Currently, with the elevated attention on childhood obesity, nutrition, and food safety, there is an abundance of information about food out there. Unfortunately, many in the food industry use labels and advertising to mislead us, leaving average consumers with many questions.
Having answers to these questions is especially important for parents who are not only making food choices for themselves, but also for their children who deserve the best nutrition possible to grow and thrive.
Questions about organic foods and milk are some of the most common.
What does organic mean? Why does it matter? Is it worth the cost? Some of these questions are easy to answer, while others are more complex. After reviewing the most current research, we found some interesting information. Let’s take a look.
What does organic mean?
Organic refers to the way agricultural products are grown and produced. Organic farming is free of chemicals, including pesticides and growth hormones. Any food labeled organic must be certified by the USDA to ensure it meets specific standards.
- Products that are fully organic will state “100% organic” and carry the USDA seal.
- Products that are simply labeled “organic” and have the USDA seal must be at least 95% organic.
- Other products that are partially organic must be at least 70% organic to make any organic related claims at all.
- If a product has organic ingredients, but they are less than 70%, it can’t carry the label organic or the USDA seal. (An exemption from this labeling exists for those who sell less than $5000 worth of goods a year.)
- Terms like “natural” or “free-range” should not be confused with organic. These terms are not regulated the same way, and while the claim may be true in some ways, it is often more of a marketing strategy rather than an indication of how the food was produced.
Why does it matter?
The reasons a person may choose to purchase organic foods typically fall into one of three primary categories:
- Food Safety. While some of the research is inconclusive regarding the harm of food chemicals, organic diets certainly contain less (or none) of them. These include pesticides, animal antibiotics, growth hormones, chemical fertilizers, and more. Most people would not consider ingesting these things on their own, but we are if we eat non-organic foods. That doesn’t mean they are always harmful.
- Nutritional Benefits. Some recent reports indicate that there are minimal nutritional advantages of organic products vs. their conventional farming counterparts. After all, just because a cupcake is made with organic ingredients, doesn’t mean it has fewer calories or fat. And just because an apple wasn’t sprayed with chemical fertilizers, doesn’t mean it has any less fiber. It should be noted that these reports are heavily debated. Advocates of organic food refer to some studies that indicate that in the absence of chemicals, some foods do develop higher nutrient levels.
- Environmental Protection. Organic farmers use more sustainable and conservation-oriented farming practices. Their farming practices do not add chemicals to the soil and drinking water. Many also say the conditions for farm workers are better since they are not exposed to so many chemicals. But organic farms aren’t as common and are often far away, requiring increased production and transportation emissions.
So, is it worth the cost?
Many food experts (including Nutritionist Joy Bauer) agree that organic is worth the cost in some cases; but that doesn’t mean it is affordable for every family. In cases where you have to make choices, experts recommend focusing on produce since it has the highest likelihood of absorbing pesticides.
The Environmental Working Group, a prominent non-profit environmental health research and advocacy organization, recommends focusing on the items listed below when purchasing organic; they are often called “the dirty dozen” indicating that these foods often contain the highest levels of chemicals. Because they have edible skins for the most part, we ingest those chemicals when we eat them:
- Sweet Bell Peppers
- Nectarines (imported)
That said, eating fruits and vegetables of any kind, is more important than ensuring they are organically grown. “One thing the experts agree on: Regardless of whether you choose locally grown, organic, or conventional foods, the important thing is to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. The health benefits of such a diet far outweigh any potential risks from pesticide exposure” (Zelman, 2007). Taking a few extra precautions like carefully washing and scrubbing vegetables can minimize chemical ingestion.
What about organic milk and other animal products?
The regulations around organic animal products include provisions that the animals must spend daily time outdoors, their food hasn’t been genetically modified, and they haven’t been treated with growth hormones or antibiotics. But organic practices have less impact on these foods and add no known nutritional value.
- Milk. The chemicals, including hormones, which might get in milk don’t affect humans the same way as they do animals and our bodies are able to process them. Additionally, if antibiotics are given to a cow, the milk must test antibiotic-free before it can be sold. “But when evaluating the health claims, so far, research does not support a health advantage of organic over conventional milk for any segment of the population,” (Collins, 2006).
- Meat. Eating organic meat can reduce the risk of ingesting some disease causing bacteria, but the incidence of this is very small and many indicate it’s not a reason to buy organic. In the case of milk and meat, fat had the highest concentrations of chemicals so drinking lower-fat milk and cutting the fat off meat is a best practice.
- Eggs. The research seems to indicate that organic eggs have little or no nutritional advantage over conventional eggs. Many make the common mistake of believing the color of the egg indicates its healthiness when in fact, it only indicates the species of chicken.
So it seems that buying organic animal products is most important if the environmental and animal treatment issues are your concern. If nutrition or exposure to chemicals is your worry, these products are not necessary to buy organic.
The fact is, even the right information can be confusing. The incidence of chemicals in food is a relatively new issue. Not that long ago, before feed lots and corporate farms, all food was organic. The choice to purchase organic food or milk is personal and dependent on a variety of factors. What you feed your growing child is an important decision. Even though its effect is not always visible, nutrition impacts a person’s health, energy, ability to learn, and so much more.
In the case of organic food, it seems they do not add significant value if nutrition is your primary reason for purchasing them. “The pediatricians, who analyzed existing scientific evidence, also said there doesn't seem to be much difference in the vitamin and mineral content between organic and conventional foods.” (Petersen, 2012).
What’s most important is to offer children foods that are nutritionally-rich and as close to the source as possible (carrots vs. carrot muffins). When you can, it is beneficial to purchase locally whether food is organic or not to avoid production and transportation costs and emissions.
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