Organic foods are those produced using methods of organic farming, which do not involve synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and are not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, or chemical food additives. Most recently, the absence of genetic engineering (GE) or genetic modification (GM) has been incorporated into the organic definition.
Organic products are becoming increasingly popular as concerns grow about the impact of synthetic chemicals, such as pesticides, and processes, such as GM on human health. Organic farming makes use of alternative methods of pest control and growth optimization that are considered far less likely to impact human health.
The pesticide problem
In conventional farming, pesticides – chemicals toxic to vermin as well as to humans – are considered critical to preserving crop yield.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a not-for-profit environmental research organization, has noted that the average person is exposed to approximately 15 different pesticides per day from foods. Given that these chemicals are designed to kill living organisms, their impact on human health is of significant concern.
Animal and human studies on individual pesticides have linked them to various health problems, including the following:
- Fertility problems
- Brain tumors
- Childhood leukemia
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- Birth defects
- Irritation to skin and eyes
- Hormone or endocrine system problems
- Nervous system damage
Those especially at risk from pesticides are children, whose bodies are still developing. Those of unborn children are even more susceptible to damage.
While some argue that the amount of pesticides on produce is minimal, evidence suggests that cumulative exposure over a long period of time multiplies the negative impact on health; ultimately becoming significant.
For example, a recent study in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that people who had been exposed to even low levels of pesticides over time were found to be 1.13 times as likely to have Parkinson’s disease as those who had never been exposed.
Minimizing food pesticide exposure
Products known as “fruit and vegetable washes” are marketed as an aid to “safely remove toxic pesticides, dirt, mold, and other residues from your family’s produce.” Homemade versions of these washes can be made from combinations of vinegar and salt or lemon juice and baking soda. The following are the most common recipes:
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon baking soda
¼ cup vinegar
2 tablespoons salt
1 cup water
While these washes may help reduce pesticides to some degree, most are far more stubborn to washing and even peeling of produce. Further, peeling can be disadvantageous nutritionally, as produce skins – especially those of apples and potatoes – contain important nutrients and antioxidants.
The EWG suggests that by avoiding the most-contaminated produce, you can reduce your exposure to pesticides by almost 90%.
The 20 fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide levels
These are the ones that you should always buy organic, if possible. If you do buy conventional versions of the following produce, please be sure to wash them thoroughly with a rinse. These are ranked in order by EWG, with the worst at #1.
|Peaches||Sweet bell peppers|
|Grapes (imported)||Green beans|
The following are currently considered to have the least amount of pesticides, ranked in order by EWG with the produce with the absolute lowest pesticides first.
* These are technically fruits, but are used as vegetables.
Coffee is another item considered to be frequently contaminated with pesticides. It is important to note that most coffee is grown in and imported from countries applying pesticides that have been banned in western countries.
While some concerns have been raised about a decrease in the nutrient content of conventionally farmed fruits and vegetables, a 2012 survey of the scientific literature found that differences in the vitamin content between organic and conventional plant or animal products varied from study to study, but that as a whole, they were not significant.
The GMO challenge
GM (also known as genetic engineering or GE) of food involves the laboratory process of artificially inserting genes into the DNA of food crops or animals. The result is called a GM organism (GMO), sometimes called “transgenic.” The goal is to produce improvements that generally include increased quality, appearance and/or rate of production, or to make a plant more resistant to disease and weather extremes. GMOs are not the same as hybrid products, which result from the interbreeding between two animals or plants of different species to meet the same quality and hardiness goals of GM, as well as nutritional enhancement.
While hybrid vegetables have a favorable public opinion, having existed naturally and having been used commercially for centuries, GM produce is the result of newer technologies that are thought to have serious drawbacks. Research in this field has revealed negative effects of some GMOs in laboratory animals and humans, and little is known about the long-term effects.
Consumers are increasingly voicing concern regarding GMOs, and support for labeling products. Companies may voluntarily label products as “non-GMO.” Some labels state “non-GMO” while others spell out “Made Without Genetically Modified Ingredients.”
Some products limit their claim to only one particular “at-risk” ingredient such as soy lecithin, listing it as “non-GMO.” Certified organic products are not allowed to contain any GMOs. Therefore, when you purchase products labeled “100% organic, organic, or made with organic ingredients,” it is forbidden for any of the ingredients in these products to have been produced from GMOs.
If the term organic is only in the list of ingredients and not found anywhere else on the package, then there is no required overall percentage for organic ingredients in the product, and any non-organic ingredient may be GMO.
The following crops are known to have the highest rates of GM production. Since these crops are extremely widespread in products around the world, they constitute a starting point for choosing organic products:
- Canola (rapeseed)
How to choose “organic”
There are three types of organic specifications for food labeling:
1. “Certified organic” products are not allowed to contain any GMOs. Therefore, when you purchase products labeled “100% organic, organic, or made with organic ingredients,” it is forbidden for any of the ingredients in these products to have been produced from GMOs.
2. “Organic” means that at least 95% of the ingredients are organic. The other 5%, however, still have to be non-GMO.
3. “Made with organic __________” (ingredient name, such as soy) means that at least 70 percent of the ingredients are organic, but the remaining 30 percent still have to be non-GMO.