The Hamilton Spectator

Are there advantages to eating organic?

Eighty-two per cent of U.S. households reported organic purchases in 2016 and it continues to rise


If there’s any dietary wisdom, it’s that you do a body good by eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Certainly, the experts agree with both the American Heart Associatio­n and the U.S. Department of Agricultur­e’s “MyPlate” program recommendi­ng that we fill half our plate each day with plant-based foods.

Thanks to their reputation for being more nutritious, as well as better for the environmen­t, foods labelled “organic” are increasing­ly the choice. According to the Organic Trade Associatio­n, the leading voice for organic trade in the U.S., sales of such food products grew from an estimated $26.9 billion (U.S.) in 2010 to more than $63 billion in 2021. Perhaps not surprising­ly, fresh fruits and vegetables accounted for the largest portion of all organic food sales in 2021, followed by eggs and dairy, beverages, packaged foods, bread/grains, snack foods and condiments, and meat/ fish/poultry.

Also no surprise: Upscale and millennial/Gen Z consumers are more apt to buy organic than older shoppers. And the vast majority is purchased at convention­al grocery stores, though sales also happen at farmers markets and through community-supported agricultur­e shares.

Eighty-two per cent of U.S. households reported organic purchases in 2016. “And we expect that healthy trend to just keep getting stronger,” said OTA executive director and CEO Laura Batcha.

At Giant Eagle, one of the biggest sellers in the growing organic category is the chain’s salad blends and premade salads, says director of sustainabi­lity Cara Mercil.

“But we certainly sell a lot of apples and oranges, and there’s tons of growth in berries right now.”

Five years ago, an organic strawberry would have been rare in the produce aisle; now it’s consistent across all locations.

The trend extends to packaging, with customers looking for products that come in biodegrada­ble or fully recycled containers, Mercil says, “which is something that didn’t exist even three or four years ago.”

Yet with so many cashing in on America’s growing taste for healthier foods — some fraudulent­ly — do you really know what you’re buying when you reach for something with the USDA Organic Seal? And does it actually make a difference to your health?

A new rule from the U.S. Department of Agricultur­e aims to help answer the first question.

In effect as of Monday, the Strengthen­ing Organic Enforcemen­t rule will boost oversight and enforcemen­t of products labelled organic, both domestical­ly and imported. The new provisions will also affect USDA-accredited agents and inspectors in an effort to give consumers more confidence that the products they’re buying are actually organic.

As for the second question, there’s no easy answer, says registered dietitian Miriam Seidel, who is also an associate professor of nutrition at Chatham University.

Figuring out labels is the easy part, because the USDA has four distinct labelling categories for organic products: 100 per cent organic, organic, “made with” organic ingredient­s, and specific organic ingredient­s.

“If it says 100 per cent organic on a package of food, that means everything inside the package was organicall­y grown, except for salt and water, which are considered natural,” she says. The label also must include the name of the certifying agent.

If it just says “organic,” that means 95 per cent of the ingredient­s are certified organic, and that five per cent may contain non-organic content, “and you have to look in the nutritiona­l info on the label” to determine what.

Products that wear a “made with” label only have to contain 70 per cent organicall­y produced ingredient­s, Seidel continues — say, the apples or tomatoes and basil in a sauce, “but the other stuff would not be.” They would, however, have to be produced without genetic engineerin­g.

And if it contains less than 70 per cent? It cannot display the USDA Organic Seal or use the word “organic.”

What’s not so easy to determine, says Seidel, is whether paying the premium price for organic is worth it.

According to Washington, D.C.based Environmen­tal Working Group, more than 70 per cent of non-organic fresh produce sold in the U.S. contains residues of potentiall­y harmful pesticides. Certainly buying organic is a win for the farm workers and labourers who otherwise would be applying the pesticides and herbicides that are a hallmark of convention­al farming, putting them at risk for cancers and birth defects. It’s also kinder to the planet.

The EPA has looked carefully at most of the chemicals used in convention­al agricultur­e, “and they will tell you there is no residue that is in such a great amount that it’s harmful to our bodies,” says Seidel.

For instance, while strawberri­es can be treated with as many as 17 different pesticides during growing, none of the residues found on the fruit exceeded the establishe­d tolerance, according to the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program. Others beg to differ. “Groups like the (non-profit) National Resources Defense Council say, ‘OK, the EPA is looking at one particular ingredient and doing all these different tests and extrapolat­ing that to humans,’ ” says Seidel. But as strawberri­es demonstrat­e, foods often are treated with at least two and often several different pesticides. “And what scientists are not good at is understand­ing the synergisti­c effects.”

Sure, maybe one is below what the EPA considers dangerous. “But what about when you put them together?” Seidel says. And because those studies haven’t been done, no one can say for sure what counts as the “bad stuff.”

Washing helps to remove bacteria and wax, “but you cannot rinse off pesticides,” she notes. “It is inside the tissue of the food.”

Foods that come in a “case” that you can peel off and don’t have leaves or rind you eat, like cantaloupe, pineapple or corn, are OK because the pesticides can’t get inside, says Seidel. And while it’s helpful to peel something like a fruit, doing so also gets rid of nutrients.

So what’s a thoughtful consumer to do?

For the past couple decades, the Environmen­tal Working Group has released its annual “Dirty Dozen list” to warn shoppers against produce with the most pesticide residue. Strawberri­es head the 2022 list, followed by spinach; kale, collard and mustard greens; nectarines; apples; grapes; bell peppers and hot peppers; cherries; peaches; pears; celery; and tomatoes.

Suddenly feeling stressed? EWG counters their list of unsafe foods with the “Clean 15,” a checklist of fruits and veggies that had the lowest concentrat­ions of pesticide residues. This year, avocados and sweet corn took top honours, and you also can feel good about eating pineapple, onions, papaya, sweet peas (frozen), asparagus, honeydew melon, kiwi, cabbage, mushrooms, cantaloupe, mangoes, watermelon and sweet potatoes.

If buying organic makes for more healthful eating, why are we not filling our shopping carts and reusable bags with it every time we shop?

For most, it boils down to economics. Because it costs a lot more to produce fruits, vegetables and grains without synthetic fertilizer­s and pesticides, organic products typically receive a price premium over non-organic products.

At Whole Foods, for instance, “regular” broccoli costs $1.99 per pound, while organic baby broccoli is $3.99. At Giant Eagle, organic Honeycrisp apples run $3.49 per pound compared to $2.99 for convention­ally farmed apples, and you’ll pay twice as much for organic strawberri­es, currently $4.99 per pound versus $2.49 per pound for regular.

Adding to an organic farmer’s cost of doing business: the tremendous amount of paperwork involved. Certified organic farmers are required to keep detailed records of all their seeds and annual transplant­s, plus fertilizer­s, pest control materials, compost and other soil additions. They must also keep careful track of what they plant, when they planted it and where in the field, in a written format organic inspectors can easily understand.

Additional­ly, they have to show that the farm has not used any prohibited substances in the past three years.

“It’s definitely not easy,” says Chris Brittenbur­g, co-owner of Who Cooks For You Farm in New Bethlehem, Pa., which is in its fourth season of being certified organic. If there’s spray drift from an adjoining farm, for instance, the entire field is ruined.

“But for us,” he says, “it’s tried and true. That’s how our great-greatgrand­parents grew.”

Strengthen­ing Organic Enforcemen­t, he adds, will make things easier for customers because a lot of people throw the word “organic” around loosely.

And if you can only afford it some of the time? Any little effort is good, but both Brittenbur­g and Seidel agree it’s better to eat convention­al fruits and vegetables than no vegetables at all. Both also share this same advice for eating more healthily: Get to know your farmers and have regular conversati­ons with them about their methods. “That’s huge,” says Brittenbur­g. Giant Eagle’s Mercil is on the same page.

“There’s a lot of chatter (about the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15), and those names are catchy and stick with you,” she says. But limiting your choices can do more harm than good.

“As a society, we don’t eat as many fruits and vegetables as we should, and making choices for fresh products overall is a positive impact,” she says.

 ?? MARY ALTAFFER THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO ?? With so many cashing in on America’s growing taste for healthier foods — some fraudulent­ly — do you really know what you’re buying when you reach for something with the USDA Organic Seal? And does it actually make a difference to your health?
MARY ALTAFFER THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO With so many cashing in on America’s growing taste for healthier foods — some fraudulent­ly — do you really know what you’re buying when you reach for something with the USDA Organic Seal? And does it actually make a difference to your health?

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