Will Organic Foods
Actually Make
You Healthier?
By Francesca Lyman
Sept. 29 - To celebrate "Organic Harvest Month" this fall, health food stores, farmers' markets and supermarkets held everything from tastings and recipes to cooking classes. Yogurt maker Stonyfield Farms offered its slogan, "Eat OrganicIt'll Make You a Nicer Person." But if you eat organic, will it make you a healthier person?
PAST ESPALIERS of golden apples that shield the store from the highway, shoppers flock through the doors of Larry's Markets in Kirkland, Wash., back to its high-ceilinged temple of green. Here, in plentiful variety and splendor, lie bin upon bin of shiny green and leafy produce, fresh herbs and spices, and such choice items as taro root, yucca and lemongrass - much of it organic.
"Nowadays I have people asking much more for organic," says produce clerk Tolga Konuk.
"And people who shop organic are willing to pay the premium," says Tom Arge, a produce worker at the nearby PCC, which also specializes in fresh, local organic foods.
Things have changed greatly since the days of the original organic food coops, places that were havens for everything but shopping - socializing, recipe-swapping, talking politics or just hanging out to the sound of Reggae music, recalls Arge. At a health food store in Arcata, Calif., there was a basket in front filled with Groucho Marx nose-glasses for Actual Shoppers. "You'd wear them to say, 'I don't have time to hang out,'" says Arge. "'I'm on my lunch hour. Don't bother me.'"
Organic foods, grown and processed in balance with nature, without the use of synthetic chemical fertilizers or pesticides, once a counter-culture choice, today are big business. In 1998, more than $5 billion of organic foods were purchased in the United States. Sales have been increasing over 25 percent each year, according to trade figures. Most major supermarkets are expanding their organic lines.
Consumers are discovering that organic fruits and vegetables "taste great and look beautiful," says Holly Givens, communications director for the Organic Trade Association (OTA), the trade group for the 1,000 members of the certified organic farming industry.
People are more interested in knowing how food is produced, says Givens, pointing to public interest in nutrition labeling. And they're increasingly dedicated to saving organic, she adds, citing the public outcry over the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) proposed rule last year that would have allowed food labeled organic to contain genetically modified foods, sewage sludge and irradiation. "The public overwhelmingly voted no - with a record 275,000 writing to USDA in protest."
Most people think of organic food as being safer and more healthful. Currently, according to OTA, under rules enforced by some 44 certifying agencies in 30 states, it is illegal to use toxic pesticides (that kill weeds, insects and fungus), as well as antibiotics, hormones, steroids, genetically engineered ingredients, sewage sludge or nuclear irradiation - all practices routinely used in conventional farming - on foods labeled "certified organic."
However, the federal government is still in the process of fulfilling requirements under the 1990 Organic Food Production Act to work with the farmers, wholesalers and others that comprise the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to create final standards for all foods sold as organic. Once the rule is in place, all organic food will be certified, letting consumers know how it was grown and processed.
Until then, it's important to make sure that you buy "certified organic," advises Givens. "If you're concerned, ask your grocer."
But that word on a label is not so much about a commitment to a product as to a process, says Givens, quoting the NOSB, that "organic is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity."
Chrysalis Ostrander of Crysalis Farm in Davenport, Wash., 30 miles west of Spokane, says his method of farming is completely different from production agribusiness-based on composting and cover-cropping, a system, he says, that keeps "a lively microbial population thriving in the soil."
Restaurateurs glorify it. Alice Waters, chef at Chez Panisse in San Francisco, long regarded the patron saint of organic food, is quoted as endorsing it. "I know I need to support the people who are taking care of the land and thinking of the future, people who are thinking about how communities come together. It's my feeling that that can happen when the person growing the food is connected with the person who is eating it ... I'm interested in organic food for all those reasons. But of course also because organic produce is pure and wholesome and delicious and alive when I get it. And nine times out of 10, it's picked very ripe."
With all the extra effort that goes into producing organic produce and foods, you'd think it would automatically be more nutritious. Farmers like Ostrander insist they're cultivating a better crop because "it's grown in a more complex and complete soil system."
However, there is scant evidence to prove that organic foods are in themselves more nutritious, says Robert Scowcroft of the Organic Food Research Foundation. More studies need to be conducted, he says, to determine conclusively whether eating organic foods over time is more healthful.
But there is some evidence. In August, the Organic Trade Association reported that Virginia Worthington, a clinical nutritionist and naturopath, found that "the average organic crop has approximately 10 to 20 percent higher nutrient levels than a comparable conventional crop, and less toxic substances."
But not everyone is sold on it. Christine Bruhn, representing the Center for Consumer Health at the University of California, Davis, says, "When I see labels for organic, I walk the other way." She believes that organic food "can be risky, and it costs 25 percent more than conventionally grown produce, on average." She points to one study of juiced organic apples that found higher levels of patulin, a fungal toxin that has been linked to cancer.
So is it worth it to your health to buy organic? "If you have a choice between buying food that's grown without herbicides, growth hormones, antibiotics and other chemicals, and food that is, why wouldn't you choose the first?" says Betsy Lydon, program director for Mothers and Others for a Livable Planet and a member of the NOSB. Lydon also feels prices will come down - and already are - as the market grows.
Barbara Gollman, a dietitian with the American Dietetic Association, endorses buying organic foods to avoid getting hidden toxic residues on your food. "You hedge your bets by buying organic that you're getting food free of toxins and additives." Assuring food purity is particularly important for infants and babies, Gollman emphasizes, "because pound for pound they absorb far more and their metabolism is faster."
Her only caution: as new processed organic foods are introduced, "Don't abandon nutritional sense, and keep an eye out for hydrogenated fats, soybean oils, that are just as unhealthy here."
Recent studies do show, in fact, show that organically grown foods carry fewer pesticide residues, which have been linked to a higher risk of cancer and can adversely affect the nervous, endocrine, immune and reproductive systems. Sampling supermarket produce, Consumer Reports found that conventional produce was more than three times as likely to contain pesticide residues than organic produce (which contained "minimal" amounts, probably due to spray drift of farm chemicals in the air). But there were 57 percent more expensive.
In paying higher prices for organic food, you're not just paying for personal health, advocates insist. "You're paying to know that the environment is being protected, as well as farmworker health, you're supporting more fresh food and the survival of small family farmers, and for stores that make the effort to buy regionally and locally," says PCC's Arge. "I tell people you can pay now, or you can pay later."
Francesca Lyman is an environmental and travel journalist and editor of the recently released "Inside the Dzanga Sangha Rainforest."