Is Going Organic Really Better for You?

The foodies have been arguing about organic versus conventional foods for years, but now the topic is hotter than ever.

The traditionalists say that it's all the same, while the naturalists dig in their Birkenstocks and swear that organic reigns supreme.

But what qualifies a food as organic?

Strictly speaking, organic food is that which is grown without added pesticides, fertilizers, sprays or chemicals -- and the soil cannot contain them either (though organic versions of these additives are OK).

For years, all government agencies and pretty much most of the scientific research have found little or no nutritional difference between organic and traditionally grown produce, meat, milk.

Now comes a study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry that finds otherwise.

Organic tomatoes were found to have nearly twice the level of two compounds, quercetin and kaempferol, as traditionally grown tomatoes. These compounds, part of a group called flavonoids, which are just a subclass of antioxidants, have been linked to a reduction in heart disease risk, so higher levels in food would seem to be a good thing.

The Greenest Greens

Of course, fans of organic produce have always felt that it was healthier, but that's not the only reason that many of them eat organic foods.

Often it's a green thing -- and I'm not talking about broccoli. They like the environmental concept of eating food that is grown without pesticides. They feel that fewer chemicals on the farm can mean less polluted groundwater, cleaner rivers, soil.

So, given this new study, is organic food better for our health? Best you can say right now is, maybe. Is it better for the planet? Probably. But there's an interesting twist here, too.

Say you're truly interested in saving the planet, and that you live in Massachusetts. You insist on buying only organic broccoli. The problem is that it may be grown in California and have to be trucked or shipped cross-country.

Now you're talking about 3,000 "food miles." A lot of fossil fuel has to be used to get that organic broccoli to your neighborhood, when you could get broccoli that is grown conventionally and much closer to home, thereby saving a lot of transport fuel.

In that sense, organic may not be much better for the environment than local food that's conventionally grown.

Organic or Not, Any Veggies Will Do

If you're like most people, you're not eating much in the way of produce either way.

We need about 4½ cups of produce daily, and we're only getting about half that much. Leave out the fries (the feds count them as a veggie, even if I don't) and our vegetable intake plummets.

If you really want to go organic, great -- but understand what you're getting into.

First, if you're a stickler for your fruit and vegetables having to look perfect -- symmetrical, apples and pears, evenly colored oranges -- let it go. Organic produce is imperfect looking. That's OK -- you're eating it, not bonding with it.

Second, organic food may not last as long, so buy a little less at a time but buy a little more often. If you are the type to go to the store only once every 10 days to two weeks, you're probably better off with traditional produce.

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