The Claim: Organic Produce Is More Healthful Than Conventional Produce
Though organic items can cost two or three times as much as regular foods, nearly 40 percent of Americans say they buy organic at least occasionally according to one survey. Why? The same survey shows that more than 90 percent of the most loyal buyers believe organic food is better for the environment. And virtually 100% think it's better for their health.
On the first point, they're correct. Organic farming, which shuns conventional pesticides and petroleum-based fertilizers, results in less soil depletion and pollution than conventional methods. When it comes to health I'm sorry to have to burst the believers' (ozone-free) bubble, but science isn't entirely on their side.
Here's what we know: Organic produce has fewer chemical residues than the conventional kind (though levels aren't necessarily zero). At a gut level, this seems like a good thing. The idea that your blueberries contain a helping of bug poison can be unsettling, to say the least.
In larger amounts, chemicals used in conventional agriculture have been shown to cause acute poisoning and other adverse effects in people - an issue of special relevance to farm workers and their offspring. But there's far less clarity regarding the traces of chemicals to which consumers are routinely exposed through food. While some preliminary studies provide hints that low levels might impair children's neurological development and cause other health problems, there's no hard proof for this.
The science is similarly uncertain regarding the alleged nutritional superiority of organic produce. Proponents claim that organic farming methods result in higher levels of antioxidants (including vitamin C) and other nutrients. Some research, in fact, supports this assertion. But a review of more than 50 studies found no nutritional advantages for organic. And even if organic fruits and veggies are more nutritious, it's unknown whether the differences are large enough to really matter.
There's greater certainty regarding another popular notion - that organic produce is less prone to contamination from harmful bacteria like Salmonella or E. coli. It's simply not true. Nor is it correct that packaged foods are necessarily more healthful just because they're organic. Slapping an organic label onto cookies or chips may be a good marketing gimmick, but it doesn't transform them into health foods. They're still junk.
If you like the idea of eating organic but can't stomach the price, consider going organic for produce like apples, peaches, strawberries, and grapes, which tend to have the highest levels of pesticides. For others, stick with conventional.
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Reprinted from Coffee Is Good for You by Robert J. Davis, PhD, by arrangement with Perigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright (c) 2012 by Robert J. Davis, PhD, MPH