The general perception among consumers seems to be that organic food is the way to go — if you can afford it. People who choose to buy organic foods do so for varying reasons. Some say that organically grown products just taste better. Others believe that eating organic food will lead to better health, both for themselves and for the environment. But is there any proof of these perceived benefits? Organic products can cost over three times as much as non-organic food, so going organic can make a significant difference to your family's budget. Is it worth it?
First, let's consider any benefits to your family's health. According to the USDA's standards, "Organic crops are raised without using most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Animals raised on an organic operation must be fed organic feed and given access to the outdoors. They are given no antibiotics or growth hormones." As we all know, increased exposure to some pesticides means increased health risks -- especially in children. The EPA lists birth defects, nerve damage, and cancer as some of the major health problems linked to overexposure to pesticides. Of course, the EPA already enforces strict rules on pesticide use by growers. However, the government still recommends that consumers wash and peel conventional produce before eating it, to eliminate any pesticide residues.
Since organic foods are grown without using pesticides, they carry fewer residues, if any. It seems to make sense, then, that eating organic foods should be better for you. However, according to the EPA, the levels of pesticides on non-organic foods are already so low that they don't pose that much of a threat. Furthermore, pesticide use has some important benefits, such as ensuring a larger harvest (and therefore lower prices) and keeping the pest population under control. The nonprofit Environmental Working Group has identified the following 12 types of conventional produce as having the heaviest pesticide contamination: peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, imported grapes, spinach, lettuce, and potatoes. Don't forgo these nutritious foods — just be especially careful to wash them well, or buy organic.
Pesticides are not the only health risk that organic advocates point to in conventional farming. Many also believe that antibiotics and growth hormones, both prohibited in the raising of organic livestock, are bad for you. Antibiotics in general have come under attack during the past few years, because the overuse of them has led to the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of many bacteria and viruses. In fact, the CDC states that "nearly all significant bacterial infections in the world are becoming resistant to the most commonly prescribed antibiotic treatments." Just as it's a bad idea for people to take antibiotics unnecessarily or too often, it's a bad idea to give them to healthy animals, since the same bacteria and viruses affect both humans and animals.
If an animal is given an antibiotic, it cannot be sold as organic, according to USDA standards. Therefore, buying organic meat and dairy products can help to protect us all against antibiotic-resistant diseases. Buying organic milk, on the other hand, does not guarantee that the cow that produced that milk has never been given antibiotics. It does mean that the milk itself contains no antibiotics, since the cow has to be antibiotic-free for at least a year before the farmer can sell its milk as organic.
There is disagreement as to the safety of giving growth hormones to cows to increase milk production or enhance growth. The European Union has banned this practice in both beef and dairy cattle, but the U.S. FDA says it has determined that there is no real human health risk. Though rbBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) can have negative affects on humans when injected into them, the FDA says that the human digestive track breaks it down and eliminates it when we ingest it through our food. However, milk from rbBGH cows contains higher levels of a natural growth factor called IGF-1, and some experts link high levels of it in humans to breast and prostate cancers. Organic milk might be worth the extra cost, if only for your peace of mind.