When it comes to buying organic, questions abound: What is organic? Why buy organic? Is it healthier? When nonprofit organization the Environmental Working Group recently updated its “Dirty Dozen” list of 12 fruits and vegetables most likely to be contaminated with pesticide residues and its “Clean 15” list of produce least likely to be contaminated with pesticide residues, we were inspired to ask EatingWell Facebook fans what they wanted to know about organics.
Here are some of the top questions about organics, answered.
—Brierley Wright, M.S., R.D., Nutrition Editor, EatingWell Magazine
The definition of “organic,” according to the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), is that animal products sold or labeled as organically produced are not given any kind of antibiotics or growth hormones, are only fed with organic feed and are not administered any type of medication aside from vaccinations or to treat an illness. Fruits and vegetables that are labeled and sold as organic are grown without using most pesticides or fertilizers with synthetic ingredients; there is no irradiation treatment; seeds and transplants are chemical-free; the fertilizer is natural.
Under organic regulations, food can be labeled as “100% organic,” “organic” (contains at least 95 percent organic ingredients) or “made with organic ingredients” (contains at least 70 percent organic ingredients, but cannot have the USDA Organic seal on the package). The USDA Organic seal will not guarantee a product is free of nongenetically modified organisms—only products labeled 100% organic are guaranteed GMO-free.
The science is mixed—and the debate continues. Case in point: a 2009 review published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that there is no sufficient evidence of a difference in nutrient quality. But a 2007 study by Newcastle University in the United Kingdom found organic produce has 40 percent higher levels of some nutrients (including vitamin C, zinc and iron) and a 2003 study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that organically grown berries and corn have 58 percent more polyphenols—antioxidants that help prevent cardiovascular disease—and up to 52 percent higher levels of vitamin C than those conventionally grown. Choosing organic produce also lowers your exposure to pesticides.
Before a farmer can start selling foods with the organic seal, a government-certified official must inspect and approve the farm to make sure all the organic practices are being followed. The farm is then monitored regularly to make sure it is following regulations.
Organic produce tends to cost more than its conventional equivalent because organic farming is more labor-intensive—due in part to fewer pesticides used—according to the Food and Agriculture Organization and USDA. Additionally, it’s expensive for farmers to maintain their organic status and organic producers tend to have smaller supplies because they don’t use preservatives and so their products have a shorter shelf life.
All imported organic produce has to meet the same federal standards as U.S.-grown organic produce. If you’re buying produce from a place where environmental regulations may not be enforced, it’s a good choice to take the organic option.
According to the National Organic Program (NOP): “Preference will be given to the use of organic seeds and other planting stock, but a farmer may use non-organic seeds and planting stock under specified conditions.” Examples of “specific conditions” include an exception from the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) or if certified organic seed isn’t commercially available.
Though some commercial cleaning solutions specifically designed for fresh fruits and vegetables may help remove additional dirt and bacteria, the effectiveness of these produce washes is not currently standardized. What’s more, it has yet to be shown that commercial washes clean produce better than water does to an extent that justifies the added expense. If you do purchase a produce wash, steer clear of ones that are chemical-based.
The FDA recommends washing all produce (including produce you plan to peel) under running water and drying it with a clean cloth or paper towel to further reduce bacteria. Be sure to also wash even produce that has a tough skin—such as cantaloupe, avocado and cucumbers—as the bacteria on the outside can transfer via your knife to the flesh. The FDA suggests you scrub these and other firm fruits and vegetables with a clean produce brush.
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