Have you ever wondered what that ’organic’ label really means and if eating organic foods will improve your health?  A growing body of research is shedding light on the question of organic foods and health, helping to make our food purchasing decisions more informed than ever.

To be able to use the USDA Organic seal, a product must utilize approved methods for production and processing that are designed to foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and con- serve biodiversity.  Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.

So, will eating organic food make you healthier?  Well… it’s certainly possible, but the answer is not as straightforward as some might wish.  To better understand how eating organic foods—specifically plant foods—might affect health we can look at two important factors: exposure to synthetic pesticides and the nutrient composition of organic vs. conventionally grown foods.

It is well documented that conventionally grown foods have a greater risk for synthetic pesticide contamination than organic foods.   Despite how troubling this might sound at first, pesticide residue levels in conventionally grown foods are typically well below government-established limits for safety. Eating organic foods will certainly reduce exposure to these chemicals further but it is not clear that this will improve health.

Recent research has also uncovered some significant nutrient differences between organic and conventionally produced foods.  The most interesting is a finding of higher concentrations of a wide range of antioxidant compounds in organic foods.  While this seems to be a positive finding, the metabolism of antioxidants is complex and there is a lot we don’t understand about how they work within the body.  At this time, it is uncertain if an increased intake of these specific antioxidants would have a positive effect on our health.

Other nutrient differences identified were a mixed bag: higher levels of carbohydrates, xanthophylls, vitamin C, and lower levels of protein, fiber, and vitamin E. Differences (both positive and negative) were found in a handful of minor minerals as well.  These findings were statistically significant but have not received the amount of attention as the antioxidant finding because their potential for practical clinical (i.e. ‘real world’) significance is not as great.  That is to say, it is unlikely these differences would positively or negatively affect health.

Despite lower synthetic pesticide levels and superior antioxidant concentrations the current evidence does not support a measurable health benefit to eating organic foods.  It is important to note, however, that many individuals choose to buy organic foods due to perceived benefits to the environment and animal welfare. These issues, while critically important, are outside of the scope of this article.

Eating more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables and less added sugars and salt are some of the best steps we can take to improve our health.  Whether or not you wish to pay the premium for organic foods is, of course, your choice.

For more information on healthful food choices visit www.choosemyplate.gov.

By: Kentz S. Willis

Kentz Willis, M.S., is the University of Wyoming Extension Educator
in Nutrition and Food Safety for Northeast Wyoming.  He can be reached
via email at kwillis3@uwyo.edu. 

Republished with permission by 82801.

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