Four frequently asked questions about organic food

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Organic can be a loaded term. “There’s a lot of confusion as to what that means,” says Kathryn MacLean, a nutritionist at UC Davis Health Food and Nutrition Services in California.

In a nationally representative Consumer Reports poll of 2,224 US adults in April, 42 percent said they thought organic foods were more nutritious, and 66 percent thought they were better for limiting their exposure to pesticides or fertilizers.

What’s true? Rules for using the USDA Organic seal on food include no use of most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Those that are allowed are strictly regulated, only allowed when other methods have failed, and must be proven safe for humans. Organic food is also grown without genetically modified organisms or the ionizing radiation sometimes used to control pests.

Food as “recipes” for a healthy life

For meat, poultry, dairy products or eggs, the animals only receive organic feed and are raised without antibiotics or added hormones in “living areas that promote the health and natural behavior of animals,” according to a leaflet from the Ministry of Agriculture. But it can be difficult to tell what is fact and what is myth when it comes to the benefits you may have heard about.

Here are the facts on four frequently asked questions.

Depends on. “In general, the protein, fat and carbohydrates are the same as in conventional foods,” says MacLean. “The changes in vitamin and mineral content are also pretty negligible.” A 2014 analysis of 343 studies published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that organic products contained higher levels of disease-fighting antioxidants than conventional products. Other studies have found no significant differences.

Bringing in produce, whether conventional or organic, from afar can have a negative impact on nutrients, says Mary Ellen Camire, professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine at Orono. And the United States imports organic foods from many countries — nearly 100 in 2021, says Reana Kovalcik, director of public affairs at the Organic Trade Association.

Does it have less pesticides?

Yes. A small study published in Environmental Research in 2019 found that people who switched from a conventional to an organic diet had lower levels of pesticide metabolites in their urine. And while what we know about the harm of synthetic pesticides is limited, the Environmental Protection Agency says exposure to agricultural pesticides has been linked to asthma, bronchitis, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Parkinson’s disease and certain cancers. Additionally, a 2020 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine reported a higher risk of dying from all causes and cardiovascular disease in people with the highest levels of pyrethroid pesticide metabolites in their urine. Some research also suggests that children who are more exposed to certain pesticides are more likely to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and that synthetic pesticides may disrupt our endocrine systems responsible for hormone regulation.

Is it bad for the environment?

Yes. Synthetic pesticides and fertilizers can damage soil and pollute water. “A lot of the pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, if not controlled and fine-tuned, often end up in our water and even in our fish,” says Garry Stephenson, professor of plant and soil science at Oregon State University in Corvallis. Nitrogen-based fertilizers, commonly used in conventional agriculture, are major contributors to air and water pollution, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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Today, however, some conventional farmers resort to methods that protect the environment. Some are switching to organic fertilizers, for example, says Matt Ryan, an associate professor in Cornell University’s School of Integrative Plant Science in Ithaca, NY

For farm animals, the organic rules require year-round exercise and rearing on organic land, and for grazing animals such as cattle, access to organic pastures for at least 120 days a year. Exercise space is required, but animals are not required to be given a specific amount of space or never be caged, and overall welfare requirements for USDA Organic certification are minimal.

Do animals get antibiotics?

Generally no, with the exception of chickens and turkeys in the egg and on the first day of life. However, conventional beef and poultry still routinely use antibiotics, which can lead to antibiotic-resistant infections.

“That means infections [in animals and people] that used to be easily cured can potentially become serious and even life-threatening,” said James E. Rogers, CR’s director of food safety research and testing.

Copyright 2022, Consumer Reports Inc.

Consumer Reports is an independent, not-for-profit organization that works side-by-side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse any product or service and does not accept advertising. Read more at ConsumerReports.org.

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