To Your Health

Is it worth the extra expense to buy organically grown produce?

Q. Is it worth the extra expense to buy organically grown produce?

A. The decision on whether to purchase organically grown or conventional food is a value judgment. Disposable income must be balanced with perceived benefits, and usually we have less information than we need to make the decision. For some, the cost of the food is paramount and organically grown food for them is prohibitively expensive. For those with chemical sensitivities, organically grown food appears to be absolutely necessary for their health, and the decision is "no contest." Most of us find that that the decision is made on the spur of the moment and the consequences are not immediately apparent.

Less than 10% of Americans are "purists" who are willing to pay the premium price and buy only organic foods. Overall, about 20% of the population is "organic attracted," but the remaining 80% seem more concerned about availability, price, and convenience.

Most people who purchase organic foods are well aware that "organic" doesn't mean "perfect." In a polluted world, some contaminants are bound to show up in organically grown food, even if you pick it from your own back yard. The Consumers Union, an independent testing organization and publisher of Consumer Reports, recently publicized the results of their investigation of organically grown foods. They found pesticide residues on about 25% of organically grown food, but conventionally grown food had about three times that amount. Root crops and grains are generally least likely to harbor pesticide residues and leafy greens most likely.

There is still considerable controversy over whether organic foods are nutritionally superior to conventional foods, and the evidence for either side is scant. Most reports show little difference in nutritional content, but in Horticultural Science for April 1998, organically grown tomatoes were reported to have higher concentrations of vitamin C and calcium than conventional tomatoes. In 1993, the Journal of Applied Nutrition, reporting on mineral analysis of a variety of foods, found that organically grown fruits and vegetables contained on average about twice the concentration of nutritional minerals and lower concentrations of toxic minerals.

Perhaps a more rational concern is risk of contamination of organically grown foods by pathogenic organisms. Organic farmers are not allowed to use raw manure but rely on composting, which may be inadequate, to overcome the threat of contagion. Pasteurization is allowed in organic production but is unwieldy and seldom utilized. It is probably prudent for those with a compromised immune system to discard outer leaves of leafy vegetables and thoroughly wash or peel other fruits and vegetables if they choose organic.

Whether organically grown food is safer or more nutritious, organic farming is universally considered better for the environment due to reduced runoff of commercial fertilizers and lessened accidental kill-off of beneficial organisms. Many farmers are switching to organic cultivation in order to increase profits. Even golf courses, traditionally heavy users of herbicides, pesticides, and inorganic fertilizers, are finding it cost-effective to "go organic."

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