Today, I want to chat a little bit about the term "organic food". Organic food generally means that the food or specific ingredient is raised or grown in the absence of added hormones, chemicals, pesticides, irradiation, chemical food additives and solvents, and doesn't contain anything synthetic or genetically modified. For something to be certified organic, it must adhere to the standards of the specific country in which the food is grown or raised. In the US, the USDA will certify a food as organic (with the sticker and everything!) if at least 95% of the ingredients are considered "organic" by their standards, which generally cover all the parameters I put above.
Organic food is, of course, more expensive since it must be tested in order to be certified, and possibly because it is not mass produced cheaply like some non-organic food. Usually a company that is willing to spend extra to get their food tested is showing it's consumers a commitment to being honest about the source and nature of the ingredients. In 1990, the Organic Food Production Act was passed which called for the USDA to set these standards. The big question is, does it make a difference in our health?
Technically speaking, from an organic chemistry perspective, an apple is an apple whether it is organic or not. The amount of sugar, fiber, and even possibly vitamins is generally the same in one apple to another. Also, no study that has been done has proven explicitly that organic food can help you lose weight, get healthier, or live longer. In fact, even after the rise of Whole Foods stores and awareness to buy fresh, buy local, we are getting more obese as a country. So if you were to look at this from a purely scientific point of view, it might be difficult to justify that eating organic is healthier for you.
If you can't justify buying organic food from a nutritional standpoint, there are certainly grounds to justify it from an ethical stand point. The food industry in America is amazing because it feeds SO many people. It's a miracle that you can go to a local supermarket and there is always food, if you have money to buy it. However, there are a few levels of the way our food industry operates to be able to accomplish this miracle. Certainly there is the argument of the treatment of animals. Many live in overcrowded in their farm environment, are fed corn-based meals or food from animal byproducts. Beyond the sad lives of the animals themselves, the final products of the meat that appears in our supermarkets is suddenly less attractive, and I haven't even said the word "pink slime" yet, you can just turn on the news for that one.
I don't need to give you examples, there are examples everywhere you look, whether it is Food, Inc., or literally millions of websites you can read. On another level is the controversy over genetically modified foods. The food megacorp Monsanto has registered patents on many genetically modified seeds for corn, canola, soy, and cotton. Monsanto, also the creator of weed killer Round-up, has created seeds that have some genetic data from the pesticide so that their crops are "Round-up ready," or immune to the pesticide, so all the weeds are killed, but the crop is spared during a mass spraying. Again, there is no substantial difference from an organic chemistry perspective between regular corn and genetically modified corn, but the problem is when GMO corn seeds naturally cross pollinate with local farmers' organic crop that we run into trouble. This can occur just by natural ecology and proximity between farms. Monsanto has used patent laws to run several farmers out of business when the GMO seeds of Monsanto naturally spread into other farms, taking over the local farmer's crop and giving Monsanto grounds to sue the farmers for growing, "stealing," their seed, even though the farmers didn't want it there in the first place. The impact of Monsanto's seeds on small-time farmers is actually an international problem, just google "Indian farmer suicide."
Finally there is the issue of fair trade. An organic label doesn't necessarily signify fair trade automatically, though in my mind the chances of it are greater than food produced by non-organically. Properly negotiating with and respecting farmers in third world countries to get products as common as coffee is another ethical issue of which Fair Trade USA has helped us become aware.
The Organic Cinnamon Bun
I do chuckle everytime I see something like a certified organic cinnamon bun at Whole Foods! Sure there are no chemicals, but a cinnamon bun is a cinnamon bun!! So while I can't prove that organic produce will help you live longer, I can say we are sometimes tricked to equate the word "organic" with "healthy version," when that is often not the case.
Any Conclusions about the Health Benefits?
Again, I can't stand here and tell you there is scientific evidence that organic food is better for you. The nutrition label looks the same whether it is organic or non-organic. But I'll give you an analogy. In the 1950's, there really wasn't any evidence or public acknowledgment that smoking was bad for you, it was a socially acceptable practice that the majority of our country did, yet underneath it all, most people knew it "probably" wasn't good for you in the long run. Well, the Organic Food Production Act was only in 1990, and it really wasn't until the new millennium that we standardized certifying organic food. The data can't be conclusive because we haven't been able to track individuals that eat primarily organic food for more than 10 years. But imagine in 2062 how we might look back to 2012 and be like "Of COURSE, it's healthier to eat food free of pesticides, chemicals, hormones, and additives. How could our grandparents not have had common sense 50 years ago," much like we have banned smoking from public places and nowadays the bad effects of smoking are known by the general public. One thing that can be sure is that the obesity epidemic has grown to preposterous proportions in our country, and the incidence of GMO's and added chemicals, and other "shortcuts" in our food like high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils is at an all time high. Cancer is more prevalent than ever, young teens are going through puberty earlier, and there seems to be a higher incidence of food allergies than ever before. If I thought that even from anecdotal evidence eating organic food could help prevent some of the things I just listed, I'd pay $1.00 for my apple instead of 65 cents, you better believe it!
So, I don't mean this to be a doom and gloom blog post. I also know that some of the advertisements and documentaries, including Food, Inc., are meant to scare us and they stretch the facts and present them in a way to make a statement and sell DVD's. But with that said, realize that when you buy local, you not only have a better chance of getting a nutrient-rich, clean food, you are also promoting a more ethical practice of food production and probably supporting your local economy in a beneficial way as well! It's a win-win-win.
If you have any questions about this, I'd be happy to point you in the right direction to do YOUR OWN research. I think in general a select population has swung the pendulum back in the right direction over the past decade with organic food certification and awareness, but certainly the next part of the chapter is sharing the story with people you know and love. You can change the world by changing your family and your community first. Buy fresh, buy local!!