Organic – To Buy or Not to Buy

When I lived in the city and had only two small children, I met and became friends with a super-person.  She also had two children but unlike me, kids looked really good on her.  She was a supermom, super friend and looked like a supermodel.  For a couple of years, I followed her around like a puppy because I knew that she would lead me to the safest playgrounds, the most educational museums, the healthiest kid-friendly restaurants and the best baby stores.  She decided at some point to go completely organic.  Her rational was that she was lucky enough to be able to afford it and in NYC, organic foods were accessible.  I tried it for a while but, just as being around her didn’t make me 5’10” with legs up to my neck, it didn’t make it any easier to find organic Snicker bars.  Organic just hasn’t worked for me and I think the problem is two-fold.  1.  I don’t have a great grasp on the benefits and 2. I like easy to find food that tastes really good.  I did make the switch to organic milk when I read the plausible theory that all the hormones being injected into the cows could explain the fact that girls were hitting puberty in pre-school.  So, I am not opposed to making organic choices.  I just need to understand why I am paying twice as much for stuff that looks half as good.

1.  What makes something organic? Until the 20th century, all foods were organic.  It was not until recent history that chemicals were introduced into agriculture and livestock to ward off insects, to increase production and to enhance color and texture.  When people started to be concerned that these chemicals were adversely affecting our health and the environment, the term organic was introduced.  To make the claim that it is organic, the food must comply with guidelines and standards that are usually enforced by the government.  In the U.S., organic foods are managed by the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.  The actual document is long and detailed, but in summary, non-organic pesticides cannot be used in farming and livestock cannot be given antibiotics or growth hormones.  For a processed food to be organic, 95% of its ingredients must be organic.

2.  Why does it cost more? The point of adding chemicals to the production of food is to be able to produce more.  There is a higher supply of non-organic foods, therefore the price is lower.  Currently, organic techniques cost more and those costs are passed onto the consumer.  Plus, all the cool kids are doing it so that tacks on another 20%.

3.  Is there evidence that it makes a difference? Here is where the scientist in me is a little frustrated.  As crazy as it may sound, I like to have some evidence to back up my conclusions.  It makes perfect sense that pesticides and growth hormones are bad for you and bad for the environment but I am looking for some hard core data.  This is not a cop-out.  I couldn’t find any.  It is very clear that pesticides in high doses can cause disease but what about the much smaller amounts we ingest by buying the cheaper A&P brand apples?  If you have read, seen or studied anything that offers proof that organic is better for your health and the world, please share.  I want to be a believer.

4. When does it make sense? If you don’t have the wallet or the inclination to buy everything organic, there are certain foods that are “dirtier” than others.  That is, they retain the chemicals from conventional farming in larger quantities than other food.  After produce has been washed, these are the fruits and vegetables that still retain the most pesticide: peaches, celery, apples, peppers, strawberries, blueberries, spinach, grapes, carrots, and pears.  If you are looking to get more bang for your buck, buy organic in the above list.  Here are some varieties that retain less pesticide residue: broccoli, sweet peas, corn, cauliflower, mushrooms, eggplant, raspberries, cranberries, asparagus, watermelon, mango, papaya, banana, radishes and onions.  It may not be worth spending extra (organic) money on these.

5.  What about animal products? In addition to added hormones and antibiotics, pesticides from what the animals are fed, can be found in meat.  The actual muscle is relatively clean but the fat of beef, pork and chicken is loaded with pesticides.  Chef Ellen feels particularly strong about trying to cook with free range poultry and grass fed meats. She says that you can even see a difference.  This is something I definitely need to work on.  I tend to do one-stop shopping.  I have never left Target without a 400 dollar bill, a new outfit and a picture frame.  I am going to start making an effort to go to a good butcher who can guarantee the quality of the product.  For some reason, dirty apples are more palatable than dirty steaks.

Before I finish, I have a gripe – big surprise.  Why is it that you all demanded antibiotics from me for every ailment and now you are all up in arms about a little penicillin injection in your turkey leg?  Let’s all strive for some consistency.  Unnecessary antibiotics are a bad thing – in a pill or on a plate.

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