In nearly every magazine dealing even remotely with food, there's almost always an article about organic produce. Organic is healthier, we read, and better for the planet, too. Man-made chemicals are never used on them...Right? But if you do a little research, you'll quickly discover this isn't necessarily the case. Here's the scoop.
What Does Organic Mean?
When produce is certified by the U.S. or State Department of Agriculture, it cannot be genetically modified or irradiated. However, it's not true man-made chemicals can't be used on certified organic products. Although their use is discouraged, they can still be used, especially if a farmer's crop is declining by using herbicides. (See also Organic.org, Encyclopedia Britannica, Penn State...)
Is Organic Healthier?
We don't really know if organic is healthier.
One common method of fertilizing organic food is the use of animal manure. This means organic products might be more prone toward carrying bacteria. For this reason organic produce should always be carefully washed; this should help prevent E. coli and other types of food poisoning.
In addition, we don't really know that man-made pesticides and fertilizers are any worse than those made strictly from organic materials. Most studies look at children, who are admittedly more vulnerable. In one study, for example, children ate organic foods for five days; researchers found some pesticides had disappeared from their urine. The very same researchers stressed that organic food won’t necessarily change a person's health, but it will change (though not completely take away) a child’s exposure to pesticides.
Modern pesticides are, by and large, “nonpersistent,” meaning the human body doesn’t store them. This is a departure from pesticides of the past and makes it difficult to know whether the chemicals are causing bodily harm.
The FDA regularly conducts “market basket” studies to examine American food. In 1997, they discovered around 60% of vegetables and fruits had no detectable pesticides. About 1.2% of domestic food had levels of pesticides falling outside the EPA’s guidelines.
Consumer Reports conducted their own test. They purchased and tested around a thousand pounds of tomatoes, bell peppers, apples, and peaches in five different cities and tested them. In 77% of the conventional produce, trace amounts of pesticides were found; in the organic produce, 25% was detected.
Both the FDA and Consumer Reports tested unwashed produce, even though we know washing removes at least some pesticides from produce.
Does it Taste Better?
Many people believe organic produce tastes better, but the USDA says “no distinctions should be made between organically and non-organically produced products in terms of quality, appearance, or safety.” In 1997, Consumer Reports didn’t find a consistent difference in the flavor of organic and non-organic produce, and in the early 90s, Israeli researchers didn’t either.
Is it Better for the Planet?
Organic farmers have mostly returned to traditional farming practices including crop rotation, composting, cover crops, and similar systems. This is, indeed, better for the soil. However, because crop rotation is essential, organic farmers require double the acreage of non-organic farmers.
Is it Worth the Cost?
For some families, organic produce – which is 25 to 50% or more expensive – may be worth the cost. Even if everything you buy isn’t organic, there's still some produce considered heavier in man-made chemical content. The non-profit Environmental Working Group analyzed 43 fruits and vegetables and determined that the following produce was most heavily treated with pesticides:
sweet bell peppers
Among conventionally grown produce, the following were found to have the lowest levels of pesticides:
frozen sweet corn
frozen sweet peas
All produce, whether organic or not, should be washed in warm water. This removes some pesticides and bacteria that may be present from organic fertilizers. In addition, when cooking organic vegetables or fruit, be sure to cook it thoroughly, to help kill potentially harmful bacteria.
UPDATE 10/26/12: While all of the above information is still true, I think it's important to point out that the only way to know you are not buying genetically modified (GMO) food is to purchase food marked "USDA Certified Organic." Understanding that animals given GMO food are known to develop health problems, and given the recent French study that showed GMO food causes tumors in rats (a study that must be duplicated by others to be proven scientifically correct), more and more people are realizing GMO food isn't a good option. Be sure to read labels, since often these ingredients are included in unexpected foods - but also know that GMOs are found in the produce section.. In the future, more and more food products may contain different GMO foods; for example, I understand that salmon may soon all be GMO. Click here for details on avoiding GMO food.
UPDATE 05/ 07/2014: Organic foods may, inexplicably, be tested as containing pesticides and other chemicals. Check out this news report where they test organic produce and find that 12% had pesticide residues - and an additional 10 % had trace amounts of pesticides.