I used to believe there wasn’t enough of a difference between organic and conventional foods to win my grocery dollar. I was soothed by Health Canada’s reassurance that pesticide residues are kept at safe, regulated and minuscule amounts. I had heard umpteen times from various marketing boards that there was no nutritional difference between organic and conventional. But now I’m thinking twice after digging through a mountain of research and coming out the other end feeling like a guinea pig.
We know that conventional foods have “safe amounts” of pesticide residues, antibiotics, hormones and genetically modified ingredients. But I have yet to find any research proving that it’s OK to spend a lifetime eating these “safe amounts.” Nor do we know the effect on our bodies when different chemicals we consume react together. So for me, organic wins by default, offering a safe refuge in the sanctity of what it doesn’t contain.
Joey Shulman, a Toronto author and nutritionist, goes further: She’s certain organics are a healthier option. “I’m a big advocate of feeding little ones — especially babies in their first year — organic foods. Why bombard them with chemicals? Their digestive and immune systems are too immature.”
Children, it’s argued, are more susceptible to pesticide residues because they have a higher intake of food per pound of body weight. This and the fact that their immune, central nervous and hormonal systems are developing make kids more vulnerable to health problems associated with high levels of these toxins. It’s estimated that a child can easily consume minuscule amounts of 20 different pesticides a day when eating a healthful variety of foods. Scientists argue that more research is needed to understand the “cocktail effect” of these residues reacting synergistically in the body. In other words, high levels of one residue might cause a headache; another might result in nausea; but when the two are combined in the body, what is the side effect?
Pesticides aside, the organic option may be more nutritious too, and there’s a growing body of research to support this. In 2001, two large reports — one American and the other from the United Kingdom — revealed organic crops to be higher in vitamin C and minerals, such as iron, magnesium and phosphorus. Another more recent study from researchers at the University of California, Davis, shows that organic or sustainably grown berries and corn contain up to 58 percent more polyphenolics, a natural antioxidant that is thought to protect against disease.
Another study, supported by the US Environmental Protection Agency and published last year, measured pesticide levels in 23 children in Washington State before and after a switch to an organic diet. After five days on the new diet, researchers noticed a decrease in pesticide levels in the children’s urine, and concluded a “dramatic and immediate protective effect” from eating organic.
“What scares me,” says Nettie Cronish, a Toronto natural foods cooking instructor and mother of three, “is the toxic buildup of eating this stuff for 40 to 50 years.”
Despite this, Cronish says the top reason she chooses organic is taste. “It’s much more pronounced,” she says. “Start with carrots. It’s a familiar vegetable and you can taste the difference immediately. Besides, it’s not as expensive as some other organic produce is.”
Digging up deals
Cost often stops consumers from going full-tilt organic. But price points have dropped dramatically since Loblaws introduced PC Organics in 2000. Now the largest single retailer and distributor of organics in Canada, Loblaws has over 300 products in the PC Organics lineup, with plans to introduce 35 to 40 products this year.
While Loblaws set out to price organic fresh produce at 25 percent more than conventional, Paul Uys, vice-president of control label and innovation at Loblaw Brands Ltd., reports being pleasantly surprised to find salad greens and baby carrots, especially in season, can cost the same as conventionally grown varieties. “The organic industry has grown and become increasingly sophisticated, producing products at comparable prices to conventional,” says Uys.
Other ways to cut costs are home-delivered organic produce boxes and farmers’ markets. Laura Telford, executive director of Canadian Organic Growers, says, “Certified organic growers generally put their certificate about their stall for all to see. If there is no certificate and they call themselves organic, I would definitely ask where the certificate is.”
Another novel alternative is community-supported agriculture (CSA). Basically, it means a summer-long commitment to buy a piece of an organic farmer’s harvest which might be delivered to your home weekly.
As more consumers vote for organic with their wallets, prices are certain to decrease. “But just because a food is organic,” says Shulman, “doesn’t give it the stamp of health. Parents still need to abide by healthy eating standards. I could give my toddler Jonah an organic Oreo, but I don’t.”
Organics in order
What qualifies as “organic”? Here’s a roundup of definitions.
According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada:
• Organic foods are produced without the use of chemical fertilizers or synthetic pesticides, processed without the use or irradiation and are not derived through genetic engineering.
• Animals are raised without hormones and antibiotics and fed organically grown grains and grass.
According to Paul Uys, a vice-president at Loblaws, processed organic (whether it’s cake mixes, cereals or frozen entrees) must contain 95 percent organic ingredients according to Canadian regulations. They are typically 10 to 20 percent more expensive than their conventional PC products.
Canada is on the verge of regulating its national organic standard. Back in 1999, the Standards Council of Canada published a strictly voluntary national standard for organic agriculture. Once the law is passed (expected this fall), consumers will no longer need to sort through the seals and logos of 27 different certifying bodies presently operating in Canada and can look for the universal, Canada Organic/Bio seal.
When it comes to baby food, the organic options are growing quickly. PC Organics baby food line “is probably one of our biggest successes,” says Paul Uys, vice-president of control label and innovation at Loblaw Brands, Ltd. Or opt for another cool innovation: Sweet Pea is a new, Canadian organic frozen baby food sold in six provinces and available in half a dozen different flavours, with more in the works.
• Before you race out to buy so-called hormone-free chicken, note that hormone and steroid use has been illegal since the 1960s in the Canadian chicken farming industry.
• While approved by the US FDA for dairy cows in 1993, the genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (rBGH) is banned in Canada.
• Should you choose organic milk, beef, chicken and eggs even though most of these products cost double the price of conventional? Yes, say proponents, for two reasons. Pesticide residues are fat soluble and stored in both human and animal fat, so we increase pesticide exposure by eating conventional animal products. We also risk exposure to hormones (except in the case of chicken) and antibiotics.
Choose your dozen
The US-based Environmental Working Group, a public-interest watchdog, has compiled a wallet guide, The Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, based on the results of more than 100,000 tests for pesticides on produce collected by the US Department of Agriculture and the US Food and Drug Administration between 1992 and 2001.
While this list offers guidelines for substituting organic produce, we still recommend eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables when buying organic is not an option.
Highest in Pesticides
Lowest in Pesticides
Fresh Tomato Salsa
Taste the organic difference while tomatoes are in their glory this summer. Pair this up with some organic nacho chips and you’ll have a winner.
1 clove garlic, pressed
1 tsp (5 mL) salt
1 lb(500 g) tomatoes, diced
¼ cup (50 mL) red onions, finely chopped
¼ cup (50 mL) fresh coriander (cilantro), finely chopped
2 tbsp (30 mL) fresh lime juice
¼ tsp (1 mL) red chili flakes
In a medium bowl, mash pressed garlic and salt together. Add tomatoes, onions, coriander and lime juice. Season with chili flakes — or halve the mix and season one portion mild and the other hot.
Makes 2 cups (500 mL).
The Dish on Portions
fat 0.2 g
carbohydrates 3.5 g
vitamin A 4%*
vitamin C 20%*
*of recommended daily amount
Our recipe tester, Jenny Koniuk, tests Nutrition using both imperial and metric measurements. However, proportions in the metric version may differ slightly from the original, causing small variations in the result.