Organic Food: What You Need to Know

By Fran Kittel, RD

Have you noticed, when in the produce section of your grocery store, the price of organic foods? Organic foods are not only found in the produce section. They are invading all areas of your grocery store. While shopping the other day, I found a multi-grain oatmeal. Every ingredient was organic on the ingredient list of this product. WOW! But, is it worth paying a higher price? And what does organic really mean, anyway?

In the beginning, the organic movement in the United States was started by a group of farmers wanting to grow healthier food using methods better for the land. Over the years, the United States Department of Agriculture, USDA, developed organic regulations.

On the USDA website, organic food is defined as, "produced using sustainable agricultural production practices. Not permitted are most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients, or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Organic meat, poultry eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones." Only foods identified with the USDA seal are certified organic.

In spite of these good intentions, such as more specifically, organic food containing greater antioxidants, it has not been determined if these foods are more nutritious than conventional foods. The idea that organic foods have improved taste is a matter of personal taste. Oftentimes it has been said organic is safer in terms of pathogens, but organic does not necessarily mean safer for consumption.

It's important to remember that the concept of safety and organic do not go hand in hand. One good example is the lettuce scare of 1995. E. coli was found in organically grown lettuce. In spite of growing this lettuce organically, there are six different points of processing in which E. coli can be introduced into products:

  • Growing: The manure used during the growing season or introduced by wandering cattle or deer could potentially contaminate the growing food.
  • Processing: The processing area could become contaminated by a worker coming into the processing area with manure on his shoes.
  • Boxes and coolers: Enormous vats of recycled water are used to wash the lettuce. This water can be used for weeks at a time, during which time a single contaminated head of lettuce could infect thousands of other heads.
  • Transport: Trucks can be contaminated.
  • Local distributors: Unsanitary conditions or infected workers may not carefully wash their hands.
  • The consumer: Unwashed hands and handling the lettuce on an unscrubbed cutting surface can readily contaminate lettuce at home.

Although organic doesn't mean safety in foods, organic farming is still environmentally beneficial. Organic farming keeps the soil nutrient rich and reduces disease that can occur with decreased chemical use, crop rotation and properly composted natural fertilizers.

But to achieve all of this, more manual labor is necessary. People are more expensive than petrochemicals, hence the 50% increase in price for organic food. In addition, the basic principle of economics is at work here. When demand is greater than supply, prices increase. This may explain for some increase in the price of organic foods.

As an aside, the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit group based in Washington D.C. has a list of foods ranked with the most pesticides. This list is referred to as the Dirty Dozen. Foods included in the dirty dozen include:

  • Peaches
  • Apples
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Celery
  • Nectarines
  • Strawberries
  • Cherries
  • Lettuce
  • Grapes (imported)
  • Pears
  • Spinach
  • Potatoes

The last two are known high-potassium containing foods. Check with your dietitian to see whether these foods can be in your daily food intake. Of course, peeling, quartering and boiling potatoes can help decrease their potassium content. Whether the food is organic or conventionally grown, always wash your hands before handling the food. Washing and scrubbing your produce in running water helps reduce its pesticide and pathogen content. In addition cooking can assist in killing pathogens.

So the next time you find yourself in the grocery store and notice the two foods displayed side-by-side, one organic, the other conventionally grown, the choice is up to you. Has the choice become easier to make? Depending upon the food you purchase, a compromise may be able to be made. Consider limiting your organic foods to only those on the dirty dozen food list to cut down on pesticide exposure. With today's economy "stretching" those dollars is certainly the goal. Another way to save is by purchasing foods when in season.

Buying local is recommended whenever possible. This supports local farming, and you know where the food has come from! Consider visiting your local farmer's market or co-op to get fresh and in season produce. Also, when you join a co-op you get an automatic discount on everything you buy. Lastly, consider growing the food yourself. If you are limited in space, you could use a box roughly two feet square on a patio. This could provide you with enough mixed salad greens for months. Even more limited in space? Consider growing your own easy-growing herbs in pots on a window sill.

Web Resources

U.S. Department of Agriculture
American Association of Kidney Patients
Good Karma Foods
FairShare CSA Coalition
Madison Farmers' Market