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Organic vs. Conventional Foods
Are organics really better?

Can you tell which one is organic?
Can you tell which one is organic?
It may not make much difference.

The word "organic" carries with it very powerful baggage. For supporters of organic produce, it means food that has more vitamins, richer taste and is devoid of dangerous chemicals or pesticides. Retailers and farmers see it as a label that can increase their profit margins.

The United States government classifies organic products into three categories. "Made With Organic" means the product must contain at least 70% organic ingredients. "Organic" must be 95% or greater organically produced ingredients. "100% Organic" is the only one of the three that must be made with nothing but organic ingredients.

I see it as a label that deserves a second look, but putting "organic" on a product does not mean it's automatically the best choice. Here's why.

Let's take a look at some canned vegetables. I'll use Del Monte canned green beans as an example. The standard can of fresh cut green beans has 390 milligrams of sodium per serving and 3.5 servings per can. That's 1,365 milligrams of sodium in a can with only 70 calories of food. The can labeled organic is EXACTLY the same. Neither one is an acceptable choice.

Move down the store shelf a little and you'll see Del Monte also offers a can with 50% less salt. That's better. It has just 665 milligrams of sodium poured on those 70 calories of beans. But if you look just a little more, you'll see cans with the label, "No Salt Added." Those have just the naturally occurring salt found in the produce. So that can of No Salt Added green beans has only 35 milligrams of sodium.

If you simply chose organic without reading the label, you would have purchased a can of beans that contains more than half your daily allowance of salt, while ignoring the can of "no salt added" that was the healthier choice.

Then there's the nutritional argument. For years we've been told organic produce contains more vitamins and nutrients than non-organic varieties. In fact, several small studies seemed to support that conclusion. That was, until a team at Stanford's Center for Health Policy did the most comprehensive meta-analysis to date of existing studies comparing organic and conventional foods.

(A meta-analysis is a study that looks in-depth at dozens of other studies. In this case, they started with thousands of studies and narrowed them down to the 237 most relevant.)

The researchers found that organic foods did not seem to carry fewer health risks than conventional foods. They also found that there was little evidence organic foods were any more nutritious than conventional foods. Those are two of the biggest selling points to justify the higher price of organics.

There were two exceptions. One nutrient, phosphorous, was significantly higher in organic versus conventionally grown produce. That's good. But because there are very few people with a phosphorous deficiency, it's of little clinical significance. A few studies also found no difference in the fat or protein content between organic or conventional milk, but the organic milk did appear to contain much higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids. While there may be some benefit to that, research is still inconclusive.

Then they looked at the bug spray. Organic produce was 30 percent less likely to be contaminated with pesticides than conventionally raised vegetables and fruit. About 7% of organics and 38% of conventional produce have detectable levels of pesticides on them.

When they looked at studies that compared children who ate organic versus conventional produce, the ones on an organic diet did have lower levels of pesticides in their urine. But they found that both groups of children had levels of urinary pesticides that were below the levels considered safe.

Researchers also looked at bacteria. They found that people who ate organic chicken and pork had reduced exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. That may be significant, but there is little clinical evidence to back that belief up.

In the end, the purpose isn't to discourage people from buying organic. For years this is the advice I've given. If everything is equal, and if you can afford it, buying organic is better for the planet. There are fewer toxic chemicals used that can leach into the ecosystem and organic farming methods tend to better preserve the environment. Also, if you're dealing with young children and are worried about exposing them to antibiotic-resistant bacteria or pesticides, you may want to consider organics.

But, if your budget is limited, don't feel guilty buying conventional produce. It's significantly better for you and your family than almost anything prepared that you can get from a box, bag or can.

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  • Organic
    Crop Yield
    According to a study by Wageningen University, conventional farming methods yield about 20% more food per acre of land. Advantage Conventional
    Environmental Toll
    Organic farms tend to favor more biodiversity. Conventional farms tend to plant the same crops season after season, increasing pest problems and creating vast monocultures that are more at risk to plant diseases. Advantage Organic
    Soil Quality
    Conventional farms are using more low-till cultivation which helps soil retain carbon. But non-organic fertilizers can damage the microbial community in the soil. Organic farms help preserve microbial communities but more plowing is often required to handle weeds. Excess plowing can reduce the carbon soil can hold. Slight Advantage Organic
    Water Use
    Organic farming helps soil retain more moisture, leading to lower water usage. Also when water seeps into groundwater aquafers from organic farms, it's far less likely to be contaminated with pesticides than water from conventional farming. Contaminated runoff from conventional farms has been shown to spur algae growth and strip water of oxygen, killing marine life. Advantage Organic
    CO2 Emissions
    The number one source of the powerful greenhouse gas nitrous oxide is fertilizers. Conventional farming is loaded with it but organic is not. However, livestock from organic farms tend to produce more methane, another powerful greenhouse gas, than conventionally fed animals. Slight Advantage Organic