Jami Nelson always tried to eat healthy and take good care of her body, so she was stunned to learn she had breast cancer at the age of 25.
Her cancer now in remission, the 26-year-old nurse is much more careful about what she eats. Nelson said she chooses only organic milk and meat despite their higher cost because of the way they are produced, without antibiotics and added hormones.
Organics give her peace of mind, and Nelson is willing to pay more to get it. But some experts say that's all she'll get — that there's nothing healthier or better about organic food.
Alex Avery, director of research and education for the Hudson Institute‘s Center for Global Food Issues and author of “The Truth About Organics,” said there are several misconceptions about organic food that make people believe it is healthier and better for the environment.
‘’It’s a total con,” said Avery, a plant scientist by training. "There is not a shred of science" to back up claims that organic is safer or more nutritious, he said.
To display the “USDA Organic” seal, a product must be produced and processed according to USDA standards, and at least 95 percent of its ingredients must be organically produced. That means growers can’t use most conventional chemical pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers or sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Animals must be fed organic feed, cannot be given antibiotics or growth hormones and must have access to the outdoors. Genetic engineering and ionizing radiation also are prohibited.
But standards for labeling organically-produced agricultural products don't address food safety or nutrition, just how the food is grown.
Organic food is more likely to carry pathogenic bacteria, such as salmonella and E. coli, because of the type of fertilizer that organic farmers use, Avery said. He also said that some of the natural pesticides used in organic farming are quite toxic.
For example, organic farmers are allowed to treat fungal diseases with copper solutions and remain within guidelines. Copper, which is toxic, is the 18th most used pesticide in the U.S. and stays in the soil forever, unlike modern biodegradable pesticides.
Avery singles out organic milk in particular as being no better, saying labs have not found “one detectable difference whatsoever.” Despite this, he said, his wife is the only woman in her circle of mothers with young children who serves her kids conventional milk.
Avery said that not only isn't organic always healthier for consumers, its perception of being friendlier for the environment isn’t always true, too. Although many organic crops require less energy in terms of fertilizer in production, conventional farms can produce more food and use less energy.
But Holly Givens, spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association, which represents the $17 billion organic industry in North America and has 1,700 member businesses, said that there are real benefits to choosing organic options.
“Many consumers see a link between agricultural practices and the health of the earth, and how those systems are interconnected with human health,” Givens said. For example, organic practices she said help protect water supplies and counter the effects of global warming by keeping carbon in the soil. Healthwise, she said, consumers avoid pesticide residue and toxic chemicals.
“They see organic products as a solution, not as part of the problem,” Givens said. “Organic fits in with the desire to lead a more healthful life.”
The jury is still out on whether organic is safer or more nutritious.
Chris Kilham, a self-described medicine hunter who travels the world in search of traditional, plant-based medicines, said smaller studies show certified organic food to be more nutritious and contain more Vitamin C, Vitamin A and other antioxidants.
“We know with absolute certainty that organic foods are more nutritious,” Kilham said. “Nobody can find any studies that show less nutrition.”
For nutritionists, such as the Mayo Clinic’s Jennifer Nelson, the decision for people to eat organic is a personal one.
Nelson said organic isn’t better or worse. “It means it’s just as good.”
She warns consumers that produce isn't safer if its organic or conventional when it comes to foodborne illnesses: Organic foods, despite some misconceptions, still must be cleaned properly and cooked appropriately. Nor is it necessarily healthier if the food is cooked or processed in an unhealthy way (think organic potato chips).
Givens concedes that certified organic labeling does not necessarily mean the food is safer, but she does believe that the healthy soil associated with organic food leads to healthier plants and healthier livestock.
As for safety, Givens said there have been no studies comparing the prevalence of foodborne illnesses in organic versus conventionally grown food.
But the numbers show that despite these unknowns, the popularity of organic food has been on the rise. According to Packaged Facts, an industry research firm, estimates of 2008 sales of natural and organic food and beverages will continue at a double-digit growth rate to reach $32.9 billion, despite a faltering economy.
“A lot of people will give up almost anything before they give their kids food they don’t feel comfortable with,” said Mark Kastel, co-director of the Cornucopia Institute, an organic industry watchdog group. “Organic food is a bargain when you look at the total impact on environment and health.”
Despite his concerns, even Avery concedes that organic food is here to stay. He’s cut back to part-time at the institute.
“There's no money in being on the common sense side against a very popular bandwagon,” he said.