Insights & Actions for Healthy Living
Eating Organic Food – Does It Impact Nutritional Content?

Eating Organic Food – Does It Impact Nutritional Content?

Many of us are trying to get a bigger nutrition bang for our buck. We’ve taken note of the messages that it is very important to eat more nutritious meals and have begun to search for which foods bring more nutrition to the plate for the money we are spending.

We also heard it is important to buy locally grown food, not only for the freshness that buying produce from growers that are not transporting the food across country or even from another country, but also because we don’t want to take a chance that the nutritional value of the produce is lost in translation.

We have become even more knowledgeable about the impact of transporting our food miles and miles, not only on the economy but also the environment.

Did you know that importing and transporting our food either by truck, ship or airplane greatly increases the volume of greenhouse gas emissions when fuel is burned in the process? Many foods are flown in from other countries including bell peppers, cherries, and asparagus.

We have also heard that organic food is better for us than food from industrial farms, but what do we really know about organic food? Do we know our farmer, know our food yet?

Is produce from the farmer’s market organic?

Organic Farming

“Organic” is actually a labeling term that indicates to consumers the food product has been produced under the approved methods regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Growers must meet organic standards and be certified to sell using this designation.

Farmers who want to bring organic foods to market must be certified organic and follow established growing guidelines. Organic farming became more important to many following an increase in industrial farms using more pesticides and chemicals to produce foods. In the United States, the USDA is responsible for certifying and enforcing the National Organic Program. It regulates food products only.

  • Grown without pesticides
  • Genetically modified crops and ingredients are prohibited
  • Animals aren’t given drugs such as antibiotics, growth hormones or genetically modified vaccines but preventative health practices including vaccines is allowed
  • No irradiation used
  • Animals aren’t fed wastes, manure, or ethanol by-products
  • No food additives, MSG, artificial sweeteners, dyes or preservatives are used
  • Packaging must also be preservative free
  • Designations:
    • 100% organic – ingredients including processing aids
    • Organic – at least 95% organic ingredients
    • Made with organic ingredients – at least 70% organic ingredients

Benefits of Organic Foods

It seems intuitive that eating more food that is pesticide free will help us maintain our health. (Organic does not mean pesticide free by the way, just approved growing practices. Some pesticides are approved.)

There have been many studies, including a new meta-analysis out of Britain in 2014, that examined an even wider range of previous studies to determine if the nutrient content of organic foods exceeds those grown in other ways (convention/industrial). I also found some data that tomatoes were higher in flavonoids, catsup higher in lycopene, and Texas grapefruits were higher in ascorbic acid but no conclusions that any other items tested were beneficial or if this is consistently true.

At this point it seems that there is not strong evidence that says that organically grown food is indeed more nutrient dense than regular foods.

What they did agree on was that antioxidant levels were found to be higher in organic foods. Because antioxidants are not technically nutrients and their effect on our health, while helpful in reducing free radicals, is not yet well defined, we will remain on the fence somewhat.

Much of the hard data compares the level of pesticides in organic foods (or lack thereof) compared to other growing and processing methods. We would expect that the numbers would bear out the fact that not adding chemicals to our food would result in them not containing chemicals. The question then remains, to what extent do these chemicals harm our health? A question for another day as our query was originally about nutritional content.

Not Yet Clear if Organic Food Better Nutritionally

Following a review of the scientific literature, the question of whether or not organic food is nutritionally a better bargain remains unanswered. It is still unclear largely because more specific research that can be scientifically validated needs be done to show a clear benefit to using organic foods in terms of their nutritional content and not just hearsay.

Consumers, especially those on a budget trying to do the best for their family, need to have more answers. Organic products typically cost 10 to 40% more than other options, leaving consumers looking for nutritious choices without the information they need. We seem to be paying a premium for a label without guarantees of improvement to our nutritional health.

It seems like the best advice at this juncture is that if you want foods that are chemical and pesticide free, don’t contain antibiotics or other additives, then you have found the best option in buying organic.

If you wish to reduce the impact on the environment by buying locally grown foods, plus keep your money in the local community, then visit a farmer’s market. Be aware that being sold in a farmer’s market doesn’t guarantee the use of organic growing methods. Know your grower, ask questions of the farmer and visit the farm if possible. Many grocery stores are carrying locally grown produce also. We can still ask the produce manager questions about how far away it was grown and if it is indeed organic. Sometimes even the term local is not defined the same way because there is no agreed upon or regulated distance to define locally grown. Many feel 100 miles is local and others feel within the state is local.

If we want to know which food is the most nutritious, we should continue to compare food labels, buy the least processed items and encourage more research into the actual nutrition science behind organics so we can all get the answers we seek.

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