In this issue of HEALTHbeat:
  • Is organic better?
  • Does “sustainable” mean healthy?

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Harvard Health Publications -- Harvard Medical School blank HEALTHbeat
June 12, 2008

Is organic better?

Many of us wonder whether it’s “worth” buying organic foods, specifically fruits and vegetables. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) agents certify which produce can be called organic and can impose penalties of up to $10,000 for violations. As defined by the USDA, organic foods are those grown only without the use of most conventional pesticides, petroleum- or sewage-based fertilizers, genetic engineering, or radiation.

Organic farmers can use manure-based fertilizers if they comply with very specific regulations. For meats, eggs, and dairy products to be called organic, the farmers cannot give the animals antibiotics or growth hormones. Livestock must eat organic feed that doesn’t contain parts of other slaughtered animals, and the livestock must be allowed outdoors.

Organic farming leaves fewer pesticide residues than conventional farming, which certainly makes it healthier for the environment and possibly healthier for you. Keep in mind, however, that even organic produce isn’t completely free of synthetic pesticide residues because these chemicals can persist in the soil for decades.

What does the “organic” label mean?

How can you tell what you’re getting when you buy organic? After all, organic foods don’t generally look different from their non-organic counterparts. As of October 2002, the USDA started lending its seal of organic approval to foods that are at least 95% organic. If you see the seal, the USDA has approved the food as organic. Even the use of the word “organic” on the label must first be approved by the USDA. For example, multi-ingredient foods (such as cereal or soup) that are 70% to 95% organic can’t display the seal, but they can use the word organic to describe up to three ingredients on the front of the packaging. Foods that are less than 70% organic can identify specific ingredients as organic in the ingredient list.

Although all foods that have the USDA seal are certified organic foods, the reverse is not true: all organic foods do not necessarily carry the USDA label, because applying for the labeling is voluntary. Foods that are truly organic might not have the seal or even use the word organic on the label.

How important is it to “go organic”?

According to its Web site, the USDA “makes no claims that organic food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced foods.” Harvard nutrition experts say there is no solid evidence that organic foods in general are healthier for humans, but that organically raised meat may prevent the spread of diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as mad cow disease. Conventionally raised livestock can catch this disease by eating the meat or bones of infected animals. But because animals sold as organic meat do not eat slaughtered animals, they are unlikely to catch mad cow disease.

Perhaps the most common concern about conventionally grown foods is the fear of ingesting pesticides and what effect this might have on health. But no research to date has proven that organic foods are healthier. The level of pesticides found in conventionally grown foods hasn’t been definitely linked to any health risk.

What to do?

Until more conclusive evidence emerges, the decision to buy organic comes down to personal choice: if you like the idea of eating foods made without chemicals or pesticides, buy organic. Otherwise, it’s good to know that eating conventionally grown fruits and vegetables is also a healthy choice. Whether or not you buy organic, don’t let concerns over pesticides deter you from eating plenty of fruits and vegetables. The bottom line is that the health benefits from eating fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks from ingesting the pesticides on them.
Here are some ways to reduce your exposure to pesticides:

Buy locally grown produce in season. Produce grown on small, nearby farms is less likely to be treated with pesticide waxes used to inhibit fungus growth on produce that’s shipped long distances. Locally grown fruits and vegetables are available only in season.

Wash fruits and vegetables, and peel them when possible. One study found that washing produce with a mix of water and mild dishwashing detergent, peeling the skins, and (for lettuce and cabbage) removing the outer leaves eliminated pesticide residues in 21% of fruits and vegetables. Peeling alone eliminated all of the residues in bananas, carrots, and potatoes. Similarly, corn had no residues after it was shucked.

Does “sustainable” mean healthy?

You might have noticed the buzz about “sustainable agriculture” and “buying local” these days. These terms are popping up in books, food labels, and even presidential debates.

Long familiar in ecological circles, the term “sustainable agriculture” has moved into the popular culture. Sustainable agriculture employs traditional means to make the farm a self-contained ecosystem that produces food by eliminating artificial fertilizers and pesticides, thereby supporting the environment while encouraging rural farmers’ way of life.

Sustainable agriculture cuts down on farms’ heavy petroleum use by setting limits on how far food can be trucked from the farm to market. It also reduces petroleum use by growing crops without pesticides and fertilizers, most of which are derived from oil. Sustainable livestock graze on grass on open pasture, reducing the need for the antibiotics heavily used for cattle living in tight quarters. The heavy use of these drugs in livestock increases antibiotic resistance in general.

These are clear benefits. But is food produced this way more nutritious? Existing research results are preliminary, sometimes conflicting, and currently inconclusive. While any nutritional benefits of sustainable agriculture remain unproven, its eco-friendly effects are well established.

  • Healthy eating in a nutshell
  • Fats, carbs, and proteins
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Vitamins and minerals

  • Healthy snacks
  • The food-health connection
  • How safe is your food?
  • Additives and your health

Reprinted from Healthy Eating: A guide to the new nutrition, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School, © 2008 by Harvard University. All rights reserved.

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