The popularity of organic foods continues to grow despite its higher price tag. Though some research has found organic food to be no more nutritious than its conventional counterpart, not all studies agree. Despite the conflicting results of nutrient content studies, the benefits of organic foods go far beyond vitamins and minerals.
Organic production of food is based on farming that maintains and replenishes the soil without toxic pesticides and fertilizers, according to the Organic Trade Association, a business organization for the organic industry in North America. “Organically produced foods also must be produced without the use of antibiotics, synthetic hormones, genetic engineering and other excluded practices, sewage sludge, or irradiation,” they state. The Organic Trade Association has been a key player in the regulatory and market environment for organic products since 1985.
People are looking for much more than added nutrition when they purchase organic foods. They buy organic food because they believe it is the healthier choice for their families—and they are right. Beyond the debated superior nutrient content of organic foods, the reduced exposure to pesticides, synthetic hormones, GMOs, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria are all important health benefits of eating organic. Not to mention that organic farming improves soil quality helps ensure the success of future harvests, thus providing a sustainable farming method that supports generations to come.
Reduced pesticide exposure
The health benefits of eating organic reach far beyond the plate. One recent and well-publicized review by Stanford researchers published in the scientific journal Annals of Internal Medicine concluded that organic foods offer no benefit over conventional when it comes to nutrition. However, the review also noted that consumption of organic foods reduces exposure to pesticide residues by about 30 percent when compared to conventional foods.
Reduction of pesticide exposure from food is a powerful health benefit, as shown by a study from the National Institutes of Health that found children exposed to even low amounts of pesticides from food are more likely to exhibit symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Similarly, previous studies have found that children who were exposed to higher blood concentrations of organophosphates in the womb were more likely to have poor mental and motor development by ages 2 and 3. Postnatal exposure to organophosphates was associated with memory difficulties and problems with attention, motor tasks, behavior, and reaction time. (Organophosphates are a large family of pesticides commonly used in agriculture.)
According to the 2009 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, concentrations of organophosphorus insecticides have increased when compared to concentrations measured in 2001. Perhaps not coincidentally, the rate of ADHD diagnosis has been steadily increasing for more than a decade. You can reduce your family’s exposure to organophosphate pesticides by choosing organic foods when possible.
Non-GMO label in disguise
One of the easiest ways to be sure you are not eating genetically-modified foods (commonly called GMOs, though they would be more accurately called genetically-engineered foods) is to choose organic foods. Organic foods by definition cannot contain GMOs. Genetically-modified foods are not labeled as such, yet concern about the negative health and environmental effects of consuming GMOs is widespread, due to the lack of long-term studies evaluating potential risks. Though recent attempts to enforce labeling of genetically-modified foods in California may have failed, you can still avoid GMOs by eating organic foods.
When genetically-modified crops were introduced, it was thought they would reduce the need for chemical pesticides—it is now clear that just the opposite is true. GMOs have led to the development of “superweeds” that are resistant to the pesticides for which they were developed. As a result, farmers are resorting to older, stronger pesticides that have more negative environmental effects because they break down slower than newer pesticides. The uncertainty that surrounds the safe use of genetically-modified foods is enough of a reason to avoid these foods by choosing organic.
Organic meat and milk—you are what you eat
Organic standards of raising livestock involve feeding the animals 100-percent-organic food and giving them access to the outdoors, fresh air, water, sunshine, grass, and pasture. According to the Organic Trade Association, “No animal byproducts of any sort are incorporated in organic feed at any time.” In addition, organic livestock cannot be given antibiotics or growth hormones, both allowed in conventional agriculture.
Due to concerns about the link between inappropriate use of antibiotics in conventional livestock operations and increased cases of antibiotic resistance in humans, organic foods offer a health advantage that will only increase as more people choose organic meats. Conventional chicken and pork, for example, have a 33 percent higher risk for contamination with antibiotic-resistant bacteria than organic foods.
The “superbugs” created by the inappropriate use of antibiotics threaten the very real possibility that we will run out of effective antibiotics before long. Similar to the way organic food offers a solution to the superweed problem introduced by GMOs, organic food also offers a solution to the superbug problem introduced by antibiotic use as a fattener of livestock.
Organic milk is another popular choice due to concerns about recombinant bovine growth hormone, a genetically-engineered hormone administered to dairy cows as a way to increase milk production. Organic milk is free from added hormones, genetically-engineered or otherwise. In addition, organic dairy cows must spend a certain amount of their time grazing, which increases the amount of beneficial omega-3 fats in their milk.
Health for the whole family
Whether you are looking to reduce the amount of pesticides in the fruits and vegetables you and your family consume, trying to avoid unnecessary antibiotics in your meats, or concerned about the unknown risks of genetically-modified foods, you’re not alone. According to the 2011 Families’ Organic Attitudes and Beliefs study, 78 percent of US families are buying organic foods, up from 73 percent in 2009.
To be certain the food you buy is organic, look for the USDA Organic seal on packaged foods, which tells you that a product is at least 95 percent organic. On single-ingredient foods, look for the word organic and the USDA Organic seal on signs, packaging, or on a sticker placed directly on the produce. If a product is labeled, “Made with organic ingredients,” it must contain at least 70-percent organic ingredients according to USDA standards.
Organic foods provide a multitude of benefits—some of which have been determined, some of which are still in question, and many of which will become apparent as the years go on. For many people, the choice to eat organic food goes beyond the individual. Organic food production standards seek to leave the environment the same or better than it was before. In this way, the very premise of organic food production helps make the world a better place. Choose organic foods so that you can become a part of this movement, one bite at a time.