organic photo
1st Lt. William Conkright, a dietitian intern with Madigan Army Medical Center Nutrition Care, shows off the healthy fruit parfaits available to passers-by at the Joint Base Lewis-McChord Lewis Main Commissary March 1. Nutrition Care handed out free parfaits from ingredients purchasable at the Commissary as part of National Nutrition Month.

You are standing in the produce section of the Commissary. The fruits and vegetables on both sides of the aisle look and feel the same. The only difference is that on one side of the aisle produce is labeled "organic", while the fruits and vegetables on the other side are conventionally grown. Is organic produce better for you than conventionally grown produce' Which one should you buy' It is hard to know unless you become a more informed shopper.

Surveys suggest that consumer demand for organic foods is on the rise. This may be due to the perceived health benefits associated with organic products. According to a 2005 survey, consumers are willing to pay more for organic foods based on the idea that they are safer and more nutritious than conventionally grown products.

Organic foods are grown using specific farming practices. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a long list of standards for organic food labeling. One of the most important standards is the type of substances that may be used to help produce organic foods. For the complete list of standards and other details about organic foods, visit the USDA's Web site at www.ams.usda.gov.

Organic farmers are not permitted to use most man-made chemicals. Examples include certain types of pesticides and insecticides. Farmers must also be certified by the federal government to market their food products as organic. Organic farming practices promote a more natural way of growing foods. On the other hand, conventional farming practices use a number of different chemicals and unnatural substances on crops. Chemicals are added to crops to increase the number and size of the plants grown.

Organic food production is not a new concept. It wasn't until the early 1900's that farmers began adding chemicals to crops. Initially, many people did not like this practice because it did not seem natural. Nonetheless, chemical use became the norm because farmers could produce more food using this method. As a result, organic farming practices were used less often. Fast forward to the 1970's and some of the demand for organic foods had returned. This came after people realized that chemicals used for farming enter the water systems. Since then, the demand for organic foods has slowly risen. In 1990, organic food sales in the US were 1 billion dollars. By 2008, sales reached almost 23 billion dollars.

Today you can find organic products in almost every grocery store. Consumers must make informed decisions when choosing between organic and conventional foods. Some considerations consumers may take into account include nutritional quality, safety and cost.

Let's start with the nutritional quality of organic foods. Have you ever heard of phytochemicals' If you guessed that they are the chemicals sprayed on plants to protect them from insects you would be close, but incorrect. If you break down the word, it literally means "plant chemicals". These "plant chemicals" are substances that a plant produces on its own to protect itself from the surrounding environment. They are part of the plant's "immune system" if you will. They work by stopping harmful reactions to the plant's cells. When we eat these plants (i.e., fruits and vegetables) the protective benefits are passed on to our bodies. Experts think that these "plant chemicals" may reduce one's risk for certain chronic diseases. Some of these diseases include type 2 diabetes, stroke, certain types of cancer, heart disease, and high blood pressure. Some people believe that organic fruits and vegetables have more of these substances than conventional foods. However, research has shown that organic and conventional fruits and vegetables contain similar amounts of phytochemicals.

Safety is another reason people buy organic foods. Conventional farming methods use synthetic chemicals to protect plants from damaging environmental factors. In return, farmers get greater crop yields. The problem is that when farmers spray chemicals on crops, a residue is left on the plant. Most experts agree that the amount of chemicals remaining on conventionally grown foods is not harmful. Still, some people buy organic foods to limit their exposure to such chemical residues.

Not all conventionally grown fruits and vegetables are created equally. There are twelve fruits and vegetables, dubbed "the dirty dozen", which typically contain more chemical residues than others. This group includes peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, nectarines, strawberries, kale, lettuce, imported grapes, carrots and pears. If you would like to limit your exposure to chemical residues on fruits and vegetables remember the following: if you eat the skin of the food, buy organic; if you do not eat the skin, buy conventional.

Finally, organic foods can be a bit pricey. Organic foods can cost 10 to 40 percent more than conventional foods. The higher cost comes from their relatively small production scale and increased labor costs. The good news is that organic foods are not always expensive. The key is to buy foods that are in season. Organic foods are typically cheaper when they are purchased in season. Buying from your local farmer's market is another way to find organic foods at a lower price. For great resources on seasonal and local eating, visit the following Web sites: www.sustainabletable.org, www.eatwellguide.org, www.nrdc.org/health/foodmiles, and www.localharvest.org.

March is National Nutrition Month, there is no better time to become a more informed consumer. Remember three key points when choosing between organic and conventional products. First, both types of foods are equal in their nutritional value. The important thing is to eat fruits and vegetables to receive the health benefits. Second, the levels of chemical residue that remain on conventional foods are thought to pose little, if any health risk. Third, organic foods may cost more, but there are ways to get them at a more reasonable price. So the next time you are standing in the commissary aisle trying to choose between organic or conventional fruits and vegetables, make the best decision for your health and for your wallet.

For more information on this topic and National Nutrition Month activities you can contact 1st Lt. William Conkright in the Nutrition Clinic at Madigan Army Medical Center at 253-968-1868 or william.conkright@amedd.army.mil.

Page last updated Tue March 16th, 2010 at 17:33