Are Organic Foods Really Better?

Organic foods.  Are they really healthier?  Are they easier on the environment?  Doesn’t “organic” imply a more natural and cruelty-free environment for the animals?  What about organic seafood?

There are loads of myths surrounding the “organic” label, and producers love to perpetuate these myths, as we are more willing to buy things that we think are healthier, better for the environment, and show how much we love to protect animals.  But buyers beware:  It’s not always as it seems!  Having said that, there are some very good reasons to buy organic.  Here is what you need to know.
Myths around the “organic” label:

Organic does not mean cruelty free. There are absolutely NO laws or guidelines that say that organic foods must come from humane operations

Myth #1:  Organic means cruelty free. 
There are absolutely NO laws or guidelines that say that organic foods must come from humane operations.  For example, there is nothing that states that organic eggs must come from hens who are happily roaming about a large, idyllic farm, getting plenty of sunshine and fresh air.  In most cases, organic eggs come from hens in factory farming situations, who may be denied antibiotics when they are ill, because the antibiotics will render their eggs unsellable.  Ditto for organic meat and dairy. In addition, many organic farmers use “natural” fertilizers such as animal blood and bone to enrich the soil for their organic fruits and veg.  Organic does not mean cruelty free.

Myth #2:  Organic foods are healthy. 
Unfortunately, I can make you a fully organic cheeseburger with fries that will clog your arteries and set you up for heart attack just like any McDonald’s burger could.  Unhealthy foods are bad for you, no matter whether they come from an organic source or not.

Organic foods are NOT lower in calories. Organic cookies can be just as jammed packed with calories as non-organic ones...

Myth #3:  Organic foods are lower in calories
Again, unhealthy food raised without chemicals is still unhealthy food no matter how you cut it.  A study from the University of Michigan found that people ate more organic cookies than non-organic cookies, thinking they had fewer calories.  This is not the case, so don’t make the same mistake!
Myth #4:  Organic fish and seafood is a good choice. 
There are currently no rules governing organic fish and seafood, so using the organic label on them is not endorsed by the USDA at this time.  Ironically, when and if it is endorsed, wild fish will not be allowed to be called organic because their environment cannot be controlled!  Knowing that farmed fish live in a veritable cesspool of excrement and disease, it is hard to imagine that “organic” fish from farmed fishing conditions will be a better choice than line-caught fish from northern Alaska, for example … or, of course, no fish at all.
Myth #5:  Organic foods are less likely to have salmonella, E. coli and other harmful bacteria.  
Organic foods can still have these same bugs, and Consumer Reports said that 57% of organic store-bought chicken tested positive for Campylobacter.  Much food poisoning happens through food handling, so it is important that your organic supplier will handle organic food just as carefully as they would conventional food by keeping a clean kitchen, washing their hands and produce carefully, and keeping meat and its juices away from other foods. 
Myth #6:  Organic foods have more nutrients.  
Nutrient levels in our produce depend on many things, such as soil content, how the food is stored, cooked, etc.  But whether we put pesticides on it or not does not affect its nutrient content.  Having said that, many organic farmers are careful to use high-quality soil and aim to use other practices that might affect nutrient quality, but studies results disagree on whether organic foods have a higher nutrient content than non-organic foods.
Despite these myths, there are some very good reasons to choose organic anyway. 
Here are the four reasons why I buy organic when I can get it, and believe it’s worth the extra price:

Choosing Organic Fruit and Veg: I don’t want to eat foods covered in chemicals.

Reason #1:  I don’t want to eat foods covered in chemicals.  
Studies differ about whether these chemicals really are harmful in small quantities.  However, I am a big proponent of relying on common sense, and common sense tells me that shortly after we started using loads of chemicals in and on our food, rates of Alzheimer’s, asthma, autoimmune disorders and autism, among other diseases, started soaring.  This could be due to pollution, vaccinations, mercury in our fillings or god knows what else, but chemicals seem the most obvious culprit to me. 
The FDA keeps saying that the approved chemicals used in our food are fine in the tiny amounts that show up in a serving of grapes or lettuce, but all day long we are eating serving after serving of tiny amounts of chemicals, and I’m convinced they add up to unhealthy effects.  It would be nearly impossible to prove this, simply because there are thousands of things that pass through our lips, but that doesn’t mean that chemicals aren’t the culprit – just that it’s hard to prove.  So again, I rely on common sense, and it makes perfect sense to me to ingest as few chemicals as possible.
Reason #2:  I want to help sustainable agriculture methods.  
Many or most organic farmers emphasize sustainable agriculture methods, such as rotating their crops, changing their plantings each season, and bringing in beneficial bugs and insects to help with the natural ecosystem.  This is all good for our environment.
Reason #3:  I want to reduce my carbon footprint.  
Buying local and organic helps to reduce your carbon footprint, as you will be getting your fruit and veggies locally rather than someplace miles away.  So when you buy organic, try to make a point to get it from your local farmer’s market.  An added bonus is that you’ll probably pay far less than you would have at the grocery store!

Choosing Organic Fruit and Veg: I want to support people who are trying to do the right thing

Reason #4:  I want to support people who are trying to do the right thing.  
Most local, organic farmers are really trying hard to compete against corporate giants for our benefit, and I really want to see them succeed.  If you do too, you must support them as much as you can by buying their products.  Even if you buy organic food from corporate giants, you’re sending a signal with every dollar you spend that you want them to start caring more about your health.
So the bottom line, in my opinion, is this:  Buy organic, but understand what you are and are not getting with organic foods.  While I believe they are worth the extra money, I also understand their limitations. If you can, try to buy organic, local, and ethical, for the biggest impact to your health and our environment.
** Much of my information for this post came from the March 2012 Berkeley Wellness Letter.

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The Conscious Vegan Columnist

Sarah Taylor is the author of Vegan in 30 Days, and runs the popular blog "The Vegan Next Door".

She has a certificate in Plant Based Nutrition from Cornell University, is on faculty at Joel Fuhrman's Nutritional Education Institute, and has been featured on many television and radio shows internationally.  

Her next book, Vegetarian to Vegan, will be available in 2012.

More about Sarah

Check out Sarah's blog – The Vegan Next Door