It’s a dilemma I’m faced with every time I go to the grocery store. Should I be buying organic fruits, vegetables and other foods for my family? I look at the cost and compare products. I want what is healthiest and safest for my family. However, who guarantees what is actually in the display cases in the grocery store are truly organic? Who is to say that someone didn’t get the produce mixed up in the storage area? And for that matter, what does organic mean?
According to the USDA consumer brochure “Organic Food Standards and Labels: The Facts,” organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. That makes sense. Additionally, organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are not given antibiotics or growth hormones. OK, I like that. That is why I buy Oakhurst milk for my family — no growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled “organic,” a government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all of the rules necessary to meet the USDA organic standards. Before an organic food gets to your local supermarket or restaurant it must be certified by a company that handles or processes organic food.
Joan Shaffer, a USDA spokesperson, says that if a product is labeled organic, you can be sure it is. By law, companies can’t use the label unless their operation has been certified organic by a USDA-approved agent. Another option is to look for the USDA Organic seal, which lets you know that the product is at least 95 percent organic and that the manufacturer has met national organic standards for processing and handling. This still doesn’t ensure confidence that the grocery store produce clerk always keeps the organic separate from the inorganic.
Pesticides and fertilizers aren’t all a major threat to humans. Some appear in very small amounts, such that by the end of the growing season and by the time you get the product home and wash it (like you always should do) there is little left. Pesticides help protect food from bugs that cause damage and can be more harmful and deadly that the pesticides ever could be. Unfortunately, pesticides are already out there in our soil. No amount of organic farming is going to remove it. Most produce that we eat contains some type of an outer coating — skin or rind that we don’t eat — that is where the pesticide would be.
Natural and organic aren’t the same thing. Natural simply means that the product is free of anything synthetic such as colors, preservatives or artificial flavors. There is no promise about how the food was grown or processed.
Double-blind taste tests have shown that consumers cannot tell the difference between the tastes of organic or regular foods. Results from independent scientific studies have also shown that there is no difference between organic and conventional foods in the basic nutrients, in vitamins, minerals, proteins or calories.
We all have to decide for ourselves whether organic food it worth the cost. What matters is that you and your family consume a good assortment of fruits and vegetables on a daily basis, and if the organic products are out of your price range, then stick with the conventional products. Organic or conventional — it all should be washed before being consumed, because much of it grows in the dirt.
Georgia Clark-Albert is a registered dietitian and adjunct nutrition instructor at Eastern Maine Community College who lives in Athens. Read more of her columns and post questions at bangordailynews.com or email her at GeorgiaMaineMSRDCDE@gmail.com.