The benefits of organic food are becoming clearer by the day. As the demand for organic food has increased around the globe, more people are asking if it is more nutritious and better tasting than conventionally grown food, and if it's true that organic food is better for the environment. After all, if you're going to pay a premium price for organic, it's important to feel you understand why organic food is healthier.
It's true that there is not yet a conclusive answer regarding all the benefits of organic food and organic farming. However studies have shown that many organic foods are consistently more nutritious and tastier than conventionally grown foods, and that there are some distinct advantages to the environment, the animals, and the soil used in growing organic foods and grass fed meat. Read on for some of the details, and make your own decision.
One of the benefits of organic food is that they taste better. The characteristic taste of a food is based on a limited number of taste sensations including sweet, sour, acid, and other basic flavors.
However, the aroma of food contributes up to 80% of what we perceive as taste! The global sensation of taste is really the result of a mixture of flavor and aromatic sensations, some strong and concentrated, some weaker and more diluted.
The strength of the taste, then, depends in large part on the amount of water in the food. Water adds no taste or nutrition, in fact water dilutes flavor. The dry components are what your senses detect.
The amount of water in food varies greatly. There is practically no water in sugar and fats, flour and legumes contain about 10-15% water, fish and meat contain about 70-80% water, and 90% of fruit and vegetables is water!
Interestingly, conventionally grown produce contains more water than organic food. This is because conventional fertilization methods include nitrogen, which causes more water to be absorbed into the cells of the produce than when it is not fertilized with nitrogen. In fact, studies have shown that the use of nitrogen causes an increase of 5-30% more water in produce than in foods grown ecologically, which do not use nitrogen in fertilizer.
Conventionally grown romaine contains 94.3% water, while ecologically grown romaine contains 92.3% water. Conventional cabbage has been shown to have about 1.1% more water than ecologically produced cabbage, and conventional spinach has almost 10% more water than its ecological counterpart.
What you may be able to guess from these figures is that ecological produce has a greater percentage of dry components, which means a stronger flavor and more concentrated nutrients. Produce that contains more water will be more diluted in taste and in nutrition. According to the research above, the taste difference may be between 2-20% less in conventionally grown produce, depending on the increase in the percentage of water in the food.
Another reason organics usually taste better is quite simple: most organic farms are small operations and they deliver their products locally soon after harvesting. This means you get fresher food, with all the taste and nutrition intact. Letting food sit, either while being shipped or in your kitchen, causes a distinct loss of flavor and nutritional content is significantly reduced.
The debate rages on regarding the nutritional quality of organic vs conventional food. Most research conducted on the topic is performed by organizations with an interest in one particular outcome or the other, so it is difficult to find unbiased information.
In 2009, the European Commission released results of the Quality Low Input Food project, which analyzed different farming methods in order to come up with the safest and highest quality food for consumers. Their results point to some reasons why organic food is healthier. They found that organic fruits and vegetables contain up to 40% more antioxidants, and organic milk contains up to 60% more antioxidants and “bad” fatty acids. Antioxidants help protect the produce itself from disease and pests, and when we eat them they protect us from heart disease and cancer.
Other studies have shown little difference between organic and conventionally grown foods in terms of nutritional content. Whether these results reflect the truth or reflect the power of the conventional food industry remains to be seen. While more research is being conducted, people are basing their decisions regarding the benefits of organic food on several issues, such as taste, environmental impact, and animal welfare, in addition to nutrition.
The freshness of organic food is clearly a distinct advantage: if you get your food from the farm to your table quickly, it will have more nutrients than if it sits in a store or in your kitchen. This is true of both organic and conventionally grown foods. However, many conventionally grown foods are stored and shipped long distances, significantly reducing their nutritional content along the way.
In tests it has been shown that produce that is flash frozen immediately after harvesting retains the most nutrients, even over fresh produce. The best choice, then, apart from getting your produce from a local farmers' market or growing it yourself, is to buy frozen organic produce. Obviously this will not work for things such as salad ingredients, but some fresh fruits and vegetables take quite well to freezing.
There's no doubt that a large part of the benefits of organic food are its advantages in terms of the use of land and animals. Organic farmers are committed to not using pesticides, nitrates, hormones, or antibiotics in their farming practices.
While the USDA claims that the amount of pesticide residue on conventional food is negligible, a study by the University of Washington showed that parents who feed their kids organic food significantly lower the amount of pesticide residue in their kids' bodies. In fact, an analysis of the children's urine showed they were exposed to six to nine times fewer toxic pesticides than those who ate a conventional diet.
Even then, some say that there is no evidence that the pesticides the children were exposed to will harm them. However, even if the amount of pesticide residue on conventional food one day proves to be harmless, we don't know yet if they are harmless, and there are more aspects to the pesticide issue to consider.
Farm pesticide and fertilizer runoff ends up in our lakes, streams, and rivers, which alters and destroys natural habitats. Furthermore, conventional farmers and their workers regularly suffer serious health problems from pesticide spraying. Considering the size of the conventional farming industry as compared to organics, that is a sizeable number of people to be concerned about.
Grass fed meat is better for both the welfare of the animals and your health. Animals on organic farms are not treated with hormones or antibiotics; they live freely outdoors and are fed their natural diets for most or all of their lives. It makes sense that animals fed as nature intended will deliver nutritious food as nature intended. And if you caught a glimpse of how the animals are treated in conventional farms, you would run, not walk, to your nearest organic market.
Studies have found that organic grass fed beef and buffalo steaks have much greater health benefits than conventionally raised meat. They contain more good fats, less of the bad fats, and is higher in CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), a potent anti-cancer fatty acid also associated with reducing abdominal fat and helping in muscle building. Luckily it is relatively easy to get, with some web sites such as US Wellness Meats delivering grass fed meat right to your door.
Grass fed poultry has similar benefits. Chickens that are allowed to forage for plants, bugs and grubs, which is their natural diet, have much higher levels of healthy omega 3 fatty acid, including in the eggs they lay.
All in all, the benefits of organic food outweigh the cost, in taste, nutrition, impact to the environment and its treatment of animals. So if you can manage to add just a few more organic foods to your weekly budget, you will be helping both yourself and the planet!
Related Resources: Starting a Garden How to Grow an Organic Garden in 10 Steps - Starting a garden will save you money and give you healthier, better-tasting food. Learn how start a successful organic garden in 10 steps.
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