Safety and Nutritional Value of Organic Foods

The nutrient content of plants is determined primarily by heredity, and organic foods generally contain no less fat or sodium, or more vitamins, minerals, or fiber, than the same food grown using conventional methods.

However, organic farming methods can enhance soil fertility, resulting in an increased concentration of some minerals and phtyochemicals in organic food. Organic food cannot be guaranteed pesticide-free, though organic farmers use only naturally occurring pesticides such as sulfur, copper, nicotine, and Bacillus thuringiensis (a naturally occurring bacterial disease of insects). Organic foods may contain pesticide residues that have drifted from farm to farm, or residual pesticides found in soil or water, though the amounts of such residues are certainly greater in conventionally produced foods, where pesticides are directly applied to the crops.

Furthermore, there is no evidence of consistent differences in appearance, flavor, or texture between organic foods and conventionally produced foods. Organic foods may be more susceptible to microbiological contamination. Several food-borne illness outbreaks resulting from Salmonella en-teriditis, Listeria monocytogenes, and E. coli O157:H7 have been associated with consumption of organically grown produce.

Organic foods can be more costly than conventionally grown foods. The USDA Economic Research Service, in USDA/ERS Food Cost Review 1950-97, reports that in 1995 an average American household with two parents and two children spent $6,992 on food. Purchasing only organic foods would increase total food costs by $4,000 to $10,977 per year. However, as the organic market grows, the cost is likely to continue to drop.

Organic agriculture is generally seen to be environmentally friendly. Organic agriculture decreases the amount of nitrogen-containing chemicals that seep into groundwater supplies, decreases soil deterioration via crop rotation, and minimizes exposure of farm workers and livestock to potentially harmful compounds. However, use of animal manures may increase the risk of food-borne illness, and a dependence on nitrogen-fixing, green-manure crops uses large amounts of land. On the other hand, these methods can make nutrients more available to subsequent crops, increase crop productivity, and conserve water resources.

Many kinds of pesticides, including insecticides and herbicides, are commonly used in producing and marketing the food supply. High doses of some of these chemicals have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals, though the low concentrations found in some foods are generally well within established limits. Environmental pollution by slowly degrading pesticides can lead to food-chain bioaccumulation and persistent residues in body fat. These residues may increase the risk for certain cancers. Studies have shown that concentrations in tissues are low, and the evidence has not been conclusive. Continued research regarding pesticide use is therefore essential to insure food safety, improved food production, and reduced environmental pollution.

Sensible food practices can significantly reduce pesticide residue on foods. Such practices include washing and scrubbing fresh produce under running water, peeling and trimming produce when possible, removing the outer leaves of leafy vegetables, and trimming fat from meat and skin from poultry and fish. Eating a variety of foods from a variety of sources will reduce the likelihood of exposure to a single pesticide.

Organic foods are produced with ecologically based practices, such as biological pest management and composting. To be labeled "organic," foods must have been produced on certified organic farms and conform to established labeling requirements. From a scientific viewpoint, organic foods are no safer or nutritious than conventionally produced foods. Most major health organizations maintain that the health benefits of consuming a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains significantly outweigh any health risk from residual pesticide, herbicide, or fertilizer consumption. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, there is no convincing evidence that eating foods containing trace amounts of chemicals such as fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and drugs used on farm animals increases the risk for cancer. Organic agriculture provides consumers with an additional choice when purchasing food, however, and also provides some assurance of where a food was produced and how it was produced. SEE ALSO Food Labels; Food Safety; Vegetarianism.

M. Elizabeth Kunkel Barbara H. D. Luccia

Bibliography

Berlau, John (1999). "The Risky Nature of Organics: Growing Produce in Manure Raises Concerns." Investor's Business Daily, March 3.

Bourn, D., and Prescott, J. (2002). "A Comparison of the Nutritional Value, Sensory Qualities, and Food Safety of Organically and Conventionally Grown Produced Foods." Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 42(1):1-34.

Hartman Group (2000). Organic Lifestyle Shopper Study: Mapping the Journey of Organic Consumers. Bellevue, WA: Author.

Williams, P. R., and Hammitt, J. K. (2001). "Perceived Risks of Conventional and Organic Produce: Pesticides, Pathogens, and Natural Toxins." Risk Analysis 21(2):319-330.

Internet Resources

Elitzak, Howard (1999). "USDA/ERS Food Cost Review 1950-97." Available from <http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/aer780/>

National Organic Standards Board. "National Organic Program." Available from <http://www.ams.usda.gov/nosb>

Nutrition Business Journal (2001). "Organic Foods Report 2001." Available from <http://www.nutritionbusiness.com>

diet: the total daily food intake, or the types of foods eaten trace: very small amount

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