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Should you buy organic produce, is it really better?

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Demand for organic foods is on the rise. According to a survey of more than 200 registered dietitians by New York City-based Pollock Communications, 94-percent predicted consumers would eat more produce, especially that which is seasonal and local, in the year ahead. In addition, 72-percent forecast greater consumer demand for local, fresh, sustainable and organic foods in the next year. So, what makes organic so special? Why do people buy? Should you put organic food on your fork?

Organic refers to the way a food, and other agricultural product, like fiber for clothes, are grown and processed. According to the Greenfield, Massachusetts-based Organic Trade Association (OTA), “Organic food production is based on a system of farming that maintains and replenishes soil fertility without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers.” This means organically-grown foods are minimally processed and don’t have synthetic preservatives or artificial flavorings or colorings.

Healthfulness is the number one reason people buy organic. According to the 2011 Global Online Environment and Sustainability survey, which asked over 27,000 respondents in 55 countries, 76-percent felt that organic foods were overall more healthful than those grown by conventional methods. In addition, 53-percent ate organic in an effort to avoid pesticides and other chemicals, 51-percent thought organic was more nutritious, 49-percent bought organic because they thought this farming method was better for the environment and 45-percent believed organic food tasted better.

Are these perceptions true?

Organic foods, including produce, aren’t pesticide-free. Organic farmers are, under the law, allowed to use a number of different sprays on their crops. The difference is that pesticides used in organic production must come from natural rather than synthetic sources, be sprayed by equipment that wasn’t also used by synthetic pesticides and grown on land that hasn’t been used to grow crops treated by synthetic pesticides for three years. This means less chance of getting residues of harmful pesticides on organic foods. In addition, many organic farmers grow by non-chemical methods like using natural predators. This is called IPM or integrated pest management.

The jury is still out on whether or not organically-grown fruits and vegetables are more nutritious than their conventionally-grown counterparts. A survey conducted in 2009 by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine looked at 55 scientific studies conducted over the past 50 years and found that there were no significant nutritional differences between organic and conventional fruits, vegetables, meats and milk. However, organic proponents cite numerous other studies that show organic fresh produce may offer more nutrients such as iron, magnesium, phosphorus, vitamin A and vitamin C. 

Taste is hard to quantify; it’s a personal issue. Some say people perceive organic as tasting better due to attributing this food a ‘health halo’ in their minds. However, the Organic Center in Boulder, Colorado, offers an entire research report online that looks at scientifically conducted sensory evaluations on produce items such as tomatoes and apples. The organic truly does come out the taste winner in this report. The two main reasons are first, the higher levels of antioxidants and lower yields.

When shopping for organic produce, be sure the fruits and vegetable are signed or labeled that they are indeed organically grown. Organic is a legal definition in the U.S. and other countries unlike words like natural that have no concrete meaning. Also, for best price and flavor, choose fresh produce that is in season. Select a variety to get an equal variety of nutrients – deep oranges, deep greens, and all the colors in between. Do wash fruits and vegetables before eating. This removes dirt and bacteria. You can also peel fruits, although you’ll lose some nutrients and fiber in the peel.

Carol Bareuther is a freelance writer in St. Thomas. Comments on this story are welcome at editorial@the-triton.com.

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