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Is organic healthier than regular food?

There is little doubt that health is important to Canadians, and most realize that a wholesome diet is a significant part of this. It is accepted that fruits, vegetables, whole grains and unsaturated fats are part of a healthy eating plan, but beyond that, consumers and even research scientists don't always agree. Should meat and dairy products be included regularly? Should one avoid wheat and other grains containing gluten in order to keep weight in check? And a big question these days is, how vital is it that people choose organic foods rather than conventional ones for optimum health, and what is the difference anyway?

While there are many controversies about the safety and nutrient content of foods, consumers need to remain informed as research goes on so good decisions are made. One of the reasons Canadian Organic Growers and the Canadian Health Food Association (among a few other affiliates) designate an annual Organic Week (Sept. 21-28 this year) is to offer events that give opportunity for the public to learn what organic products are all about.

The term “organic” refers to the way food products are raised and processed—that is, growers do not use synthetic pesticides, petroleum-based or sewage sludge-based fertilizers or genetically modified seeds. In the case of livestock—animals must be fed organic feed, and given access to the outdoors to roam around in an environment that is natural to them. Organic livestock may not be given antibiotics or hormones (but may be vaccinated against disease).

Little difference

Is organic food more nutritious than their non-organic counterparts? The jury is still out on that. Studies so far have shown very little difference in nutrient content between the two types of foodstuffs. So the question may be asked: why then choose organic for better health?

While most people do not taste pesticides and preservatives used in growing and processing foods, some consumers are allergic to certain chemicals and show symptoms which go away when they eat organic food.

Pesticides (including fungicides, herbicides and insecticides) are widely used in growing conventional products and although Health Canada puts a ceiling on what can be applied, residues are often found on foods in the marketplace. Does this matter? Consider fetuses and infants who are very vulnerable to pesticide exposure because their brains and immune systems are still developing. Pesticides in tissue could possibly result in developmental delays and motor dysfunction. While a minimal amount of synthetic chemical might not harm adults, there is a build-up in body tissue as they are exposed year after year. It is believed this leads to health issues such as headache and various illnesses caused by a weakened immune system.

Organic food is often fresher (but only if it is locally grown and quickly accessed) and for that reason retains more nutrients than conventional food shipped in from faraway places. As well, regular produce has usually been sprayed or injected with preservatives to make it last longer. One clear health advantage for choosing organic meat is that livestock has not been given antibiotics. Over the last decade it has become evident that overuse of these substances is helping to create antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, which has implications for human ability to fight disease.

Matter of money

The issue many households face is the matter of money—organic foodstuffs are usually more expensive (one reason is that to gain organic certification is a costly procedure) and so unless one is completely convinced organic products are superior, why go to the extra expense?

Following are tips for keeping the cost of organic food within budget: begin by purchasing organic counterparts of those foods you eat consistently and that are the highest in pesticide residue if raised conventionally. This includes carrots, celery, apples, lettuce, strawberries and tree fruits. It's smart to eat food in season when prices are lower, and to buy from farmers markets or directly from growers. Local doesn't necessarily mean organic, but smaller growers often follow organic practices even if not certified as such.

Join a food co-op or a community-supported farm which means produce is shared among members and prices are reasonable. Shop around—that is, check organic products in supermarkets and health food stores and buy when the price is right.

Remember, organic doesn't always mean healthy. Organic snack and dessert items, for example, may be high in sugar, fat and salt—these should be avoided or ingested in moderation.