Sunday, January 21, 2007

When to Buy Organic

The Wall Street Journal ($) had an article earlier in the week about when buying organic foods makes sense. You find the biggest difference in produce that otherwise have high levels of pesticides or other chemicals in them, some difference in meat and dairy products, a small difference in l0w-pesticide produce, and no difference in highly processed foods.

The foods that show the biggest difference: apples, peaches, bell peppers, strawberries, grapes, spinach, lettuce, potatoes, and carrots. When conventionally produced, these foods have the highest levels of pesticides in the produce section. If you are just easing into organic foods, these are the biggest winners.

Organic dairy products are free of added hormones that are used to get extra production out of the cows. (All dairy products are free of antibiotics; the milk processors screen vigorously for the presence of antibiotics, and will dump out an entire truckload of milk if they find any antibiotics at all).

Organic meets are free of additional hormones, and the animals receive no antibiotics. All meat is supposed to be free of antibiotics, because they aren't supposed to be administered to animals within a certain timeframe (depending on the drug) of butchering; I don't think they test every animal coming into the slaughter plant, though. Antibiotic-free meats are also good for society; the high doses of antibiotics feed to animals in industrial production settings is a major driver for the antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.

Broccoli, bananas, frozen sweet peas, frozen corn, asparagus, avocados, onions have low pesticide levels when produced conventionally, so buying the organic versions of these doesn't have the same dietary impact as the items above.

Buying organic processed foods makes very little difference. Processing the foods has a much bigger impact on their nutritional value than the method of production. You should be aware that the label "made with" organic ingredients means 70% organic ingredients; the USDA organic seal is only allowed on foods with 95% organic ingredients. Reading the ingredient label is more important with processed foods than looking for the organic seal; this lets you find the foods with whole grains, natural sugars, and a lack of corn syrup. (By the way...looked at every brand of BBQ sauce at the store last week, and they ALL had corn syrup. What's up with that? I had to settle for a sauce where it was ingredient #3, instead of #1.)

Finally, there is no organic certification for fish. Even wild-caught fish may contain high levels of mercury, PCBs, and other nasty things. The pollutant level of fish is a function of where they were caught, not whether or not they're wild.

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