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Tuesday, June 6, 2023
June 6, 2023

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Is organic food better for your health?

Advocates promote lack of pesticides


If there’s any dietary wisdom, it’s that you do a body good by eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Certainly, the experts agree with both the American Heart Association and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “MyPlate” program recommending that we fill half our plate each day with plant-based foods.

Thanks to their reputation for being more nutritious, as well as better for the environment, foods labeled “organic” are increasingly the choice. According to the Organic Trade Association, the leading voice for organic trade in the U.S., sales of such food products grew from an estimated $26.9 billion in 2010 to more than $63 billion in 2021. Perhaps not surprisingly, fresh fruits and vegetables accounted for the largest portion of all organic food sales in 2021, followed by eggs and dairy, beverages, packaged foods, bread/grains, snack foods and condiments, and meat/fish/poultry.

Also no surprise: Upscale and millennial/Gen Z consumers are more apt to buy organic than older shoppers. And the vast majority is purchased at conventional grocery stores, though sales also happen at farmers markets and through community-supported agriculture shares.

Eighty-two percent of U.S. households reported organic purchases in 2016. “And we expect that healthy trend to just keep getting stronger,” said OTA executive director and CEO Laura Batcha.

At Giant Eagle, one of the biggest sellers in the growing organic category is the chain’s salad blends and premade salads, says director of sustainability Cara Mercil. “But we certainly sell a lot of apples and oranges, and there’s tons of growth in berries right now.” Five years ago, an organic strawberry would have been rare in the produce aisle; now it’s consistent across all locations.

The trend extends to packaging, with customers looking for products that come in biodegradable or fully recycled containers, Mercil says, “which is something that didn’t exist even three or four years ago.”

Yet with so many cashing in on America’s growing taste for healthier foods — some fraudulently — do you really know what you’re buying when you reach for something with the USDA Organic Seal? And does it actually make a difference to your health?

A new rule from the U.S. Department of Agriculture aims to help answer the first question.

In effect as of March 20, the Strengthening Organic Enforcement rule will boost oversight and enforcement of products labeled organic, both domestically and imported. The new provisions will also affect USDA-accredited agents and inspectors in an effort to give consumers more confidence that the products they’re buying are actually organic.

As for the second question, there’s no easy answer, says registered dietitian Miriam Seidel, who is also an associate professor of nutrition at Chatham University.

Figuring out labels is the easy part, because the USDA has four distinct labeling categories for organic products: 100 percent organic, organic, “made with” organic ingredients, and specific organic ingredients.

“If it says 100 percent organic on a package of food, that means everything inside the package was organically grown, except for salt and water, which are considered natural,” she says. The label also must include the name of the certifying agent.

If it just says “organic,” that means 95 percent of the ingredients are certified organic, and that 5 percent may contain nonorganic content, “and you have to look in the nutritional info on the label” to determine what.

Products that wear a “made with” label only have to contain 70 percent organically produced ingredients, Seidel continues — say, the apples or tomatoes and basil in a sauce, “but the other stuff would not be.” They would, however, have to be produced without genetic engineering.

And if it contains less than 70 percent? It cannot display the USDA Organic Seal or use the word “organic.”

Is it worth it?

What’s not so easy to determine, says Seidel, is whether paying the premium price for organic is worth it.

According to Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group, more than 70 percent of nonorganic fresh produce sold in the U.S. contains residues of potentially harmful pesticides. Certainly buying organic is a win for the farmworkers and laborers who otherwise would be applying the pesticides and herbicides that are a hallmark of conventional farming, putting them at risk for cancers and birth defects. It’s also kinder to the planet.

The EPA has looked carefully at most of the chemicals used in conventional agriculture, “and they will tell you there is no residue that is in such a great amount that it’s harmful to our bodies,” says Seidel. For instance, while strawberries can be treated with as many as 17 different pesticides during growing, none of the residues found on the fruit exceeded the established tolerance, according to the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program.

Others beg to differ.

“Groups like the (nonprofit) National Resources Defense Council say, OK, the EPA is looking at one particular ingredient and doing all these different tests and extrapolating that to humans,” says Seidel. But as strawberries demonstrate, foods often are treated with at least two and often several different pesticides. “And what scientists are not good at is understanding the synergistic effects.”

Sure, maybe one is below what the EPA considers dangerous. “But what about when you put them together?” Seidel says. And because those studies haven’t been done, no one can say for sure what counts as the “bad stuff.”

Washing helps to remove bacteria and wax, “but you cannot rinse off pesticides,” she notes. “It is inside the tissue of the food.”

Foods that come in a “case” that you can peel off and don’t have leaves or rind you eat, like cantaloupe, pineapple or corn, are OK because the pesticides can’t get inside, says Seidel. And while it’s helpful to peel something like a fruit, doing so also gets rid of nutrients.

So what’s a thoughtful consumer to do?

For the past couple decades, the Environmental Working Group has released its annual “Dirty Dozen list” to warn shoppers against produce with the most pesticide residue. Strawberries head the 2022 list, followed by spinach; kale, collard and mustard greens; nectarines; apples; grapes; bell peppers and hot peppers; cherries; peaches; pears; celery; and tomatoes.

Suddenly feeling stressed? EWG counters their list of unsafe foods with the “Clean 15,” a checklist of fruits and veggies that had the lowest concentrations of pesticide residues. This year, avocados and sweet corn took top honors, and you also can feel good about eating pineapple, onions, papaya, sweet peas (frozen), asparagus, honeydew melon, kiwi, cabbage, mushrooms, cantaloupe, mangoes, watermelon and sweet potatoes.