HEALTHY LIVING

Is organic food always the right health choice?

Advocates of organic food claim that they’re safer than conventional foods, kinder to the environment and more nutritious. (File photo: AFP)

Racha Adib

 Over the past few years, there has been a trend towards the consumption of organic food products. The reasoning for many seems to be that organic food is somehow better than non-organic food. Health experts and consumers have long debated the benefits of organic foods over conventional foods in terms of nutrition and safety. But considering the high price of organic foods compared to non-organic food, do they have as much of an impact on our health as they do on our wallet? Let the investigation begin and see what the facts have to tell us.

First off, many people have a notion but do not have the complete understanding of what is meant by the term “organic.” Organic crops are defined as foods grown without modern inputs such as the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. In large amounts, these pesticides have been found to cause different health effects such as nervous system disorders, skin and eye irritation, hormonal imbalance and even cancer. On the other hand, organically raised animals are those raised with organic feed and kept free from growth hormones and antibiotics.

Advocates of organic food claim that they’re safer than conventional foods. (File photo: AFP)

However, pesticide use and its residue in conventional foods are regulated and monitored by each country. In the U.S. for example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as well as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ensure pesticide residues are kept in small doses and below safety levels. But the real concern for many people who consume organic foods is whether these small doses, over the years and decades, might add up to an increased health risk down the line.

Advocates of organic food claim that they’re safer than conventional foods, kinder to the environment and more nutritious. Researchers at Stanford University decided to investigate the scientific bases behind these claims. They reviewed many of the studies comparing organic and conventionally grown food, discovered very little difference in nutritional content. Moreover, they found that the chances of getting pesticide residues are 30 percent less with organic food. However, the amount of man-made pesticides residue found in conventional foods is still well below the level that has been deemed safe.

According to a study, the fruits with the highest amount of pesticides for this year are apples, strawberries, grapes, peaches and imported nectarines

Racha Adib

So when you’re in the supermarket eyeing a basket of juicy grapes, should you reach for the conventionally grown fruit, or decide to pay the extra price for its organic counterpart? Considering the high expense of organic foods compared with non-organic foods, there must be a justification for bearing this extra cost. In this context, if you’re buying organic solely for more nutrition, based on this review there’s no evidence that you’re gaining any real advantage. But if you’re concerned about pesticides and you can afford to go organic, it might be worth the extra expense especially for certain fruit and vegetable items. How do we know which items?

Every year, the nonprofit advocacy organization, Environmental Working Group, releases its “Dirty Dozen” list which of 12 fruits and vegetables with the greatest amount of pesticide residue. These foods might be worth buying organic, while the “Clean 15,″ which are the lowest in pesticides, might not justify the extra cost. According to the “Dirty Dozen” the fruits with the highest amount of pesticides for this year are apples, strawberries, grapes, peaches and imported nectarines. And the most contaminated vegetables were celery, spinach, sweet bell peppers, cucumbers, potatoes, cherry tomatoes and hot peppers. On the other hand, the Clean Fifteen boasts asparagus, avocado, cabbage, cantaloupe, corn eggplant, grapefruit, kiwi, mangoes, mushrooms, onions, papayas, pineapples, sweet peas and sweet potatoes.

Organic crops are defined as foods grown without modern inputs such as the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. (File photo: AFP)

And if you can’t afford to go organic what so ever, purchasing food raised in farms in your area is another alternative. It ensures you’re getting the freshest foods at the peak of season. You may also be able to reduce your pesticide exposure from conventional fruits and vegetables by washing and scrubbing them thoroughly under running water which has an abrasive effect that soaking does not have. To further reduce pesticides, fruits and vegetables should be peeled when possible. Even items with inedible skins, like melons, should be washed because cutting the rinds with a knife can bring contaminants to the inside of the fruit. Remember to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables since it decreases the likelihood of your exposure to a single pesticide. In animals, fat should be trimmed from meat and skin from poultry and fish because some pesticides residues collect in fat.

While the investigation reveals that organic products do have some safety advantages over conventional foods, nutritionally speaking they have little extra to offer. No matter what your concerns are, and however your crops are grown, “the health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweighs the risk of pesticide exposure” according to the Environmental Working Group. People should aim for healthier diets overall. Most individuals don’t consume the recommended amount of five-a-day which emphasizes the importance of consuming at least five cups of fruits and vegetables a day. 

 

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Racha Adib is a Beirut-based licensed dietitian who offers nutrition and wellness counseling to individuals and corporations. She graduated from the American University of Beirut with a Bachelor of Science degree in Nutrition and Dietetics followed by a certificate in Essentials of Business. She is a member of the Lebanese Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics and the Lebanese League for Women in Business. She has also been frequently featured in media on MTV's “The Doctors,” LBC's “Mission Fashion,” and Orbit's “Ayoun Beirut” among others, and hosts a weekly radio program on the latest nutrition news and science breakthroughs. She can be found on Twitter: @rachaadib
 

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Last Update: Monday, 30 September 2013 KSA 21:30 - GMT 18:30
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