Recently in supermarkets, there have been lingering questions in the produce aisle. On one hand, there is a display of conventionally grown apples and on the other, a display of those grown organically. Each type of apple is firm, glossy, and red or green; both are low in calories and provide vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients. Which is the better apple to choose?
So what is the difference? Let us first consider the differences between organic and non-organic food. Organic produce is grown in the absence of synthetic pesticides, irradiation, sewage sludge, and genetic engineering whereas conventional crop are grown with synthetic fertilizers. For those of you who are not familiar with the term irradiation, it bombards food with X-rays to kill bacteria. Some people believe it creates toxic chemicals on food but it is likely no different than a microwave. On industrial farms, fertilizers are beneficial for maximizing yield at great efficiencies. Organic farmland must have no prohibited substances sprayed on it for at least three years before harvesting crop so it clearly takes time to gain status. Farmers go through substantial effort to rotate crops, keep records, and pay for inspections, ensuring the land is approved by an accredited certifying agent. All farmers that want to sell a crop as organically produced must follow these national organic standards. If simply one of these rules is not followed, the produce cannot be labeled as organic.
Are the rules followed?
Is it true that farmers stick 100% to these standards? Can we rely on them based on what we hear? To verify, scientists at the University of Minnesota ran a study to test for deadly and harmless strains of E. coli at a conventional, Certified Organic, and an uncertified organic farm. According to Marion Nestle, involved in food politics and author of “What to Eat,” the harmless strain of bacteria was found in approximately equal percentages for conventional and Certified Organic farms. The much higher level found on noncertified organic vegetables confirmed that Certified Organic farms really do follow organic rules and inspection to harvest safer crops. Organic farmers make their money by marketing harvests without pesticide. It is likely that few would use chemicals.
Do organic foods offer more nutrition?
The answer to this question is heavily nuanced: it is both yes and no. Yes they are considered more nutritious since studies have verified higher levels of vitamins and minerals in organics; however, these small nutrient gains are negligible, giving no measureable health benefits long term. According to Nestle, higher levels of vitamins C and E are found in organic peaches and pears and increased quantities of antioxidants have been measured on organic berries and corn. Conventional crops are treated with synthetic fertilizer, leaving pesticide residue on their skin, making it understandable why those who eat organic have lower levels of these toxins in their body. Having said this, pesticides have not threatened the lives of individuals, confirmed by the fact that there have been no deaths or serious illnesses from too much intake.
Another important point to consider is location: is the apple from a local farm or far away? Food produced and sold locally does not require long distance shipping and therefore does not need to be packaged with artificial chemicals to keep it fresh under aggressive shipping and handling. Looking at the big picture, our class confirmed that the majority of organic and conventional fruits tasted the same. Four out of five had similar organic and conventional counterparts with the exception of the organic blueberries which were much smaller, sweeter, and purple than the industrial. The truth is, fruits and vegetables are fruits and vegetables – organic or not, they are all free of fat, sodium, and cholesterol and supply nutritional quality to a healthy diet. Just eat and enjoy!
How does organic taste?
Now that we know the requirements for organic, how does organic taste compared to conventional? Are fruits and vegetables healthier if they are organic? To find out for ourselves, we performed an experiment with 12 different food pairs without any prior knowledge of which were organic and which were conventional. We tasted each set to guess which was which. I, for one, found some to be quite challenging. To begin, we sampled the bananas.
When I carefully examined banana A and banana B in my hand, the two of them each had a yellow-green peel with a waxy covering. They both had that same banana smell and I could not distinguish any difference in taste as I was eating them. It was hard to pinpoint the differences; nevertheless, myself and the majority of the class hypothesized that banana A was organic. The truth? Drum roll….they were conventional!
After the pear, apple, and cherry tomato trials, the class had concluded for these fruits that the differences between organic and conventional were very subtle and challenging to tell apart, just like the bananas. The blueberries, however, were a different story.
For the blueberries, type A was green on the inside and much bigger while type B was tiny with a deep purple inside. Type B had a much stronger, tart taste while the taste of A was more diluted. Can you guess which one was organic?
If you guessed the one on the right, you are correct! This makes sense since conventional fruits are typically bigger in size and better rounded, as Marion Nestle claims that supermarkets breed their fruits with the “perfect berry architecture” to appeal to consumers. Unfortunately, the consequences are that many times these fruits and berries end up lacking flavor, as I had noticed when I tasted the bigger blueberry A.
Now we know that some organic produce have a taste and appearance unlike that of the conventional. What about other foods besides fruit? Let’s try peanut butter, for example. Type A was smoother and lighter colored; type B was denser, darker, and had a very strong peanut taste that was grainier with hardly any brown speckles. I was much more familiar with the look, taste, and texture of type A which is served at my school cafeteria and used in many homes. Since large business and families buy this type more often, one would assume them to be cheaper. Why would anyone buy a more expensive product when a cheaper alternative is right there on the shelf? It is true that organic produce is more expensive since farmers go through all the extra work of harvesting crop following the national organic standards. Therefore, as a class, we quickly and easily hypothesized type A to be conventional, and we were right.
The cheese, yogurt, and applesauce also had clear differences in appearance and flavor. The organic cheese was less smooth and creamy with a sharper taste; the organic yogurt had a clumpy texture and the applesauce was of similar consistency but darker in color.
Animals on Organic Farms
Have you ever wondered how cattle are treated on an organic farm? Organic farms require improved living conditions for cows and chickens, promising “free-range,” exercise space, food, shelter, shade, clean drinking water, and fresh air. Cows must be fed certified organic grain and must not be injected with growth hormone. The problem is cows’ rumens were meant to digest grass, not organic grain which can makes them sick and bloated. Michael Pollan, author of “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” explained that the rumen may inflate like a balloon, pressing against the cow’s lungs which could potentially suffocate it. While many organic farms do follow the more humane treatment standards, others unfortunately have not. Pollan further informed that some organic farms rope cows to milking machines three times a day and chickens allowed “free-range” are in reality living in a shed with an attached small, grassy yard which is hardly much space.
Does the organic method pose any risks?
No. There has been talk that the composted manure organic farmers use to replenish their crop exposes their produce to dangerous microbes. This is not true. Farmers, under organic certification rules, are required to make sure their manure is inspected so harmful microbes are destroyed. Conventional growers, on the other hand, are not required to abide by these rules.
“Microwaveable organic TV dinners”
What is this about? You probably wouldn’t have expected these words thrown together, now would you? The organic industry has used new phrases like this and “organic high-fructose corn syrup” to better appeal to consumers. Pollan claimed some organic foods are actually processed by the techniques of modern food technology. He asserted that under federal organic rules, many additives in American dinners contain high-oleic safflower oil, xanthan gum, soy, and “natural grill flavor.” Now, even “organic milk” is less pure because it comes from cows injected with growth hormones. As organic farming has grown more successful, it has more increasingly resembled the industrial system.
The industrial farm
Pollan brings to our attention that synthetic nitrogen used on industrial farms will evaporate into the air and acidify into acid rain, harming the environment. Ammonium nitrate NH4NO3 used as fertilizer is formed from combining ammonia NH3 from synthetic nitrogen with an oxidized molecule of ammonia NH3 which turns into nitric acid HNO3. Heating the ammonium nitrate decomposes it into the greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide (N2O), which inevitably increases global temperatures. According to Pollan, streams are usually polluted from nitrogen runoff where nitrates are converted into nitrites, producing unsafe drinking water. Those who drink from the water are at risk to low oxygen levels in the brain since nitrite attaches to hemoglobin and minimizes normal blood flow. Certainly, there are drawbacks in using fertilizer and we must be aware of the consequences.
From farmland to plate
In an industrial corn field, the corn is fed water, sunlight, carbon dioxide CO2 from the air and nitrogen from the ground. The government subsidizes bushels of corn which is then taken to a processing plant where its starch is separated from the kernel and made into high fructose corn syrup, corn oil, and ethanol. This #2 corn is shipped to small businesses and factory farms as well as given to farm animals which excrete it into manure, possibly containing antibiotics, bacterial growth, and heavy metals as Pollan points out. The cattle fed this corn feed are slaughtered at the meat industry which is then sent to the supermarket with the remaining commodity corn where consumers buy it all from the shelf and cook for dinner. In contrast, organic farms have skipped the refining process, shipping corn straight to the supermarket and onto the table.
That wraps up organic versus conventional. Now with this little bit of knowledge, which apple is it going to be? The choice is up to you!