2006-01-22

Health: What You Need To Know About "Organic" Food

This is an article from the United States of America, but it is nevertheless interesting and informative in general: It's been more than three years since the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) implemented its long-awaited national standards for organic foods. The rules replaced the patchwork of State and private certification programs that had dotted the landscape and had made buying organic a chancy affair-- that is, you never really knew what you were getting. But though the term 'certified organic' now has real and consistent meaning, it still causes confusion. What does 'organic' mean? Foods that carry the green 'USDA Organic' seal have been grown and processed according to strict criteria, as verified by private or U.S. State organisations. The use of most conventional 'Pesticides', petroleum-based fertilisers, 'Genetically Modified' organisms, 'Irradiation', and 'sewage sludge' is prohibited. Animals are raised on 100 per cent organic feed and are not given 'antibiotics' or 'growth hormones'.
Should they get sick and need 'antibiotics', then they would be removed from the other animals and not sold as organic (no meat or dairy products of any kind are legally allowed to contain detectable 'antibiotic' residues, however).
The animals must also have access to the outdoors -- though in factory farms (a growing trend in the organic industry) they may never actually go outside or spend much time in pasture. What about foods that contain other ingredients? If labeled '100 per cent organic,' all the ingredients must be organic. 'Organic' means at least 95 per cent of the ingredients (by weight, excluding water and salt) are organic. 'Made with organic ingredients' means at least 70 per cent . Products with less than 70 per cent organic ingredients may not use the term on the front of the package, but can list the organic ingredients individually. Does organic mean pesticide-free? No. Botanical and a few synthetic pesticides are allowed to be used in organic production, and small amounts of residues may end up in the final product. Some contamination is also unavoidable because conventional pesticides and other agricultural chemicals are ubiquitous in the environment and can drift from neighboring farms onto organic fields. But studies show that compared to conventional foods, organic foods contain pesticide residues less often and in lower amounts. Though pesticides may present a danger to farm workers, there's no evidence that low-level residues in either conventional or organic foods are harmful to consumers. Are organic foods higher in nutrients? The evidence is unclear; some studies have found higher levels of nutrients in organic produce, but others have found little or no difference. Nutrient levels in foods are determined by many factors, including the plant variety, soil quality, climate, when the plant is harvested, and how it's processed and stored.
Interestingly, several studies have shown that organically grown fruits and vegetables have more 'phytochemicals' than conventionally grown produce. Plants make these compounds as natural defenses against pests and ultraviolet radiation. If the farmer provides pesticides, the theory goes, the plant makes less; if they're not applied, the plant makes more itself. But whether this makes any difference -- good or bad -- to the person eating the plant food is unknown.
Are organic snack foods any healthier? Not necessarily. While organic crisps, crackers, biscuits, ice cream, and sweets should be free of unhealthy 'Trans Fats' from hydrogenated oils, many are just as sugary, salty, and calorific as their nonorganic counterparts. And many have just as much -- or more -- unhealthy saturated fat. Organic potato crisps are still potato crisps, for example. Are organic foods less likely to harbour bacteria? No. Like any foods, they can be contaminated with 'Salmonella', 'E. coli', and other bacteria during growing, handling, and processing.
By some accounts, they may even be riskier.
You must handle organic foods the same way you do conventional foods, which means washing organic produce, cooking organic poultry and meat to the proper temperature, and not letting the juices from raw organic meats come into contact with other foods. Is organic better for the environment? Yes. And that's the best reason to buy organic. Unlike conventional farming, organic farming does not erode and deplete the soil, and produces less pollution of land, water, and air. Organic farmers use animal manure, crop rotations, beneficial insects, and other techniques to build a sustainable agricultural system that preserves soil quality and plant biodiversity, conserves water, and uses less fossil fuel (a nonrenewable source of energy). Organic farming is also less likely to endanger farm workers and wildlife. What about my local farmer who sells 'organic' food that's not certified? Many small organic farmers can't afford the USDA certification program or opt out because of the paperwork involved, or for other reasons. These farmers may adhere to even stricter criteria than the national standards. But if the food is not certified organic, you can't be sure if it meets USDA standards. If you buy unlabelled organic foods from local farmers, then ask about their farming methods. Keep in mind that local produce, organic or not, tends to be fresher and have more flavour than fruits and vegetables that have been shipped long distances. Plus, buying locally supports small farmers. Is 'natural' synonymous with 'organic'? The USDA defines 'natural' only for meat and poultry, not for any other foods. And this refers only to what happens to the meat after slaughter, not to how the animal was raised. Though many beef producers use the term, it does not guarantee that 'antibiotics' or hormones were not used, or that other organic standards were followed. Do the organic standards cover seafood? No. USDA certified organic seafood is still likely years away. In the meantime, be wary of 'organic' farm-raised salmon and other seafood with an organic label; there's no guarantee it is raised on organic feed or meets other organic standards, or that it is free of PCBs and other contaminants. Non-U.S. American countries certify farmed seafood, but their standards are not uniform, so it's difficult to know what you're getting. Do organic foods cost more? Yes -- anywhere from 10 per cent to 100 per cent more, so it's wise to comparison shop for the best prices. Organic foods are more labour-intensive to produce (hand-weeding and hand-picking are common, for instance), and supplies are more limited. While the industry is growing at a rate of 20 per cent /year, organic foods still represent only 2 per cent of the food market. As supplies increase in the future, the cost of organic foods may come down. Another way to look at it, though, is that conventional foods are artificially low in cost largely due to government subsidies and other factors. Last words: A recent bill in the U.S. American Congress may weaken the USDA organic label. Food giants such as 'General Mills', 'Kraft', and 'Dean Foods', which are increasingly involved in organic production, have lobbied to make it easier to use certain synthetic materials in processing -- if, for instance, organic ones are not available. The bill also creates a loophole that may allow young dairy cows to be fed non-organic feed. These changes would enable companies to label more foods organic and meet increasing demand for these products. Many organic advocates are opposed, arguing that the use of synthetic ingredients runs counter to the philosophy of organic production, which promotes natural ingredients and minimal processing. 'What You Need to Know About Organic', UC Berkeley Wellness Letter, February 2006, 2006-01-22

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