Is Organic Food Better for You?

The truth about pesticides, nutrition, antibiotics, and hormones in organic produce, organic meat, and organic dairy foods.

By Janis Jibrin, RD

Is Organic Food More Nutritious?

The jury’s out, but the trickle of research that exists is encouraging. A recent Italian study, for example, found that organically raised plums were higher in vitamin C and beta-carotene; organic tomatoes were richer in vitamin C and other antioxidants than conventional tomatoes, according to a study at the University of California, Davis.

"Our research showed more phytonutrients [disease-fighting nutrients concentrated in the skins or outer leaves of many vegetables and fruits] in certain organically grown vegetables, especially cabbage," says Weiqun Wang, PhD, assistant professor of nutrition at Kansas State University.

Does Organic Food Have Pesticides?

Organically grown produce has significantly fewer synthetic pesticide residues, according to Joseph D. Rosen, PhD, professor of food science at Rutgers University. Buying organic also helps keep pesticides out of our soil and water supply. If you can’t find — or afford — all organic produce, at least avoid foods known to have high pesticide residues, such as apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach, and strawberries. Conventionally grown asparagus, avocados, bananas, broccoli, cauliflower, corn, kiwi, mangoes, onions, papaya, pineapples, and sweet peas have very low pesticide residues.

Does Organic Meat, Poultry, and Dairy Have Antibiotics and Hormones?

"By buying organic, you’re supporting a system that helps reduce antibiotic use," says Stuart B. Levy, MD, a professor of molecular biology and microbiology at Tufts University Medical School.

The more antibiotics in use, the more likely bacteria will become resistant to them — and the more likely you are to contract a hard-to-treat infection. Organically raised animals also receive no hormones, which are typically given to enhance growth and fertility or to boost milk production. But does the extra dose of hormones end up in food?

"So far, the scientific evidence does not show that milk-enhancing hormones [the most common is rbST] used in dairy cows pose a risk for human health," says Ruth Zadoks, PhD, a research associate in the Department of Food Science at Cornell University. However, the European Union bans treating animals with rbST or growth hormones, citing potential risks to humans; Canada allows growth hormones for beef cattle, but not for dairy cows.

It’s your call: If you don’t want products from treated animals, go organic. Note that if a label says antibiotic-free, it doesn’t necessarily mean hormone-free. But you can trust the USDA organic seal, which means no antibiotics or hormones.

Originally published in MORE magazine, November 2004.

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