Organic Foods: Fact and Fiction

Everyday we are confronted with a barrage of advice on how we can lead more healthful lives. Above all we are encouraged to eat a healthy, balanced diet. Of course, to what degree this diet should contain certain kinds of food has been the subject of much debate (the Atkins diet, for example, has caused quiet a stir among health professionals and the general public alike). However, discussions around food and diet are not exclusively dedicated to what variety of foods we should be consuming, but also the very source from which we receive our foods.

In 2005, nearly 60% of US consumers purchased organic food and/or beverage products. And while this trend seems to be on the rise, there is a lot of confusion around what exactly "organic" means and the extent to which it is a solution to a healthier lifestyle.

What Does "Organic" Mean?
Organic foods comes from farmers who are dedicated to finding farming techniques that will ensure a sustainable and renewable supply of food for the future. More specifically, organic farming means that meats, poultry, eggs and dairy products must come from animals free of antibiotics and hormone treatments. Organic fruits and vegetables on the other hand come from farms that do not use traditional pesticides. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has its own standards that are required for a food to be labeled organic. In Canada, these standards are similar to the ones upheld by the Canadian General Standards Board, who use "certified organic" as their flag for products who follow their rules and regulations.

Since organic foods are becoming increasingly sought-after, health food stores as well as big-box grocery stores are now offering a plethora of organic products to choose from: among the more predictable selection of organic meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables and dairy products you can also find teas, coffees, cereals, baby products, oils, herbs and spices as well as cleaning products of the organic variety. But buyer beware: not all of these products are created equal.

Organic vs. "Natural" Foods
When you are looking for organic foods and products be aware that companies may try to label their foods using terminology seemingly synonymous with organic, such as "natural", "free-range" and "hormone-free" to disguise their product as such. However, only foods labeled "organic" have been certified to meet USDA standards.

Organic Products and Pricing
If you have ever shopped for organic foods before then you already know that one sure-fire way of separating them from their non-organic kind is by looking at their price tag. One recent study conducted in the US found that families who shopped for organic produce spent nearly 20% more on groceries than those who did not. In some cases, families that went organic ended up spending nearly 30% to 40% of their household budget on food.

While the traditional principle of supply and demand dictates that as demand for a product goes up, its price will go down, the steadily increasing interest in organic foods has as of yet not yielded the desired effect on its pricing. Even with increasing demand organic goods still only represent about 2% of the food industry worldwide, with only about 10% of Americans buying these products on a regular basis. However, now that nearly two-thirds of standard (non-specialty) grocery stores are supplying organic foods, the hope is that their significantly higher price tag may soon become a thing of the past. In the meantime however, is there a way to determine which products warrant the extra cost and which don’t?

Is it Worth it?
When it comes to organic goods there is, unfortunately, no standardized list which states what foods are more beneficial in organic form. Even the USDA does not claim that organic foods are more nutritious than non-organic foods. However, there is a growing body of research that indicates organic foods may be easier for our bodies to understand since they are free of the man-made chemicals our bodies are not adapted to. This argument has become particularly strong with respect to babies. Since babies’ developing immune systems are so sensitive to toxins, some pediatricians are recommending parents use organic baby products (encompassing everything from foods to diapers) on their vulnerable infants.

Also, some of the growth hormones found in many non-organic dairy products have been found to be carcinogenic, with some studies linking their consumption to premature puberty in young girls. Other studies have shown pregnant mothers may benefit from dieting on organic foods as pesticide toxins were found to be able to penetrate a woman’s cord blood into the fetus.

Is Organic Food Right for Me?
Deciding whether or not organic foods may be right for you in the end comes down to personal preference. As of yet, there is no conclusive scientific evidence stating that organic foods are more beneficial for our overall health. However, there is a rising body of knowledge that supports the notion that organic foods are more consistent with what our bodies have evolved to consume and therefore are a more natural choice for our consumption. In the end, the best choice is an informed one: do your research and find out what works best for you and your family.