Organic food is one of the fastest-growing categories in the food industry, despite the fact that it can cost more than double the price of conventional foods. But is it worth spending more when it comes to buying organic? Nutritionist Joy Bauer was invited on “Today” to tell us what organic really means, what the various “organic” and “natural” food labels mean, and what organic food we should buy. Here are Bauer’s tips for organic shopping:
Almost two-thirds of American consumers bought some type of organic food or beverage last year, up from about half in 2004. And they usually spend about 50 percent or 100 percent more for these organic products. But is it worth it? Yes and no. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has found that even after you wash certain fruits and vegetables, they still contain much higher levels of pesticide residue than others. This includes apples, berries, grapes, spinach, and potatoes. On the other hand, that's not true for bananas, mangos, or corn. Here are some facts to help you decide what organic, or natural, foods you should buy:
What organic means:
- Animals have not been treated with: antibiotics, growth hormones, or feed made from animal byproducts.
- Animals must have been fed organic feed for at least a year.
- Animals must have access to the outdoors.
- Food hasn't been genetically modified or irradiated.
- Fertilizer does not contain sewage sludge or synthetic ingredients.
- Produce hasn't been contaminated with synthetic chemicals used as pesticides.
What the labels mean:
- “100% Organic”: Product must contain 100 percent organic ingredients.
- “Organic”: At least 95 percent of ingredients are organically produced.
- “Made with Organic Ingredients”: At least 70 percent of ingredients are organic. The remaining 30 percent must come from the USDA’s approved list.
- “Free-range” or “Free-roaming”: Misleading term applied to chicken, eggs and other meat. The animal did not necessarily spend a good portion of its life outdoors. The rule states only that outdoor access be made available for “an undetermined period each day.” U.S. government standards are weak in this area.
- “Natural” or “All Natural”: Does not mean organic. There is no standard definition for this term except with meat and poultry products. (USDA defines “natural” as not containing any artificial flavoring, colors, chemical preservatives, or synthetic ingredients). The claim is not verified. The producer or manufacturer alone decides whether to use it.
The “Dirty Dozen”: Must-buy organic foods
- Grapes, imported (Chili)
- Bell peppers
The U.S. Department of Agriculture found that even after washing, some fruits and vegetables consistently carry much higher levels of pesticide residue than others. Based on an analysis of more than 100,000 U.S. government pesticide test results, researchers at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a research and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., have developed the “dirty dozen” fruits and vegetables, above, that they say you should always buy organic, if possible, because their conventionally grown counterparts tend to be laden with pesticides. They cost about 50 percent more — but are well worth the money.
Other organic foods worth considering:
Reduce the risk of exposure to the agent believed to cause mad cow disease and minimize exposure to other potential toxins in non-organic feed. These foods contain no hormones, and antibiotics — which have been linked to increased antibacterial resistance in humans — have not been added to the food. They often cost 100 percent more than conventional products.
No need to go organic with these foods:
These products generally do not contain pesticide residue.
Wild or farmed fish can be labeled organic, despite the presence of contaminants such as mercury and PCBs. No USDA organic certification standards for seafood — producers are allowed to make their own organic claims.
Having “organic” or “natural” in its name doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safer. Only 11 percent of ingredients found in personal-care products, organic or not, have ever been screened for safety.
Managing the high cost of organic foods:
Why does organic cost more?
Growing the food is more labor-intensive. And even though organic food is a growing industry, it doesn't have the economies of scale or government subsidies available to conventional growers.
How to save money buying organic food:
- Comparison shop in local grocery stores.
- Take advantage of local farmers' markets: Many farmers do not charge a premium.
- Order by mail: Products such as organic beef can be shipped nationally.
How to protect yourself from “non-organic” pesticides:
- Buy fresh vegetables and fruits in season. When long storage and long-distance shipping are not required, fewer pesticides are used.
- Trim tops and the very outer portions of celery, lettuce, cabbages, and other leafy vegetables that may contain the bulk of pesticide residues.
- Peel and cook when appropriate, even though some nutrients and fiber are lost in the process.
- Eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. This would limit exposure to any one type of pesticide residue.
- Purchase only fruits and vegetables that are subject to USDA regulations. Produce imported from other countries is not grown under the same regulations as enforced by the USDA. Examples are strawberries and cantaloupes from Mexico.
- Wait until just before preparation to wash or immerse your produce in clean water. When appropriate, scrub with a brush. Experts at the University of California-Berkeley report that this removes nearly all insects and dirt, as well as bacteria and some pesticide residues.
- Special soaps or washes are not needed and could be harmful to you, depending on their ingredients. Read the label! Cold water is perfectly fine.
- Trim the fat from meat, and fat and skin from poultry and fish. Residues of some pesticides concentrate in animal fat.
For more information on healthy eating, visit Joy Bauer’s Web site.