's grown.
Our friend the spud gets a double dose of poison when grown under nonorganic conditions. Growers spray pesticides on the vines above ground, while the soil gets a dose of fungicide to prevent disease where the tubers are growing. The fungicides prevent potato blight, which was the villain in the potato famine of the mid-1800s in Ireland, resulting in the deaths of about one million people. There's no good organic means to combat it, and that keeps the price of organic potatoes to more than twice that of their nonorganic fellows.
The pesticide level for sweet potatoes is a bit lower than for the Irish variety, according to the Environmental Working Group, but it, too, is still high enough to warrant springing for the organically grown ones.
Peppers (and a Few Other Veggies)
Peppers -- be they big, sweet bells or tiny, fiery scotch bonnets -- absorb pesticides like a sponge through their thin skins. They are prone in insect infestation, too, so they're subject to heavy sprayings of insecticides on the big commercial farms. Many peppers are imports from other countries where standards are not as restrictive as those in the United States. Even washing and peeling the colorful beauties can't eliminate the contamination.
Other veggies that show a high level of pesticide residue are celery, green beans and tomatoes. Cherry and grape tomatoes are small and difficult to wash. Celery has no protective skin so it's another candidate for organic purchase. The Environmental Working Group also rates carrots and cauliflower as questionable in term of pesticide load; so if you're skittish, you might want to look for their organic versions [source: EWG].
The salad bowl sounds healthy enough, but fill it with chemical-laden greens, and some people would call it a poisoning waiting to happen. Insects, worms and slugs love the tender leaves of spinach and lettuce just as much as we do. Some of the most potent pesticides in use are sprayed right on the leaves we crunch on in our chef's salad. Spinach had the highest number of pesticides of any vegetable tested in the Environmental Working Group's study [source: EWG]. Organic growers use traps, nontoxic repellents and mesh nets to keep the insects at bay.
Greens such as kale, mustard greens, turnip greens and collards are also at high risk of pesticide contamination. Purchase organic versions of these hearty greens if they're available.
Babies and small children are especially susceptible to the harmful effects of pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and chemicals. Because baby food is often made of condensed vegetables and fruit, the level of any chemicals found on the food is intensified.
Many pesticides used on fruits and vegetables are toxic to the brain and can interfere with development. The synthetic growth hormone used in meat can potentially cause early puberty in girls [source: Cornell]. Exposure to toxins at certain phases of development can be critical. Toxins that would have no effect on an adult can harm the nervous system and brain of a child. Factor in the baby's small body size, and you could have a dangerous combination.
Even if a child has been eating nonorganic food, making the switch can influence the level of pesticides in the blood [source: Curl]. Eating organic can benefit a child even before he or she is born. Toxic chemicals in a mother's bloodstream can pass through to her fetus [source: Consumer Reports].
Your Own Personal Faves
Harmful chemicals are all around us -- in our bodies, in our environment and in our food. Maybe you can tolerate a little bit of pesticide, but, like anything else, you can overdo it. Experts say anything you eat in abundance should be organic in order to avoid overexposure to certain chemicals. While a little bit of pesticide residue in your favorite tortilla chips may be OK, if you eat a bag of them a day, you may be flirting with toxic buildup (not to mention obesity). Same with peanut butter, rib eye steaks, corn and so on. It's especially important to remember this rule for babies and children because their small body size means toxins can accumulate quickly.
If you're thinking of giving up meat, but can't stand the thought of never eating seafood again, you might want to consider the pescatarian diet.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Consumer Reports. "Better for Baby? Our analysis finds organic food is safer for children." January 2006. (Feb. 17, 2009). http://www.ConsumerReports.org
- Curl, Cynthia L. et al. "Organophosphorus Pesticide Exposure of Urban and Suburban Preschool Children with Organic and Conventional Diets." Environmental Health Perspectives. Vol. 111, no. 3, Page 377-382. March 2003. (Feb. 17, 2009). http://www.ehponline.org
- Cornell University Sprecher Institute for Comparative Cancer Research. "Consumer Concern About Hormones in Food." June 2000. (Feb. 17, 2009). http://www.envirocancer.cornell.edu/Factsheet/Diet/fs37.hormones.cfm
- Environmental Working Group. "Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce." Oct. 4, 2006. (Feb. 17, 2009). http.//www.foodnews.org/
- Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. "Organic foods? Are they safer? More nutritious?" Dec. 20, 2008. (Feb. 17, 2009). http://www.mayoclinci.com/health/organic-food/NU00255
- Skrzycki, Cindy. "USDA Trying to Put Loophole in Organic Dairy Rules Out to Pasture." The Washington Post. Nov. 4, 2008. (Feb. 17, 2009). http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/11/03/AR2008110303000.html