It's Not Just Fruit, Nuts and Wheat Germ Anymore.
As parents, we know that one of the most important things we can do for our children is to make a balanced variety of healthy food choices available to them. We may try to limit junk foods, feed them plenty of fruits, vegetables and freshly prepared meals or teach them how to eat to make sure their nutritional needs are met.
But a growing number of parents are taking it a step further. They want fresh, wholesome food and they want to know exactly where it’s coming from – where it was grown, how it was raised, what it was fed. And so they buy organic – foods produced without the chemicals, pesticides, hormones or antibiotics used in the production of many commercially-prepared foods – believing that, even though it’s often less convenient and more expensive, it’s worth it for the peace of mind it gives them.
Bigger, Better, Faster
In the way that we once didn’t need the word “Internet,” there was also a time when we didn’t know that we’d need the word “organic.” If you lived 100 years ago, your sustenance needs would probably have been met by nature’s local bounty. Your produce might have come from your own fields, where a scarecrow standing watch over your crops would have served as your garden’s pest control. You might never have tasted a mango and you certainly wouldn’t have had fresh strawberries during the winter. Your meat and dairy might have come, if not from your own livestock, then from animals raised on nearby farms, where they roamed the fields foraging and grazing until their day of reckoning came. Even your wheat may have been locally threshed.
During the 20th century, advances in food technology, coupled with our country’s voracious appetite for abundant and inexpensive fresh meat, poultry, milk, eggs and produce, have given rise to large industrial farms, where state-of-the-art techniques are employed to maximize yield, kill germs and make food more visually appealing. The loss of crops to pests is curtailed by pesticides, and fruits and vegetables are made bigger and hardier through the use of chemical fertilizers and bioengineering. Animals that supply poultry, beef and pork are given antibiotics as a precaution against illness and growth hormones to hasten their delivery to the market. Meats are irradiated (the process of eliminating bacteria with electricity) before packaging. These methods of managing and producing our food supply have become so widespread that the term “conventional farming” is now often used to describe them.
What’s the result of all this technological tinkering?
The United States is home to one of the world’s safest food supply systems and many foods are packed with added nutrients. Our fruit is unblemished. Our meat is tender. Our poultry is golden. We have seedless watermelons and cucumbers. We can get just about any kind of food we want, any time we want it, regardless of what’s in season. And we don’t have to pay a lot for it, either. But is it all too good to be true? Now for many people, it’s a question of not what technology has done for us, but whether it's done more harm than good.
Why Buy Organic?
What does organic really mean? It might be defined practically or philosophically as plants grown or animals raised the way nature intended, with little or no man-made intervention and as little harm to the environment as possible. Indeed, the American Heritage Dictionary defines it as “simple, healthful, and close to nature.”
Its official definition comes from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which runs the National Organic Program. Under its criteria, a farmer, processor or handler becomes a certified organic producer or supplier. Organic meat, poultry and dairy products, such as milk and eggs, come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones, eat natural, vegetarian feed and have access to the outdoors. Fruits and vegetables grown organically are produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients, sewage sludge, bioengineering or ionizing radiation. Products containing ingredients that meet these specifications are authorized to display the USDA Organic label, or information about organic content, on food packaging.
Katharine Ahearn, a Manhattan mom, buys organic food for her two daughters, Zoe and Allison, as often as possible. “It’s at the point where I’m freaked out by everything,” she says. “I’m afraid of the pesticides. I don’t like genetically modified foods. And then there is the mad cow thing.” Although buying organic groceries is more expensive and often requires a trip to another neighborhood, she says it is worth it to feel comfortable feeding her family.
Many parents like Ahearn are turning to organic food products for varied reasons: to ward off the (as yet unknown) impact of, for example, pesticide residues, or rbST (a hormone given to dairy cows to increase production) in milk and other dairy products. Others are concerned about the effects of industrial farming on the environment and the treatment of animals on commercial feedlots. And the recent focus on Mad Cow disease has led many to question animal feed sources – protein enhancements made from rendered livestock – fed to animals that will eventually be our dinner.
The effect of all this on children is of particular concern to health experts like Nathan Graber, M.D., a fellow in the Pediatric Environmental Health Program at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York, who cautions, “Children are not just little adults. They breathe more air, drink more water and eat more food per pound of body weight than adults. They also have more years to manifest the late effects of chemical exposures, such as cancer.”
People who choose to eat organically range from those who buy just a few items that are important to them to those who adopt an organic lifestyle, wearing organically-grown Pima cotton sweaters and installing biodegradable flooring in their homes.
“We get an extremely wide range of shoppers,” says Wendy Steinberg, the Assistant Store Team Leader at the new Whole Foods Market in Columbus Circle. “Sometimes we’ll see people who just buy organic. But there’s a lot of people who are buying a mix of conventional and organic.” Many of them, she says, are still making the switch, choosing organic fruit, for example, and filling the rest of their shopping carts with conventionally produced groceries.
But is someone who chooses not to buy organic really at a disadvantage?
Keith-Thomas Ayoob, Ed.D., RD, FADA, a leading pediatric nutritionist at New York's Albert Einstein College of Medicine, doesn’t think so. “While I would support anyone choosing to eat organic foods, decades of scientific research studies – anti-cancer, anti-heart disease, anti-high-blood pressure, anti-diabetes and others – have been done showing the health benefits of eating more fruits and vegetables, which were done with regular, conventionally-grown produce. That’s the type that’s most readily available to people and they should just go for it,” he says.
Brooklynite Amy Bandler is a case in point. “I would love to buy organic,” she says. “But I don’t have time to run all over town.” She is unapologetic about this decision. “My family eats very well. I think it’s hard to be malnourished in this day and age, with everything fortified.”
Ayoob and Graber both acknowledge that there is no known nutritional benefit to eating organically. Paradoxically, sometimes the opposite is true. “The fortification of foods with vitamin D, calcium, niacin and other nutrients has led to great advancements in public health,” says Graber, who continues, “Many ‘natural’ foods are not fortified. When deciding what to purchase, especially with cereals, bread and milk, it is best to choose the product that is fortified.”
According to the American Dietetic Association, organic food sales in the United States totaled $9 billion in 2002. The industry continues to grow at an astonishing pace. “To say it’s exploding is an understatement. It’s grown at 10 times the rate of conventional over the past 10 years,” claims Scott Yacovino, marketing manager for Applegate Farms, which sells nitrite- and nitrate-free organic prepared meats, including hot dogs, bacon and cold cuts. In Brooklyn, the Park Slope Food Coop, where 80 percent of the produce is organic, has almost doubled its membership in the last four years, from 5,700 in late 1999, to some 10,000 this year.
Because of the higher cost of organic food production (organic agricultural products generally grow more slowly and need more space), organic food is, at the moment, more expensive – currently about 25 percent more by one organic grocer’s estimate. However, there are some ways you can get what you want without breaking the bank:
Shop around. You don’t even need to leave the house to comparison shop – many stores list price information, including weekly sales and specials, on their Web sites.
Buy what’s in season. It’s cheaper, tastes better and is less likely to be treated with ripening chemicals and preservatives.
Clean produce thoroughly. If you choose to save money by buying non-organic produce, a good scrubbing with soap and water will remove surface pesticide residues.
Sometimes it’s worth spending more. The following fruits and vegetables are most likely to contain pesticide residues: apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach and strawberries.(Source: Environmental Working Group) Either buy organic versions of these or be especially thorough when cleaning them.
Buy whole foods. Foods in or close to their natural state (an apple vs. apple juice) are often less expensive and almost always more nutritious.
Remember that organic is not synonymous with healthy. You’ll pay premium prices for organic versions of products like chips, candy and soda – and they’re often no better for you than their non-organic equivalents.
Industry experts predict that with the rapid growth of the organic market and the ever-expanding supplier network that is growing to meet demand, prices will fall in the future – and that one day, organic foods will move from the specialty aisle to the mainstream in your local supermarket.
Raising Healthy Children in a Toxic World, by Philip J. Landrigan, M.D., Herbert L. Needleman, M.D., and Mary Landrigan, M.P.A. (Rodale Press, 2002; $12.95).
On the Web
The Center for Children's Health and the Environment – A site sponsored by the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, which features information and links for parents on how to protect children from environmental hazards.
United States Department of Agriculture – Information on the USDA’s National Organic Program and links to other information on organic agriculture.
What it Means to be Organic: Are today's veggies all that they appear to be?