Before I get into the organic discussion, I want to do some cheerleading for fruits and vegetables. Cancer experts and registered dietitians recommend eating five or more servings of a variety of veggies and fruits each day. Mixing up your choices is important because different fruits and vegetables have different nutrients.
So now, as you’re munching on some carrots or blueberries, let’s talk organic.
What is organic? Organic farming relies on crop rotation, manure, compost, biological pest control (for example, ladybugs eating aphids), and other so-called “low-input” methods to control pests and enhance the soil and fertilize crops. Organic farmers can use some pesticides that are approved by the U.S. National Organic Standards. Organic crop farming doesn’t use synthetic fertilizers, chemical pesticides, plant growth regulators, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). For farmers who produce organic milk and meat, the standards include sections on growth hormones, antibiotics, and the animals’ living conditions.
Are organic foods more nutritious? Researchers aren’t sure. Still, the question really hasn’t been fully studied. But if you want to limit your exposure to chemicals, organic is a good choice for you.
How do I know I’m buying organic? In the United States, there are national standards for producing organic fruits, vegetables, meat, and poultry products. Buying foods with the sticker that says “USDA organic” means the product was produced by certified farms or processors using consistent, uniform standards. You won’t always find the USDA seal because organic farmers aren’t required to use it. You also might see a seal that says “Certified Organic by…,” because there are more than 80 certifying agencies. These may be private organizations or state-run programs. Any of these certifications means the producer meets and maintains the USDA criteria.
- If the label says “100% organic,” the food must contain only organically produced ingredients.
- For processed foods (or foods with more than one ingredient), the USDA organic seal or the words “certified organic” means the product is at least 95% organically produced ingredients.
- The “made with organic ingredients” label means at least 70% of ingredients are organically produced.
Non-organic farmers use chemical pesticides to control diseases and kill insects that can ravage a crop. No one wants to eat a wormy apple or moldy lettuce. But as we learn more about the unintended effects of pesticides on people and other animals and plants, many people are concerned about a link between pesticides and cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies about 40 chemicals used in registered pesticides as “known,” “probable,” or “possible” human carcinogens.
In 2007 for example, researchers found that girls exposed to the pesticide DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) when they were 14 or younger were 5 times more likely to develop breast cancer later in life. DDT was used for nearly 30 years to control insect pests in crops, forests, and home gardens. It was banned in 1972.
Eating more fruits and vegetables is something you can do to be as healthy as possible. While the connection between pesticide exposure and an increased risk of breast cancer is still being studied, common sense tells you that these chemicals are probably not good for you. Buying organic foods is one thing you can do to keep your exposure to pesticides, antibiotics, and growth hormones as low as possible.