Organic foods: Are they safer and more nutritious?

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Organic products, once sold only in natural food stores, can be found in any major grocery store today. In fact, according to the Organic Trade Association, 73 percent of American families buy organic products, and demand is growing every year.

Many people wonder how organic foods differ from conventionally grown products and if they are more nutritious and even safer to eat.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), organic food is grown in a way that conserves and improves the quality of soil, air and water. Organic meat, eggs and dairy products come from animals raised without antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic produce is grown and processed without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), sewage sludge or irradiation.

Kit Hoult, owner of Granite Creek Vineyards, has been growing organic grapes and produce on his land in Chino Valley since 1974. Hoult remembers when there were no laws regulating organic farming. Today, however, he follows strict rules to maintain the organic certification of his wine and vineyard. Periodic testing of soil, water and plants and an annual review of farm records ensures that he continues to meet organic standards.

According to Hoult, an important part of organic certification also requires a farmer to annually improve the fertility of the soil. While conventional farmers take steps to improve their land, organic farmers put their plan in writing and follow it closely to keep their certification.

Are organic fruits and vegetables more nutritious than conventionally grown produce? Overall, studies find organic foods to be either no different or higher in certain nutrients than conventionally grown foods. According to Consumer Reports, a number of studies have found higher levels of protective antioxidants in organic produce and more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids in organic chicken and milk.

The problem with comparing foods grown organically and conventionally is that a lot of things can affect the nutrient content of food, including soil type, climate, level of ripeness when picked, and how long the food has been in transit or storage. Most studies don't consider these differences, which reduces the accuracy of their results.

According a recent Stanford University study, organic produce does contain fewer pesticide residues and organic animal products are less contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Such bacteria can cause serious illness or death and may be related to the routine use of antibiotics in conventionally raised farm animals.

Concern about the possible effects of pesticides on health, especially cancer, is why many people purchase organic foods. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), the risk of developing cancer from eating foods containing pesticide residues is unknown, although many pesticides have been shown to cause cancer in lab animals. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) states that organic food definitely reduces exposure of children to pesticides and may reduce diseases associated with antibiotic resistance. However, both the ACS and AAP emphasize the importance of eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, regardless of how these foods were grown.

Because organic foods are often more costly, the AAP recommends that families be selective in choosing organic foods. Many conventionally grown fruits and vegetables contain low levels of pesticide residues. The Environmental Working Group publishes a guide listing those foods that contain the highest and lowest levels of pesticides. They suggest buying organic varieties of foods usually found to contain high levels of pesticides and buying conventionally grown varieties of those known to be less contaminated.

While organic products may not always be more nutritious, they are grown according to strict regulations to improve the soil, environment and safety of food and farming.