Faced with an array of choices at the grocery store, one may wonder – does the label “organic” really mean anything? Thanks to the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and its implementing regulation, the National Organic Program (NOP), it does. The Act defines and regulates organic food, creating a uniform national standard for what may be labeled “organic.” In addition, organic producers must be certified by the United States Department of Agriculture.
To qualify as organic, food must have been produced without synthetic chemicals; however, there are exceptions: Certain non-organic ingredients may be used if they are not commercially available in organic form and if they fall under one of the enumerated exceptions in the NOP’s National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. Although some people complain that organic standards are being corrupted by big producers, indeed a troubling development, a product that is 95% pesticide-free is not a bad alternative to conventional foods.
There are varying degrees of “organic” and corresponding labels: a product that uses only organic ingredients is labeled “100% Organic,” one that uses 95% organic ingredients is “USDA Organic,” one that uses at least 75% organic ingredients is merely “made with organic [insert ingredient],” and one that uses less than 75% organic ingredients is relegated to the metaphorical basement of the food label – the ingredient section.
Organic foods tend to be more expensive than conventional foods – although the label “conventional” is misleading, as prior to the twentieth century all food was generally organic since it wasn’t grown with pesticides and other chemicals. But why should we pay more for organic?
First, although organic food isn’t necessarily more nutritious than conventional food it is healthier because it uses fewer pesticides and other chemicals. Organic foods expose the body to fewer pesticides and antibiotics than conventional foods. Consumption of pesticides can have adverse health effects, especially on children. A person who eats organic will, over time, be healthier than a person who does not simply because fewer chemicals will be in the person’s body.
Second, you get what you pay for. The price of organic food only reflects the higher cost of production. The cost of producing organic foods reflects an end product that: does not contain synthetic pesticides, antibiotics, or chemical preservatives; avoids using such appetizing things as sewage sludge and chemicals for fertilizer; and doesn’t use growth hormones to speed up crop production. Furthermore, organic farmers do not get the billion dollar subsidies that industrial farmers receive to artificially depress their prices.
Finally, organic foods prohibit the use of genetically modified organisms, and tend to exclude additives like the high fructose corn syrup prevalent in processed foods and known to have adverse dietary effects.
So what can you do if you are on a budget but want to be kind to your body? Certain foods inherently trap and retain high amounts of pesticide residue. Additionally, you can try to buy organic when it comes to the following foods that tend to have high amounts of pesticide residue: apples, celery, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, hot peppers, nectarines, peaches, potatoes, strawberries, spinach, sweet bell peppers, kale, collard greens, zucchini, lettuce, blueberries, beef, milk, and wine. Conversely, foods that have low pesticide residue and probably don’t need to be bought organic are: onions, avocados, corn on the cob, pineapple, mango, asparagus, sweet peas, cabbage, eggplant, papaya, broccoli, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes.