The Foodie

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The Organic Food Myth

March 19, 2009
by Jen O'Neill
Organic foods promise consumers a more sustainable planet and a healthier lifestyle. However, some reports indicate that the number-one green living trend may actually have a negative impact on the environment, and the health benefits of organics are not always clear. FindingDulcinea separates fact from fiction and helps you determine what to consider when buying organic.

Are Organic Foods Truly Eco-Friendly?

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A 2007 study conducted by University of Alberta suggests that buying organic food is not as eco-friendly as one might think.

The researchers found that many organic products actually travel great distances to get to the grocery store. As a result, the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by transporting organic produce is equivalent to the amount expended to bring the same quantity of traditional fruits and vegetables to market.

Although eating organic foods might be better for your health, researcher Vicki Burtt suggests that when buying green, you should consider the “food miles,” defined as “the distance food travels from the field to the grocery store.”

However, two Carnegie Mellon researchers, Christopher L. Weber and H. Scott Matthews, argue against that consideration: “despite all the attention given to food miles, the distance that food travels is only 11 percent of the average American household's food-related greenhouse gas emission.” To save on gas emissions, Weber and Matthews suggest consuming fewer dairy products and eating less meat.

Is Organic Food Always Healthier?

According to the USDA National Organic Library, the word “organic” means food that is produced free of drugs, hormones, artificial chemicals and radiation. However, the USDA makes no claims that organically grown food is more nutritious or safer than other non-organically produced food.

A report released by an advocacy group known as the Organic Center claims that organic foods are better for you than conventionally produced products. A New York Times article written in response to the report argues that there is simply not enough scientific evidence to back up that claim. However, the article quotes a plant scientist, Arthur R. Grossman of the Carnegie Institution for Science, who believes that produce grown without chemical fertilizers probably is more nutritious:  “I think it’s likely that plants grown with minimal intervention by the farmer are chemically more complex.”

When Should You Buy Organic Food?

On the other hand, eating commercially grown fruits and vegetables carries the risk of ingesting potentially toxic pesticides. The Environmental Working Group suggests that you pay particular attention to the “dirty dozen,” 12 types of produce that include apples, strawberries and spinach. These items have either a very thin skin or no skin at all, which means they may still be covered with pesticides. In addition, the organization’s site Food News ranks 45 fruits and vegetables in order of how much pesticide each is likely to contain.

The Mayo Clinic provides a number of issues to consider when deciding between organic versus commercial products, including nutrition, quality and appearance, pesticides, environment, cost and taste.
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