Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Nutrition: Should you eat organic?

Should you eat organic? This being Earth Day and all, I'd love to answer that million-dollar question with a few irrefutable facts (for one side or the other), leaving everyone feeling satisfied that the choice (one way or another) is easy. But the reality is that this simple question has a very, very complex answer.

Taken at face value, the answer is a simple one: For both environmental and health reasons, you should probably eat organic whenever possible. By choosing organic foods, you reduce your intake of pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals (whether as part of the growing process for fruits and vegetables, or as part of the feed for animal-based foods), and you also reduce their use in farming, which in turn helps the environment.

On the other hand, many individuals will choose organic foods based on their perception that they are somehow more nutritious than their non-organic counterparts. At this point, however, there is virtually no evidence that this is the case (note, however, that at least one study has shown an increase in the anti-oxidant content of foods grown in soil that has been organically farmed for several years, leading researchers to speculate that gradual improvements in the soil's quality may eventually get passed into the food over time). And though your tongue may tell you different, there is no solid evidence that organic foods taste any better.

So if you're looking to reduce the pesticide load for yourself and the Earth, it seems that you have a pretty straightforward choice. But once you start to factor the carbon footprint issue into the picture, things get pretty muddy. Are you better off to choose an organic plum from Chile, or a locally grown, conventionally farmed apple?

The first problem with that question is that there's no clear way to define what "better off" means. Is it better for the environment to use fewer pesticides in farming, but to transport the food by carbon-spewing airplane across many thousands of miles? Or is it better to buy food that may have been exposed to some type of chemical, but has only a few hundred kilometres to travel by transport truck?

And what about other resources not factored into the organic designation, like water and energy use? Perhaps the organic option requires a much greater input of water and fertilizer, or requires vast amounts of energy to produce (as with meats, organic or not)? Suddenly the organic choice doesn't seem so pristine. But the same apply to locally grown foods, and the energy needs for either type of food will increase significantly if the product requires processing before it reaches the shelf. For example, that same locally grown apple might see its carbon footprint increased if it needs to be shipped from Ontario to Quebec and back again to be turned into applesauce.

Before you throw in the towel and say "forget it -- as long as China is opening X number of coal mines per day, then it really doesn't matter what I do anyway, so I'm going to buy a huge T-bone steak and a pineapple from Thailand and not care a hoot about it," remember that these answers are not readily available to the average consumer.
At this point, there really is no way you can know whether the carbon footprint for that bag of organic milk is less than for the non-organic milk, or that the cow was treated better or lived a more fulfilled life. As I said off the top, this is a very complicated situation -- and there are many great minds debating the issue to achieve some level of consensus that will be practical for the consumer.

So, in the interim, what can a savvy, modern-day shopper do? For starters, print and clip the attached sidebar and put it on the fridge:
  1. Buy food in season, when you can. And if you have the option, try growing some food of your own.
  2. Eat fewer processed foods. They're much more energy efficient to produce and generally better for you.
  3. When you do buy food in season, consider freezing some of it, especially if it's a favourite that you eat frequently and have to buy out of season for the rest of the year. For instance, now's the time to start stockpiling blueberries.
  4. At the same time, don't go too crazy on the freezing, as a large amount of resources (about 20% of the total energy requirements for a given food, from seed to sewage treatment or compost transport) are spent on household energy use to store and prepare our food; in other words, don't plug in an extra couple of freezers to hold your summer bounty. Also, avoid mega-bulk purchasing, which not only requires extra energy for storage, but tends to lead to overeating and gradual weight gain.
  5. Buy only what you need. All of this discussion is moot if you throw out half of your food. That said, don't teach yourself to overeat just for the sake of saving a buck, or because your mom told you to always clean your plate -- just try smaller portions!
  6. And if you don't eat everything you buy, at least use a composter or organic waste bin for whatever's left.

• Jennifer Sygo is a dietitian in private practice at Cleveland Clinic Canada, which offers executive physicals, prevention and wellness counselling and personal health care management in Toronto.

No comments: