Americans spent close to $28 billion in 2008 on organic edibles, up from $1 billion in 1990, according to The Organic Trade Association. And organic foods remain an area of growth even with the rising cost of grocery items and tougher economic times.
Farmers and scientists debate whether organic produce, meats, and milks are more nutritious.
If you're fueling these double-digit sales, you likely already have your reasons for buying organic. Even so, recent changes to America's food buying habits -- the rise of the local-food movement, increased awareness about foods' carbon footprint (the amount of greenhouse gasses released when producing and transporting goods) -- may leave you wondering where organic foods fit into a better-for-the-environment equation.
If you're not an organic shopper, perhaps you have questions about whether or not these products are worth their premium price tag. Here you'll learn the lowdown. Cooking Light: Editor's guide to organics
• History: The organic movement, which gained momentum in the 1960s and 1970s, was a reaction to growing awareness about the unintended environmental effects of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which can spread far from the fields where they are applied. Today organic farmers advocate maintaining a sustainable environment by using natural principles to maximize crop and livestock yield instead of turning to artificial and chemical methods.
• USDA certification: In 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture implemented uniform standards for American organic farmers and manufacturers. Organic foods must be grown or produced without chemical pesticides or fertilizers, and, in livestock, without the use of antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic foods cannot be genetically modified, irradiated, or cloned.
Further guidelines govern specific foods. For instance, organic chickens must be raised with outdoor access.
• Growing market: In 1990, the United States had less than 1 million acres of organic farmland. By 2002, that number had doubled, and it doubled again in 2005, the most recent year for which USDA data is available. As organic farming has spread, it has adopted some of the principles that guide conventional farming. Today some organic farms are large-scale operations that manage thousands of acres.
As farming has grown, so have market share, crop yields, and distribution channels. Organic-themed grocery stores, such as Whole Foods and Wild Oats, have expanded around the country, and even mainstream food purveyors, such as Safeway and Wal-Mart, have developed organic brands. Organic food can now be found in every corner of the grocery store. Real Simple: 9 energy boosters
• Growing complexity: Organic certification does not cover many issues that have emerged as consumers have become more knowledgeable. Today organic food may be locally grown or it may be grown in a foreign country and shipped to the United States, resulting in a larger carbon footprint. Or it may be produced under less-than-ideal conditions for livestock or laborers.
In response, some farmers are shifting to what is called "beyond organic" to practice sustainable farming, build a local clientele for foods raised in season, and provide a living wage to workers. Also, some farmers may follow organic principles yet forgo USDA certification. That's one reason why you sometimes find uncertified organic goods at your local grocery or farmers' market.
Nutrition and health
Farmers, food producers, and scientists debate whether organically grown and produced fruits, vegetables, meats, and milks are more nutritious than conventional ones.
The Organic Center, a nonprofit research organization in Foster, Rhode Island, recently issued a review of 97 studies on the subject to draw the conclusion that organic foods, on average, offer a 25 percent higher nutrient level over conventional ones. The premium may be an extra measure of a nutrient like vitamin C or higher levels of compounds like antioxidants, which are produced by plants to act as natural pesticides.
The TOC is a pro-organic organization, so it's not surprising they found a nutritional edge. However, their review is complemented by emerging research from independent scientists. For example, University of California at Davis researchers have found higher levels of nutrients in organic tomatoes, kiwifruit, corn, and strawberries grown side-by-side with conventional versions.
Because this research is preliminary, most major public health organizations like the American Dietetic Association and the Mayo Clinic hold that an organic label is not an assurance that a food is nutritionally superior. What's more, organic sweets and snack foods don't warrant a nutritional halo just because they're organic. In excess, fat, sugar, and calories can have adverse health effects, whether or not the food that contains them is organic. Cooking Light: Everyday health dilemmas solved
Pesticide residues are much lower in organic foods than conventionally grown ones. Chemicals used in agriculture that may find their way into the food supply are monitored by the EPA, which sets limits on how much pesticide residue foods can contain. According to the FDA's Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program, which collects and tests random samples of domestic and imported foods, fruits and vegetables have the highest levels of trace pesticides -- 54.9 percent of fruit and 23.8 percent of vegetables. And studies have shown certain types of produce are consistently high in pesticide levels, which may make organic varieties a suitable alternative.
At the market
Environmental concerns, health, and the amount of your food budget determine which organic products make sense for you. But these shopping strategies can help:
• Prioritize your purchases. Some types of produce contain more pesticides than others. Invest your organic dollars in traditionally pesticide-heavy produce instead of low-pesticide foods. My Recipes: Top 12 fruits and vegetables to buy organic
• Think local and seasonal. Locally grown, seasonal produce may have a lower environmental cost than organic items that use fossil fuels and energy to travel long distances in shipping. If possible, consider local and organic produce.
• Keep good nutrition in mind. When buying meats, dairy, or processed foods, factor the item's whole nutritional package first, then consider the method by which it was produced. Minimizing sodium and saturated fat has proven health benefits, such as helping to reduce risk of cardiovascular disease.
• No need to buy an organic version: Seafood. At the moment, there are no government standards for what makes fish or shellfish organic.
As the food travels
Check the country-of-origin sticker on an item of produce, organic or not, and you might be surprised how many miles it treks. Below, we calculated the potential carbon footprint for tomatoes shipped from three top domestic tomato producing regions to a single U.S. city. (According to the Energy Information Administration, motor fuel releases 19.5 pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon. Calculations made if shipped by a 15-mpg truck.) Foreign tomatoes travel even farther. By contrast, Iowa State University researchers found that locally grown produce travels only 56 miles from farm to market, on average. Real Simple: 18 easy convenience-food upgrades
Ways to save
• Ramp up. If you want to work organics into your budget gradually, start with one or two key foods you eat frequently like milk or eggs. Cooking Light: Save on organic foods
• Shop the source. Go directly to a farm or a local farmers' market for the best deals on organic produce, milk, eggs, and meats. Prices there for organic goods are often cheaper than in supermarkets, and products are usually fresher. Check www.localharvest.org to find local purveyors in your area. Another reason to buy local: You can ask the farmer about how he or she raises food. For example, smaller organic operations may allow cattle more room to graze.
• Buy private label. Supermarkets and specialty stores like Safeway, Stop & Shop, Kroger, Publix, Wal-Mart, and Whole Foods all offer their own private-label organic food lines. Because there is no middleman, you can save as much as 20 percent, sometimes more. For example, Safeway's O organics brand large brown eggs sell for $4 per dozen that's $2 less than a comparable national organic brand.
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Copyright 2009 Cooking Light magazine. All rights reserved.
Additional reporting by Karen Ansel, R.D.
All About Organic Foods