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Jewish World Review
August 24, 2007
/ 10 Elul, 5767
Deflating the organic mythology
Occasionally, I will buy "organic" fruits and vegetables or other food, supposedly meaning food grown without pesticides or fertilizers or other chemicals.
But when I buy the stuff, it's always by accident.
(Ditto for "fat-free" foods, like ice cream or half-and-half or cookies. Once in a while I'll buy the "fat-free" varieties without realizing what I've done, only to gag when I put it in my mouth. I mean, if I want to eat a goodie, I want the satisfaction of the real thing.)
Other people feel virtuous when they buy expensive organics. I feel I've been had.
A recent piece in Time magazine backs me up. In "Rethinking Organics" by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the doctor writes that while few things make people feel more "virtuous" than eating organic food, there's little evidence that they are either more nutritious or any safer for our bodies than traditionally grown produce with their fertilizers and pesticides.
Gee, you mean "organics" won't save the world after all?
For starters, the doctor notes, correctly, that researchers just haven't made any connection between our ongoing trace-pesticide consumption from food and a long-term negative effect on our health. In fact, given that life expectancy is up by decades in the United States from the turn of the last century, and that cancer rates (not just death rates) have been dropping across the board since the early 1990s, one has to say that that just makes sense on the face of it. Could it be that since now fruits and vegetables are cheap, luscious-looking and available year-round (Strawberries in January? Once unthinkable!) thanks largely to chemicals and fertilizers, it means people are eating more of them with incumbent health benefits? Answer: yes.
Ah, but aren't organics, grown in the heart of the earth Mother Nature's way, just loaded with extra vitamins and nutrients? Think again, says Gupta. Studies have shown no or sometimes a very tiny difference between organics and conventionally farmed produce when it comes to nutrients. There may be one exception. Tomatoes. The problem there is that while organically grown tomatoes were shown to be higher in anti-oxidants than traditionally grown tomatoes in one study, the organics in the study were grown in highly controlled settings that might not be replicated at all in the real world.
(By the way, here's a little health nugget that may also seem counterintuitive: Frozen vegetables yikes will typically preserve their nutrients more than fresh ones, of whatever organic or non-organic stripe. Like any living thing, vegetables start to break down once they are no longer living.)
It's true one objection I have to organics is that they are typically more expensive, sometimes far more expensive, than traditionally grown produce. They even appear in processed foods like spaghetti sauce, which is completely ridiculous. (Gupta says processing takes away (begin italic) any (end italic) benefit of organics.) But if a family is so convinced by the organic crowd that they offer such amazing health benefits that the family has to splurge on organics, even including organic milk and eggs, well, they might be eating fewer fruits and vegetables and dairy overall, and that does have negative health consequences.
But what most bothers me is that some of the claims of organic advocates almost resemble a crusade about saving family farms, and the environment and maybe next our souls by eating organic. Hence the slogan, "Think locally, act globally, buy organic."
But it seems it's actually thoughtlessness that's so typically involved, in what has become a sort of feel-good moral crusade for organic foods. It's so easy to think of organics or, rather, feel about organics as some kind of cure-all and inherently virtuous along with things like recycling. (Never mind if the newspapers we self-righteously lug to the bottom of the driveway typically sit in huge warehouses before they're finally burned or buried.) It's no fun to have to think through a cost-benefit analysis. That requires, well, thinking.
And in our culture, it's just easy, it just feels good ... to feel good.
Well, this is one gal who "thinks" it's just fine to buy lots of cheap, luscious-looking produce from the conventionally-farmed-food aisles at the grocery. I'm thinking locally, all right. About what's best for my family.
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