The decision to purchase organic food over conventionally
grown food is a personal one, and as you walk through the
supermarket, many of which are now adding organic sections,
you will likely ask the question: Is organic food really better?
Well, organic food is certainly growing in popularity, and
the global sales reflect this having increased over 10 percent
to reach $23 billion in 2002.
The U.S. market is also expanding as consumers increase their
demand for healthy and natural products. U.S. organic food
sales have increased from $3.5 billion in 1996 to more than
$9 billion in 2001.
Organic farming differs from conventional farming in the
methods used to grow crops. Where traditional farmers apply
chemical fertilizers to the soil to grow their crops, organic
farmers feed and build soil with natural fertilizer. Traditional
farmers use insecticides to get rid of insects and disease,
while organic farmers use natural methods such as insect predators
and barriers for this purpose. Traditional farmers control
weed growth by applying synthetic herbicides, but organic
farmers use crop rotation, tillage, hand weeding, cover crops
and mulches to control weeds.
The result is that conventionally grown food is often tainted
with chemical residues, which can be harmful to humans. There
is debate over whether dietary exposure to pesticides at levels
typically found on food is dangerous, but experts say that
consumers should use caution. The Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) considers 60 percent of herbicides, 90 percent
of fungicides and 30 percent of insecticides to be carcinogenic.
Pesticides can have many negative influences on health, including
neurotoxicity, disruption of the endocrine system, carcinogenicity
and immune system suppression. Pesticide exposure may also
affect male reproductive function and has been linked to miscarriages
Aside from pesticide contamination, conventional produce
tends to have fewer nutrients than organic produce. On average,
conventional produce has only 83 percent of the nutrients
of organic produce. Studies have found significantly higher
levels of nutrients such as vitamin C, iron, magnesium and
phosphorus, and significantly less nitrates (a toxin) in organic
There is little question that organic foods are superior
to non-organic ones. However, I see many patients who are
not eating any vegetables because they either cannot afford
them or they are too difficult to obtain.
Please understand that it is better to eat non-organic vegetables
than no vegetables at all.
In the same vein, it is also important to realize that fresh
non-organic vegetables will be better than wilted and rotten
organic vegetables that are occasionally the only ones available
in smaller organic produce stands. There are many highly perishable
nutrients that degrade with time and exposure to air and ultraviolet
radiation. If the organic vegetables are seriously damaged
then it would be far wiser to eat fresh, undamaged non-organic
Hopefully, as the demand for organic increases the prices
will drop, and the supply will increase making it far easier
to obtain relatively inexpensive high-quality organic produce.
If you must buy conventional produce, there are ways to reduce
your pesticide exposure. Thoroughly washing all fruits and
vegetables will help, although all pesticide residues cannot
be removed by washing. You can also remove the outer layer
of leaves or peel vegetables if possible. Another alternative
is to grow your own vegetables, although this takes space,
time and climate considerations.
Another option is to buy organic produce selectively, as
certain foods tend to have higher or lower amounts of pesticides.
The following foods tend to have the highest levels of pesticides
(from Environmental Working Group’s FoodNews.org):