Learn Why and When Eating Organic Food Is Healthier for You




A balanced diet of quality proteins, nutrient-dense vegetables, fruits and grains contributes to hair health. But if those food sources are laden with agricultural chemicals or the product of “frankincense” (e.g., genetic modification), how good can those foods really be?

The concerns go far beyond hair. Since the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring(Houghton Mifflin, 1962), concern about pesticides and other chemicals in the environment has risen, particularly when considering that the foods we ingest often hold those same chemicals. Decades after Carson, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) might involve combining genes from an animal into a plant to create a hardier, larger or tastier food — purchased unwittingly by consumers who are unaware of the hybridization method.

Another huge concern is how an entire agricultural-industrial complex has arisen that has turned all aspects of farming — soil fertilization, animal and plant genetics, disease abatement (antibiotics in livestock and herbicides on crops), harvest and slaughter, processing, preservation, shipping and in-store merchandising — into a chemically manipulated process. The results include environmental degradation on a massive scale, introducing nitrogen and other “nutrients” that create an imbalance many miles downriver from the farms where they are used.

To what degree can human ills be blamed on modern food? It is almost impossible to track, since there are so many chemicals in our environment. We are confronted today with greater incidences of various diseases and conditions — asthma, autism, certain cancers, declining male fertility, to name a few — that may be attributed directly to exposure to certain chemicals. The phenomenon of bioaccumulation, such as how large ocean fish have a disturbingly high mercury content and thus are worrisome food sources to pregnant women and young children, provides further concern that repeated ingestion of chemicals in our foods can add up over time.

Organic Food: Regulatory versus voluntary approaches

But if chemical compounds in food are so frightening, why aren’t there regulations to block them? For the most part, definitive science linking cause-and-effect is almost impossible to conduct. Who is to say the DDT-drenched vegetables of our youth are why one gets cancer, or chronic fatigue, or memory loss or infertility later in life?

Even lacking solid evidence, however, it is intuitive to wish for the most natural, most organic elements in our lives. Taste, also, brings a clear sense that foods grown or raised under conditions that precede modern agriculture — such as free-range chickens — are simply more pleasurable to eat. When foods grown in one’s chemical-free garden are eaten immediately after harvest, the strong flavors not only are surprisingly good, but also they negate the need to add salt or other flavor enhancers. A garden-fresh tomato, eaten reverentially, has no peer.

Attempts are made to regulate worrisome chemicals and genetics out of the food system, but a political climate that favors less government is unlikely to enact such measures. So a voluntary movement of organic farmers, retailers and consumers has materialized. As Paul Roberts writes in The End of Food (Houghton Mifflin, 2008) about GMO foods, organic agriculturalists are not “convinced that researchers fully understand the cascade of molecular events that occur inside a cell when a gene is manipulated, thus making it impossible to predict all potential health or environmental effects.”

Thus it is a movement based somewhat on a fear of the unknown. But it certainly is a movement with momentum. Fully three-quarters of American consumers purchase organic products (“Beyond Organic and Natural 2010,” a report by the Hartman Group), while one-third of shoppers surveyed by Mintel International (a food industry research organization) in 2010 said they would pay more for environmentally friendly products.

Be a cautious organic food consumer

And this is exactly why someone who shops for “organic” needs to be particularly wary. With such strong numbers persuading food marketers to sell products perceived to be organic, there emerges room for loose interpretation. To what degree can this organic claim be made? Did the chicken eat completely certified organic feed? Did it not receive antibiotics to fend off common henhouse diseases? Was the broccoli grown in a field that had never been given chemical fertilizers?

With legislation enacted in 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) began the National Organic Program, which established a labeling standard, as follows:

  • “100% Organic”: The product is completely made with certified organic ingredients and methods.
  • “Organic”: At least 95 percent of the product is made with organic ingredients.
  • “Made with organic ingredients”: A minimum of 70 percent of ingredients are certified as organic.

Similar programs exist in Canada, Europe, Australia and Japan.
The program has been successful at establishing a legal standard, but a few caveats should be noted:

  • Companies with less than $5,000 in annual sales can self-certify; for example, vendors at farmer’s markets can make organic claims, producing documentation only if required. There are reported cases of fraud at farmers’ markets, albeit not widespread.
  • Half (15 of 30) of federally accredited organic certifiers were found in violation of USDA organic standards in 2008.
  • The National Organic Program is staffed by a dozen people, covering the entirety of the U.S. organic food industry; this means there is very little real oversight.
  • The USDA program covers only edible goods. Other products making organic claims (soaps, clothing, etc.) are not as closely regulated; however, the National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureau does legally pursue “greenwashing” marketing claims by product manufacturers that it deems fraudulent.

Given the uncertainty over organic claims, how might a consumer overcome doubt about the authenticity of an organic product? Join a CSA, community-supported agriculture, where buying groups develop relationships with farmers, which includes paying upfront for a season’s crops and visiting the farm to observe growing methods. Consider shopping at farmer’s markets where a market manager will visit vendor farmers who make organic claims. And if you have a little bit of dirt in your life, start your own garden. Even if you can’t raise your own beef or chicken, leafy greens, tomatoes and string beans are relatively easy to grow in almost any climate.