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Organic foods: Are they really better?

The growing of organic foods has turned into a booming industry, but what exactly does it mean for you?

By SHEILA G. DEAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 10, 2000


Organic food isn't just for health food stores anymore. Sales reached $4-billion in 1999 and the national supermarket chains claim a big chunk of that money.

The boom doesn't appear to be slowing. The American Dietetic Association predicts annual growth in the double digits for the next few years. Pretty good news for the makers of products that can cost up to 50 percent more than their non-organic counterparts.

At one time, I would have taught my college students that the only acceptable definition for the word "organic," lies in its chemistry roots, which is any substance containing carbon. Although I still teach that to be true, I now add to its definition another aspect.

Organic, a buzzword of these nutrition-minded times, generally means grown without artificial chemical pesticides and fertilizers that conventional farmers use to boost yields.

Or does it?

It appears that defining organic is not that simple. An organic label on produce could mean different things. What's considered "organic" in one state may not be in another. In fact, 20 states have no rules governing organic food. The inconsistencies in labels and the resulting confusion among consumers prompted a group of organic farmers to approach the federal government in 1989, requesting that lawmakers establish a national standard to dictate how organic food is grown in each state.

In response, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990, which called for the secretary of Agriculture to assemble a team -- including farmers, scientists, processors, consumer advocates and retailers -- to develop federal rules for organic food production and labeling. At present, in an attempt to reach a standard definition, the 1995 National Organic Standards Board defines organic agriculture as "an ecological production management system that promotes biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity."

But the question remains: Is organic better? The answer depends on how you look at it. For example, experts agree that there is little or no nutritional difference between organic and conventionally grown crops.

There is no evidence that organically grown produce is nutritionally superior. Produce grown using conventional farming techniques has a longer shelf-life, and thus keeps nutrients longer. On the other hand, organic foods, grown without the preservation qualities of pesticides, have a shorter self-life. Organic growers usually yield smaller crops. These factors are what makes organic foods more expensive.

The difference lies, mainly, in the environmental, social and political implications of conventional farming techniques.

"Organic symbolizes that consumers are buying something different. The organic difference is food safety, environmental impact, animal welfare and support for family farms. Organics limit the fear factor in foods; not only pesticides, but antibiotics," said Amy Barr, communications director for Horizen Organic Dairy in Boulder, Colo.

The use of pesticides, including insecticides, herbicides and fungicides, has dramatically increased in the last 50 years. This is not only harmful for the food supply, but also threatens the environment by causing toxic runoff of pesticides into water supplies. Additionally, these techniques put certain food varieties at risk for extinction. Even the National Organic Standards Board states that "the primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people."

The inability to balance safety and sustenance has led some people to avoid fruits and vegetables altogether. This can be a harmful decision because the one thing researchers know for certain is that the risk of many diseases can be decreased by eating fruits and vegetables, whether they're grown with pesticides or not.

Ultimately, mounting concern about pesticides is the driving force behind the skyrocketing demand for organic foods. Although eating more organically grown foods might not give your body more nutrients, the methods used to farm organically are probably better for the environment and by extension, society at large.

Sheila Dean, a registered dietitian and freelance writer, is the chief sports nutritionist at the Ironman Institute in Palm Harbor. She is an instructor at the University of Tampa and St. Petersburg Junior College. For additional information, Sheila can be reached at SDeanRD@aol.com.

Know more

The Organic Trade Association offers a mail-order list of organic products, everything from T-shirts to herbs. To get the list, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the Organic Trade Association, P.O. Box 547, Greenfield, MA 01302. The Web site is http://www.ota.com.

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