Summer is prime time for farmers' markets. And farmers' markets are a great place to get plenty of fresh fruit and veggies.
Many sellers of “locally grown” foods are now promoting their fruit and veggies as organic. While that sounds impressive, do you know what the term organic means?
It's important to understand the difference between organic and non-organic food. The main difference between organic and non-organic food has to do with the growing process.
In non-organic food products, ammonium nitrate and other chemical compounds are used as fertilizers to increase the bounty, insecticides are used to control pests, and antibiotics and growth hormones are used to increase the size of farm animals and to prevent disease.
When it come organic foods, natural fertilizers are used. Some of the most common sources are chopped plant materials, seed meals and green manure, which is also used to thwart weed growth.
What are the standards for growing organic food?
The federal government has set some standards for growing organic food. Retailers have to obtain a U.S. Department of Agriculture certificate before making sales. Only food products that are manufactured per the standards of the U.S Government can use the wording “USDA Organic” on the label.
Natural foods can include organic foods, but not all natural foods are organic. Only foods labeled "organic" have been certified as meeting the USDA standards.
There are 3 types of organic food
There are three types of wording found on organic food product labels.
“Completely Organic” means that the food product is 100% organic.
“Organic” means that the food product may be 90% organic.
“Contains Organic Ingredients” means that products such as cereals contain organic ingredients and are only as much 70% organic.
Other definitions you need to know
Organic: A raw or processed agricultural product that contains (by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt) not less than 95% organically produced or processed agricultural products.
Made with (specified) organic ingredients: The ingredients in a multi-ingredient agricultural product must contain at least 70% organically-produced ingredients that are handled according to law.
Organic ingredients listed individually: The ingredients in a multi-ingredient agricultural product containing less than 70% organically-produced ingredients with each organically-produced ingredient identified as such.
So, is organic food more nutritious than non-organic food?
The evidence is unclear. Some studies suggest that, on average, organically grown fruits and vegetables may contain slightly higher levels of vitamin C, trace minerals, and antioxidant phytonutrients than conventionally grown produce. However, other studies have found no nutritional differences between organic and non-organic foods.
Are there benefits to eating organic foods?
Organic foods do provide a variety of benefits. Some studies show that organic foods have more beneficial nutrients, such as antioxidants, than their conventionally grown counterparts. In addition, people with allergies to foods, chemicals or preservatives often find their symptoms lessen or go away when they eat only organic foods.
Organic produce contains fewer pesticides. Pesticides are chemicals such as fungicides, herbicides and insecticides. These chemicals are widely used in conventional agriculture and residues remain on (and in) the food we eat.
Organic food is often fresher. Fresh food tastes better. Organic food is usually fresher when eaten because it doesn’t contain preservatives that make it last longer. Organic produce is often (but not always, so watch where it is from!) produced on smaller farms near where it is sold.
Organic farming is better for the environment. Organic farming practices reduce air, water and soil pollution, conserve water, reduce soil erosion, increase soil fertility, and use less energy. In addition, organic farming is better for birds and small animals, since chemical pesticides can make it hard for birds and small animals to reproduce. Chemicals can also be deadly to small animals. And chemical-free farming is less of a threat to the people who harvest our food.
Organically raised animals are NOT given antibiotics, growth hormones or fed animal byproducts. The use of antibiotics in conventional meat production helps create antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. This means that when someone gets sick from these strains, they will be less responsive to antibiotic treatment. Not feeding animal byproducts to other animals reduces the risk of Mad Cow Disease. In addition, the animals are given more space to move around and access to the outdoors, both of which help to keep the animals healthy. The more crowded the conditions, the more likely an animal is to get sick.
Know the “Dirty Dozen”
There are certain fruits and vegetables where the organic label matters the most. According to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that analyzes the results of government pesticide testing in the U.S., these 12 fruits and vegetables have the highest pesticide levels on average – kale, strawberries, apples, pears, bell peppers, celery, cherries, grapes, lettuce, nectarines, peaches and carrots. Because of their high pesticide levels it is best to buy these foods organically grown.
Shop wisely to save money
Buying organic can be expensive at times so remember to shop for the organic foods you eat most often and buy fruits and vegetables in season to keep the costs down. Don’t forget your local farmers’ markets and food co-ops. You may want to consider joining a CSA (community-supported agriculture farm). You'll not only get your food in bulk, but you'll also support a local farm.
Rebecca Mohning is a Registered Dietitian and an Exercise Physiologist who believes that we can change our metabolism and achieve optimal health through proper nutrition and regular exercise. She has a Master's Degree in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor's of Science in Dietetics from Iowa State University. She is a certified Personal Trainer by the American College of Sports Medicine. She specializes in weight management, performance nutrition, and eating disorders.