Brooding On

Organics: Are They Worth It?

In case you're not as intrigued by studies related to farming and the food industry as I am, let me fill you in on the latest.  Stanford scientists have recently released a study wherein they compare organic meat and produce to their conventional counterparts.  The findings, which have shocked many and allowed others to enjoy a smug "I-told-you-so" moment, are that in many foods the organic variety does not contain a greater amount of beneficial nutrients.  Organics are, of course, more expensive for the consumer, so the study has left many wondering whether it's worth it at all to "go organic."  (For more info on the Stanford study, check out this balanced article by the NYTimes.)

As you can imagine, this is lighting up blogs and forums all over the U.S. as we all try to make sense of these most recent findings.

Well, why should I be left out?  Here's what I think about it all.

As a proponent of organic foods, let me start by saying that I am not at all shocked by these findings.  Yep.  You read that right.  I grow an organic garden in my backyard yet I am not surprised to learn that a conventionally grown sweet potato has all the nutrients that an organic one does.  To me, choosing to eat organic (when possible and feasible) has never been about what's in the organic food so much as it is about what's not in the organic food:  namely pesticide residues, hormones, and other additives (which this study and countless other have confirmed are greater in conventionally-grown produce than in organic produce).

So, a vitamin-packed organic strawberry . . . or a vitamin-packed conventionally-grown strawberry with a side of pesticide residue?

Sounds like a no-brainer, right?

Oh, if it were only that simple.

The organic vs. conventional argument is over as far as most foodies are concerned, and I doubt that the new study will have enough momentum to swing the pendulum in the other direction.  Besides, foodies are now on to talking about the next big thing:  local food.

Even if you're not into the whole green movement and are unconcerned by how many fossil fuels are burned to get your bananas to your table, there's another reason to care about how close to your home your food was grown. 

Fruits and vegetables are at their freshest and most nutrient-dense when ripe and freshly picked.  Food that has to cover a lot of ground to get to you is losing nutrients all along the way.  The lettuce at the farmer's market that was picked this morning is going to pack a greater vitamin punch than the one that was harvested and shrinkwrapped for its cross-country trip to your grocery store via refrigerated truck and may very well be 2-weeks-old by the time it makes it to your shopping cart. 

Do you see how all of this can get very hazy for the modern consumer? 
Should I go with the conventionally-grown but local bell pepper from the farmer's market? 
Or should I go with the organic one at the supermarket that was grown in California?

Yes, I've read a lot about the food industry lately, but I do not claim to be an expert, by any means. 
Still, if I had to boil it down, I'd say that for me local trumps organic.  And organic trumps conventionally-grown.  Let's say I'm on the hunt for celery.  Here's my order of preference:

1.  Organic and local -- what a great combination!  If your farmer's market or backyard can meet both of these criteria, great!
2.  Conventionally-grown but local -- yes, I side with local in this debate.  There are lots of reasons.  For a good start in understanding this debate, though, I'd suggest this article.
3.  Organic but not local -- this is especially true if it's a fruit or veggie from The Dirty Dozen list.
4.  Conventionally-grown and not local -- this should be the last resort.  Unfortunately, for many of us, this is all we have available to us for many produce varieties.

And, if you make it all the way to #4 with a fruit or veggie, don't throw your hands in the air and grab the Cheez-Its.  Believe me, a celery stick conventionally-grown in California is still better for you than that box of Cheez-Its.

If all of this is interesting but foreign to you, maybe start educating yourself by watching a movie.  Who doesn't love a movie?  Grab some popcorn (organic or not ;) and check out Fresh or Food, Inc., both of which are available on Netflix instant streaming.