But that changed after corporate agriculture concerns took over the majority of our food production. Food has changed so much since that organic is now supposedly special and genetically modified food produced with synthetic chemical additives has been deemed "conventional."
What a brave new world we live in.
The facts and fiction about healthy, nutritious food have been so thoroughly blended that consumers could easily be confused about whether organic foods are worth their higher prices.
This should help clear things up.
1. What does "organic" actually mean?
It's a legal term (as opposed to "natural", which was hijacked by advertisers to mean absolutely anything and, therefore, nothing) defined by the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. This is a federal law, which sets the minimum acceptable standard. State organic food laws can create higher standards, but not lower. The same applies to imported foods produced internationally.
Essentially, organic means crops and livestock were produced without certain additives or changes.
Here are some of the highlights.
- Organic foods cannot be genetically modified.
- Synthetic chemicals cannot be used on crops or land where livestock are raised.
- Natural poisons like arsenic are prohibited.
- Livestock cannot be given growth hormones.
- Livestock cannot be given medication, unless they are sick.
- Livestock cannot be fed manure.
- Heavy metals and toxic residues cannot be added during processing.
If you want to read the legislation here's a link to the Organic Act (click). As far as laws go, this one is pretty easy to read. If you don't want to read from the beginning, skip to Section 2105.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the Organic Act is what it means for "conventionally produced" foods. What it means is that if a food isn't organic it can contain all of the above prohibited substances, and more.
2. There are different degrees of organic.
There are several different organic food labels that mean different things.
The green or black and white circle symbol, which you can see in the infographic to the right, can appear only on products that include 95% or more organic ingredients.
A food label with the word “organic” means that it’s entirely organic if it’s a whole food or 95% or more of the ingredients are organic if it’s a processed food.
The phrase “organic ingredients” applies to processed foods. It means they contain at least 70% organic ingredients. The organic symbol cannot be used on these types of products.
Small farmers of the roadside stand variety are exempted from these labeling requirements.
3. Is organic more nutritious?
Back in September 2012 a group of Stanford University researchers published the results of a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine comparing the nutritional quality and safety of conventional versus organic food. It got a lot of attention in the press.
The Stanford scientists concluded that they couldn't find "strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods."
As with most stories, there are at least two sides.
Washington State University, among others, took exception to the Stanford group's testing methodology, contending it was unnecessarily narrow and failed to include important data that would have significantly altered their conclusions.
4. Is there a downside to eating "conventional" food?
Conventionally produced foods may contain various substances known or suspected of increasing the risk of serious sickness.
For instance, cancer, the second leading cause of death of Americans, can be caused by exposure to environmental toxins, some of which are present in the conventionally produced food supply.
The 2010 President's Cancer Panel Report's recommendations for reducing exposure to environmental elements that increase the risk for cancer and other diseases include "[C]hoosing . . . food grown without pesticide or chemical fertilizers and washing conventionally grown produce to remove residues", as well as avoiding antibiotics and growth hormones by choosing meat raised without these medications. In other words: eat organic. [See pages xx and 44]
The government establishes "acceptable levels" of toxins allowed in the food supply. However, many chemicals we're exposed to via food have not been evaluated for toxicity; there are simply too many to analyze given the resources allocated. For those that have been, what the government deems an acceptable amount of toxins in your food may not be acceptable to you.
We each have different tolerances for risk. Likewise, we value our health and the purity of our bodies to varying degrees. Eating organic food, rather than conventional food is a way to mitigate such risks, both known and presently unknown. In other words, eating organic can be viewed as purchasing a preventative health insurance policy.
Risk taking generally works out better when the risk is calculated, rather than reckless. To that end, here are some resources to help you learn more about the food you eat.
The USDA's National Agriculture Library offers a slew of resources (here) for further reading. The Environmental Work Group publishes a Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce, including two lists called the "Dirty Dozen" and "Clean Fifteen", and other useful consumer information for food shopping, which you can view here.
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BODY – MIND – SPIRIT