Sure, eating organic foods reduces exposure to chemicals from conventional foods, and organics are becoming less and less expensive. Supporting organics also reduces our reliance on chemical agriculture (something the world is doing more and more of), and so it's an environmentally sound practice, in large.
However, market practice being what it is (organics were a $3 billion dollar business 10 years ago and are a $15 billion dollar business now), many major food producers are getting involved, and at the same time they are lobbying to allow chemical and other non-enviro-friendly practices to be packaged under the "organic" label!
For instance, Kraft Foods and Archer Daniels Midland Company supported and won a bill in October 2005 allowing "benign synthetic ingredients" to be called "organic." Other companies support bills which say that if organic processes or ingredients cost more than twice that of conventional ingredients, they may use conventional ingredients and still call the product "organic." Wal-Mart and other companies also pressure organic companies to meet tighter pricing guidelines, which in turn may cause them to lobby for more loopholes.
Here are a few things you should know if you want to buy. More complete information is on www.eco-labels.org.
100% Organic -- No synthetic ingredients; independent inspections of food processing
Organic -- At least 95% of ingredients are organic, the rest may be conventional or synthetic.
Organic seafood -- No meaning because the DoA has yet to create standards for seafood.
Raised without Antibiotics -- Hens not fed antibiotics; uncertified claims means this label is as honest as the company is.
Made with Organic Ingredients -- 70+% organic; the remainder from a USDA list on synthetics and conventional ingredients.
USDA Organic -- Hens must be uncaged and have access to outdoors; hens must be fed organic all-vegetarian diet free of pesticides; hens received no antibiotics; hens may have had beaks cut.
American Humane Certified -- Hens can still be confined in cages; beak-cutting allowed.
Animal Welfare Approved -- Hens raised in smaller flocks (less than 500) by independent farmers; hens are outdoors and beak-cutting is prohibited. No animal by-products in food.
Dolphin Safe -- Companies decide whether to follow the standard. It simply means that measures were taken to reduce the likelihood of catching, killing, or injuring dolphins.
Safe Harbor -- Means that safeharborfoods.com has visually inspected fish samples sent by the company for mercury content and salmonella.
Certified Humane -- Hens must be uncaged, but not necessarily outside; beak-cutting allowed.
United Egg Producers Certified -- Minimum voluntary standards met, which "permit routine cruel and inhumane factory farm practices" (Humane Society).
Free Range / Free Roaming -- Not as solid as it could be. It requires chicken farmers to allow their hens outdoor access for "an undetermined period each day."
Cage Free -- Hens outside of cages, but no outdoor access usually; 2-3 times the space of cages allowed per hen. An ucertified claim, it means only as much as company can be trusted.
Pasture-Raised or Pastured -- At least part of a day is spent foraging for vegetation and bugs. An uncertified claim.
Hormone Free -- Claimed or not, egg producers cannot feed hormones to hens. An uncertified claim.
Omega-3 -- Not all Omega-3's are the same. DHA and EPA Omega-3s, like those in salmon, are very healthy. The third kind, ALA, doesn't do as much and most of us get this through vegetable oils and such. Most eggs carry 50 mgs of ALA and DHA, so if the claim says 50 mgs, it's an ordinary egg. If the claim is 300 mgs or more, it's very likely just ALA.
Natural or All-Natural -- This term means no artificial flavoring, colors, or preservatives when applied to meats. It has no meaning on any other product. In addition, there are no inspections or verifications for its use; a company gets to decide when it wants to use it and what it usually means.
0g of Trans Fat -- Sounds good, but does it have saturated fats? Probably, if it's boasting no trans fat!
High in Fiber -- Doesn't mean much, since this term includes polydextrose, maltodextrin, and other fiber bits instead of just intact, natural fibers as you have in grains, beans, and vegetables.
Made with Whole Wheat -- What percentage of the grain is whole?
All Natural -- Hmm. Not meaningful, especially since many so labeled are also high fructose corn syrup!
"Supports," "Enhances," "Maintains," etc. -- Attached to good health claims, these words suggest there is little to no evidence.
Enriched Flour -- The word "enriched" actually means that the product was first stripped of all of its nutrients and then re-"enriched" with a few. It is, at best, ordinary flour.
What to Buy
According to Consumer Reports, you should consider the following:
ALWAYS BUY ORGANIC:
Apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach, strawberries. √
These fruits and vegetables are laden with pesticides. See www.foodnews.org. for more information.
Meat, poultry, eggs, dairy √
Non-organic feeds for animals is often rich in toxins. In addition, Mad Cow Disease is spread through non-organic feeds.
Developing bodies are more vulnerable to toxins than adults are.
BUY ORGANIC FOR HEALTH, PERHAPS, BUT BE PREPARED TO PAY:
Asparagus, avocados, bananas, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet corn, kiwi, mangos, onions, papaya, pineapples, sweet peas
Pesticide residue on these is rare, so purchase for health reasons
Breads, oils, potato chips, pasta, cereals, and other packaged foods √
Processing practices for these products tend to eliminate nutrients. In general, the more processing involved in making the product, the less value in the organic.
The USDA has no developed standards for these, so even "organic" can have PCBs and mercury. See the section on Seafood for more on this.
Mostly pointless Shampoos and lotions are "organic" if they soak an organic product in a water base. Only 11% of "organic" cosmetic products are tested for safety. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) rates the safety of such products.
Shop Local. √
Many local farmers markets carry organics and don't charge a premium. As or more important, buying locally reduces the high end costs and environmental impact of mass-marketed foods. the gas costs of trucking, warehousing expenses and preservatives, etc. See www.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets and www.localharvest.org for listings of local markets.
Order by Mail.
Several companies sell organics and better costs than at the store. www.mynaturalbeef.org, www.eatwellguide.org, and www.theorganicspages.com.
Community-supported farms are becoming more popular. Work a few hours a month and you can pay less than some conventional foods. www.sare.org as listings of farm team locations.
Chemical Health Risks in Conventional Foods
Pesticides -- While many companies have voluntarily eliminated the gravest of pesticides in the last 10 years, most Americans consumers can eat more than 30 different pesticides a day which remain after conventional food processing. These can damage the brain, affect a fetus, and have long term health effects.
Hormones -- Synthetic growth hormones are carcinogenic and can also cause puberty imbalances in females. The USDA bans these in all poultry, but only organic beef, dairy cattle, and hogs are hormone-free.
Antibiotics -- Farmers use these to speed growth and prevent sickness from overcrowding animals in pens, etc. The result is antibiotic-resistant bacteria in these animals, which in turn can lower human resistance to antibiotics in human disease treatment.
Other toxins -- All kinds of odd practices occur on some farms. Chicken feet are sometimes dipped in motor oil to prevent leg mites. Arsenic and other heavy metals can appear in chicken feed.
Here are informational websites:
Eco-Labels.Org describes current organic labeling practices
FoodNews.Org describes pesticide residue issues and makes recommendations on good organics to buy
Environmental Working Group is an independent testing group for organics and other products
Organic Consumers Association
Local Food Links:
The USDA site for local farmers markets: www.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets
An independent site for local markets: www.localharvest.org
Sustainable Agriculture Research Education offers community farm links, etc.: www.sare.org
Mail Order Organics: