Organic and Conventional foods; Is there really any difference besides price?
It is widely accepted that organically grown produce and meats are much “healthier” for you than are their conventionally grown and prepared counterparts. So much so, that many Americans are willing to pay sometimes up to five times as much for organic foods than for conventionally grown products. Organic foods are said to be far more nutritious as far as their vitamin and mineral content and also contain less contaminants than conventionally produced crops, meats and other products. When I begin researching for this article, my intent was to quantify these differences in nutritional content between the two methods and determine the amounts of contaminants both organic and conventionally products contained relative to each other. Basically, I wanted to justify doubling my weekly grocery bill in order to eat “healthier” and thus, eat organic foods. What I found was not exactly what I anticipated.
What makes food organic?
In order for a food to use the “100% Organic” or “Organic” (which is 95% or more organic, but not 100%) moniker; a number of criteria must be met. For one, the use of all chemical fertilizers, weed killers, insecticides, herbicides are prohibited; as is the use of any hormones, medications or antibiotics in livestock to be labeled organic. Rather, all natural fertilizer such as manure, the use of beneficial insects and birds to ward off pests, old-fashioned manually weeding and using organic feed for animals must be used. In addition to this, the soil by which the products are grown must also meet organic guideline, which basically means that none of these aforementioned chemicals can have been used on the grounds for a discernible period of time before organic farming can begin. If the ground was used prior for conventional farming and a farmer wishes to begin organic farming, the land must lay dormant for a period of time to eliminate all residual chemicals. Ultimately, rewind the clock to the 1790’s and farm as they farmed and that is organic farming. (FYI, in 1790, 95% of Americans were farmers, today that number is about 2%. This can speak to the effectiveness of conventional farming methods if nothing else.)
What is the nutritional difference between organic vs. conventionally produced foods?
This topic is a little tricky and needs more explanation than just quick and dirty data collection. If you were to go purchase 10 assorted organic products and 10 identical products that were produced conventionally, you would find that the nutritional content of the organically produced products had higher levels of vitamins, minerals and other measurable nutrients. This clearly shows that organic farming produces foods with a higher nutritional content, or does it? While this sounds like all the evidence one needs, and proponents of organic foods will end the argument here, a little more research and intuition is needed. The fact is, there is one key discernible variable that is responsible for this disparity, and it isn’t the organic growing procedure. Rather, as mentioned earlier, organic soil must be prepped for a significant period of time and lay dormant to meet organic criteria. While the soil lays dormant, it gets a chance to recharge itself with nutrients and nitrogen that are integral in the growing of nutritious foods. Conversely, conventional farms produce the same crops, on the same land, year after year. Over time, this produces a degradation of the soil quality that results in decreased nutritional content of the foods that are grown on this land. In fact, comparing conventional foods grown since 1960 to now, levels of minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron and phosphorous have decreased in the foods by 10%-40%. This is using the same land and the same growing methods. The only variable is that the soil has been depleted. To illustrate the real difference between organic vs. conventional nutritional content; a study was conducted that divided a freshly prepped organic-soil plot of land into two equal parts. On one half, 100% organic methods were used to raise the crops, on the other half, conventional methods were used. The result? There was no measurable difference between the nutritional content of the organic or conventionally grown foods. Thus showing the key variable is the soil quality and not organic farming that makes the difference. With that said, organic food is almost always grown in better soil than conventional crops so will have a higher nutritional content in most cases, but this is a function of the nutrient-laden soil and not the organic farming methods. Apples to apples, grown in the same soil, nutrition levels are essentially identical.
Are organic foods safer and contain less contamination?
Since organic foods are grown with no contaminants, they will have no contamination resulting from their growing procedure. This leaves us with the evaluation of the contaminants in conventionally produced foods. The most noteworthy contaminant of conventionally grown foods is not what is in the foods, but rather what is on the foods. Pesticides, herbicides etc. do not seem to infiltrate the crop at any measurable level in the conventional growing process. They do, however, get all over the outside of the crops as they are sprayed during the growing process. Luckily, they can to a great extent be simply washed off as they are prepared for consumption. So, while it is impossible to remove all of these contaminants, simple washing can reduce them to a level that is negligible. The other variable for evaluation is the use of hormones, antibiotics and medicines in livestock. While it certainly seems that these would have an adverse reaction to those who consume them over a long period of time, to date, no study has been able to demonstrate that this is fact. So as of now, we just don’t know. Perhaps the cooking process destroys the hormones etc? Perhaps they do not make their way into the meat/milk/edible portion of the livestock? Maybe they do but are in amounts so low they have no effect. Either way, there does not seem to be an impact that can be measured at this time, but that is not to say a potential hazard does not exist, it just has not been demonstrated through any study I have found. So use your own judgment.
In all, purchasing organic food does not seem to be a very good value proposition at this time. Given, if someone has an exorbitant amount of money to spend it definitely won’t hurt you to go organic. However, very few people have the means to purchase all organic foods at their current prices and it seems that non-organic foods are completely safe and effective. I will not be going out of my way or deep into my pocket to purchase organic foods, but I will spend a little more time washing my fruits and vegetables.