Wal-Mart, the nation's largest grocery retailer, will soon be selling a vast array of organic products, including organic produce, breakfast cereals, and macaroni and cheese. According to The New York Times the move is an attempt broaden its appeal to urban and other upscale consumers. The initiative has met mixed reviews, Melanie Warner reports:
Wal-Mart's interest is expected to change organic food production in substantial ways.
Some organic food advocates applaud the development, saying Wal-Mart's efforts will help expand the amount of land that is farmed organically and the quantities of organic food available to the public.
But others say the initiative will ultimately hurt organic farmers, will lower standards for the production of organic food and will undercut the environmental benefits of organic farming. And some nutritionists question the health benefits of the new organic products. "It's better for the planet, but not from a nutritional standpoint," said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. "It's a ploy to be able to charge more for junk food."
Nestle makes an interesting point. Just how beneficial is all this organic food?
In a previous post entitled "Is Organic Safer?" Dr. Fuhrman talks about organic produce:
Organic food is certainly your best bet, to further limit exposure to toxic chemicals. No one knows for sure how much risk exists from pesticide residue on produce, but here's what we do know: the younger you are, the more your cells are susceptible to damage from toxins. It seems wise to feed our young children organic food whenever possible.
Of course, wash your vegetables and fruit with water and when possible, use a drop of dishwashing detergent and then rinse well to remove all detergent residues for a little more efficient cleaning. Specialty pesticide removal products have not clearly demonstrated any more effectiveness than mild soap and water.
Besides the heightened exposure to chemicals and pesticides from animal products, the most hazardous pesticides are used on some plant foods responsible for the majority of the plant-food-related dietary risk. These foods with the most pesticide residue are: strawberries, peaches, raspberries, blackberries, grapes, cherries, apples, and celery. Imported produce is also more likely to contain higher levels of pesticides.1
There is another reason to feed our children organic food when possible. Organic food usually has more nutrients than conventional.2 One study performed at the University of California at Davis found that foods grown organically had higher amounts of flavonoids, which have protective effects against both heart disease and cancer. The researchers found flavonoids were more than 50 percent higher in organic corn and strawberries. They theorized that when plants are forced to deal with the stress of insects, they produce more of these compounds, which are beneficial to humans.3 Overall, organic foods taste better, and organic agriculture protects farmers and our environment.
But here's the important thing to remember: when it comes to nutrition, what you eat is much more important than whether it's organic or not. Processed cereal, frozen pizza, and macaroni and cheese don't magically become health foods when they're organic. And, watermelon or apples don't become unhealthy when they're not organic. Again Dr. Fuhrman:
The large amount of studies performed on the typical pesticide-treated produce have demonstrated that consumption of produce, whether organic or not, is related to lower rates of cancer and disease protection, not higher rates. Certainly, it is better to eat fruits and vegetables grown and harvested using pesticides than not eating them at all. The health benefits of eating phytochemical-rich produce greatly outweigh any risk pesticide residues might pose.
1. Reynolds JD. International pesticide trade: is there any hope for the effective regulation of controlled substances? Journal of Land Use & Environmental Law, 1997;13(1). Whitford F, Mason L, Winter C. Pesticides and food safety. Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service, PPP-22, Jan. 17, 2005.
2. Worthington V. Nutritional quality of organic versus conventional fruits, vegetables, and grains. J Alt Compl Med 2001;7(2):161-173.
3. Grinder-Pederson L, Rasmussen SE, Bugel S, et al. Effect of diets based on foods from conventional versus organic production on intake and excretion of flavonoids and markers of antioxidative defense in humans. J Agric Food Chem 2003;51(19): 5671-5676.