Organic foods: Are they really better?

Organic foods are grown without pesticides but the jury is out if these foods provide any real benefit.

Jul 06, 2001 (United Press International via COMTEX)The word organic typically conjures up images of rolling fields full of plump crops untouched by chemical pesticides and bioengineering, but while organic farming may be better for the environment, there is no strong evidence the food it produces is the healthiest choice.

American consumers seem to think organic food is better, which might help explain why the organic food industry has blossomed from a fringe movement three decades ago to $7.7 billion in sales in 2000, up from $6.5 billion in 1999 and rising a steady 20 percent annually for the past decade, according to Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the 15-year-old Organic Trade Association based in Greenfield, Mass.

Despite only owning 1 percent to 2 percent of the entire U.S. food market, DiMatteo said, organic foods are the fastest growing segment in the industry.

There is, however, little scientific study comparing organic food and conventionally produced regular food.

"There isn't a concentrated body of evidence that's been funded to support one position or the other," DiMatteo told United Press International. However, organic farming processes such as avoiding chemical fertilizers, crop rotation, maintaining beneficial soil nutrients and using natural pesticidessuch as grape seed extract which has an unappealing taste to pestson potato plants, means a healthier plant that is better equipped to ward off disease or destruction on its own, DiMatteo added.

It also is not known what a healthier plant can or cannot do for people. What is known is that organic foods typically do not carry pesticide residue, as do conventionally grown foods, said Carl Winter, director of the FoodSafe program at the University of California at Davis and a food toxicologist and professor of food science and technology.

Although Americans likely have consumed some degree of pesticide residue, federal government standards keep these levels low.

"The risks (of getting sick from pesticide residue) are infinitesimal to begin with," Winter told UPI.

Although there is some data suggesting chemical fertilizers might deplete some nutrients and that organic produce could potentially have higher nutrient values, Winter said the risks cut both ways.

For example, manure fertilizer not properly treated by organic farmers could increase the risk of bacterial contamination. It also is possible, he said, a consumer "may encounter greater levels of naturally occurring toxins in organic produce."

Mary Ellen Camire, a professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine in Orono, said improper manure treatment is a risk, but "the people who've been doing this a while really know what they're doing."

Camire said many people swear by the superior taste and appearance of organically grown produce, but whether these people are getting health benefits not passed on to folks eating conventionally produced foods is doubtful.

"I don't believe there's probably a huge difference nutritionally," Camire said, "though sometimes organic produce looks better."

Bioengineered ingredients also have been discovered in organic products because organic and genetically modified crops are literally bumping into one another and winds carry pollen from engineered lands to organic fields. The organic food industry does not permit the use of biotechnology and its accidental presence is increasingly becoming a problem as genetic engineering becomes more commonplace, DiMatteo said.

"No safeguards were required by the government for those farms using genetic engineering," DiMatteo said. "The burden is on (non-biotech) farmers to prove to their customers that their crops aren't genetically engineered."

Environmentalists have criticized that bioengineered foods could pose risks to human health by possibly introducing an unknown allergen, for example. Scientists in favor of biotechnology have countered there is no evidence suggesting genetically modified organisms are a threat to humans.

The bottom line, Winter said, is that organic and conventional both come with their own set of potential hazards. What has been proven to be key to good nutrition and a healthy lifestyle is consuming a variety of fresh foods.

"Eating may have some level of risk associated with it," Winter said, "but not eating is fatal."

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