Four common questions to ask about organic food

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Organic can be a loaded term. “There’s a lot of confusion about what that means,” says Kathryn MacLean, registered dietitian at UC Davis Health Food and Nutrition Services in California.

In a Nationally representative Consumer Reports survey of 2,224 U.S. adults in April42% said they thought organic food was more nutritious and 66% thought it was better for limit their exposure to pesticides or fertilizers.

What is true? The rules of use of theUSDA Organic Seal on food does not include the use of most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Those that are allowed are strictly regulated, only allowed when other methods have failed, and must be shown to be safe for people. Organic foods are also grown without genetically modified organisms or ionizing radiation sometimes used to control pests.

Foods as “prescriptions” for a healthy life

For meat, poultry, dairy or eggs, the animals are fed only organic feed and are raised without antibiotics or added hormones in “living areas that support the animals’ natural health and behaviors,” says one. Ministry of Agriculture Fact Sheet. But it can be hard to separate fact from myth when it comes to the benefits you may have heard of.

Here’s the truth about four common questions.

It depends. “In general, the proteins, fats, and carbohydrates are the same as in conventional foods,” says MacLean. “Changes in vitamin and mineral content are also quite negligible.” A 2014 analysis of 343 studies, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, found that organic produce contained higher levels of disease-fighting antioxidants than conventional produce. Other studies have found no significant difference.

Bringing produce, whether conventional or organic, away can have a detrimental effect on nutrients, says Mary Ellen Camire, professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine at Orono. And the United States imports organic foods from many countries — nearly 100 in 2021, says Reana Kovalcik, director of public affairs at the Organic Trade Association.

Are there fewer pesticides?

Yes. A small study published in Environmental Research in 2019 found that people who switched from a conventional diet to an organic diet had lower levels of pesticides metabolites in their urine. And even if what we know about the harmful effects of synthetic pesticides is limited, the The Environmental Protection Agency says exposure to agricultural pesticides has been linked to asthma, bronchitis, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Parkinson’s disease and certain cancers. Furthermore study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2020 reported a higher risk of death from any cause as well as cardiovascular disease in people with the highest levels of pyrethroid pesticide metabolites in their urine. Some research also suggests that children with higher exposure to certain pesticides are more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and that synthetic pesticides can disrupt our endocrine systems, which are responsible for hormonal regulation.

Is it bad for the environment?

Yes. Synthetic pesticides and fertilizers can damage soil and pollute water. “A lot of pesticides and synthetic forms of fertilizers, if not managed and fine-tuned, often end up in our water and even in our fish,” says Garry Stephenson, professor of crop and soil sciences at the Oregon State University at Corvallis. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, nitrogen-based fertilizers, often used in conventional agriculture, are major contributors to air and water pollution.

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Today, however, some conventional farmers are turning to methods that preserve the environment. For example, some are turning to organic fertilizers, says Matt Ryan, an associate professor at Cornell University’s School of Integrative Plant Science in Ithaca, NY.

For farm animals, organic rules require that they have year-round outdoor access and are raised on organic land, and that grazing animals such as livestock have access to organic pasture at least 120 days a year. It takes space to exercise, but animals do not need a certain space or should never be caged, and overall animal welfare requirements for “USDA Organic” certification are minimal.

Are the animals given antibiotics?

Generally not, with the exception of chickens and turkeys still in the egg and on the first day of life. But routine antibiotics are still widely used in conventional beef and poultry, which can lead to antibiotic-resistant infections.

“It means infections [in animals and people] that were easy to cure can potentially become serious, even fatal,” says James E. Rogers, director of food safety research and testing at CR.

Copyright 2022, Consumer Reports Inc.

Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works alongside consumers to create a fairer, safer and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services and does not accept advertising. Read more on ConsumerReports.org.

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