Food Myths

Wherever I shop for food these days, I find an ever-widening array of food products labeled “organic” and “natural.” But are consumers getting the health benefits they pay a premium for?

Until the 20th century … all farming was “organic,” with manure and compost used as fertilizer and “natural” compounds of arsenic, mercury and lead used as pesticides.

Might manure used today on organic farms contain disease-causing micro-organisms? Might organic produce unprotected by insecticides harbor cancer-causing molds? It’s a possibility … But consumers aren’t looking beyond the organic sales pitch.

Also questionable is whether organic foods, which are certainly kinder to the environment, are more nutritious. Though some may contain slightly higher levels of essential micronutrients, like vitamin C, the difference between them and conventionally grown crops may depend more on where they are produced than how.

A further concern: Organic producers disavow genetic modification, which can be used to improve a crop’s nutritional content, enhance resistance to pests and diminish its need for water. A genetically modified tomato developed at the University of Exeter, for example, contains nearly 80 times the antioxidants of conventional tomatoes. Healthier, yes — but it can’t be called organic.

That’s Jane Brody, in a post titled “What You Think You Know (but Don’t) About Wise Eating,” over at the New York Times‘ personal health blog. Brody’s post also touches upon the nitrites used to preserve cured meats, the use of meat glue to hold meat together, trans fats, farmed versus wild-caught salmon, and nuts.

If you are interested in what you buy when you buy organic foods, there’s also this 2006 article from the New Yorker, which I assign as a reading in my food policy seminar this spring.

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