Surely we’ve all noticed the increased size of organic food sections in our local Kroger or Bigg’s and organic supermarkets such as Wild Oats popping up in the Tristate. But many Cincinnatians may not know the difference between organic and non-organic products. The news is full of vague and frightening claims that conventional farming not only harms the environment, but our bodies as well. What is the truth?

“Organic”—What It Really Means

Simply stated, organic produce and other ingredients are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms or ionizing radiation. Animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products do not take antibiotics or growth hormones.

According to the USDA National Organic Program (NOP), before a product can be labeled “certified organic,” a government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Also, companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified.
Certified organic products are easily identifiable by their labels. The USDA has developed strict labeling rules to help consumers know the exact organic content of the food they buy. The USDA organic seal indicates a product is at least 95 percent organic. This label appears on single-ingredient foods such as produce, milk, meat, eggs or cheese. For foods that have more than one ingredient, the USDA has created four categories: 100 percent organic, organic, made with organic, and less than 70 percent organic. The first three categories ban any ingredients using genetic engineering, irradiation, or sewage sludge.

Organic Food and Nutrition

Even though the organic seal indicates that a product is at least 95 percent organic, the USDA does not make any claim that organic food is more nutritious. But according to Beverly Borjas, a registered and licensed dietician at Cincinnati’s University Hospital, “A number of nutritional benefits are emerging as organic foods are becoming more popular.

“Health and environmental benefits are numerous. There is evidence that organic foods are higher in antioxidants and lower in nitrates,” says Borjas, who also states that the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine recently reviewed 41 published studies and determined that organic crops contained appreciably more antioxidants and significantly less nitrates than conventional crops.

Phoebe Wallace, a registered and licensed dietician and specialist in gerontological nutrition at Deaconess Hospital, explains the role of antioxidants in the body: “Antioxidants are substances found in many fruits and vegetables that work to prevent damage to the body’s cells or to repair already damaged cells. They may also help to improve immune function. Examples include Vitamin C, Vitamin E and beta carotene.” While antioxidants have positive effects in the body, nitrates have negative effects. Wallace clarifies: “Nitrates are nitrogen-containing compounds commonly used as preservatives. Once taken into the body, they are converted into nitrites. Nitrates and nitrites are associated with the formation of nitrosamines, which are sometimes carcinogenic.” The USDA regulates the use of nitrates in food and the allowed levels were lowered in 2006.

So, what does all this mean for our overall health? “Experts fear a rash of health problems due to growth hormones used in conventional food, from cancer to neuro-developmental problems. Some scientists believe antibiotic resistance in humans is related to antibiotic use in the food we eat,” says Borjas.

Deaconess Hospital’s Wallace cites confirmation from the Environmental Protection Agency: “According to the EPA, lab studies show that pesticides can cause health problems that might occur over a long period of time. These effects depend on how toxic the pesticide is and how much of it is consumed.”

However, further and ongoing research is “required to improve our understanding of the health risks from pesticides in food,” notes Borjas.

The Value of Organic

According to the Organic Farming Research Foundation, as of 2006 there are approximately 10,000 certified organic producers in the United States. Measured against the two million farms estimated in the U.S. today, organic is still a tiny segment of the market. However, certified organic family farms have a dual economic benefit: they are profitable and they farm in harmony with their surrounding environment. While organic farming is not necessarily the most efficient system in the short run, the effect it has on the environment may benefit us all in the years to come. As best said by Aldo Leopold, considered to be the father of wildlife ecology, “A good farm must be one where the native flora and fauna have lost acreage without losing their existence.”