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New study provokes debate on benefits of organic food

At Maple City Market, walk down any aisle and hundreds of products – salad dressing, tomatoes, onions, sugar, pasta, soda – will proclaim in prominent letters their most important factor: organic.

The trend isn’t a new one. Most shoppers, even those who don’t frequent co-ops like Maple City or buy organic products, are used to seeing the buzzword on packages for foods grown without certain pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or genetically modified ingredients.

But a continued debate of whether or not organic food is really that much better for consumers’ health saw a new spike of attention after a new study published in July.

Is organic food really more beneficial than non-organic?

The findings, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, showed that organic crops are up to 60 percent higher in certain antioxidants and have lower levels of toxic heavy metals (almost 50% lower cadmium, for instance) than non-organic food.

Though an international group of scientists, led by Professor Carlo Leifert of Newcastle University, analyzed 343 peer-reviewed studies of the chemical content in crops and foods, critics say the new study contradicts two previous studies (from 2009 and 2012) that found no significant difference in the vitamin and nutrition content of organic food versus non-organic, reported BBC.

There are several problems with the study, according to Aaron Carroll on CNN. Higher levels of antioxidants don’t necessarily mean health benefits; they’re are not the same as nutrients, and there isn’t much proof of positive health effects. The study also found lower levels of protein in organic crops.

Levels of pesticides in non-organic food are also never ingested at an unsafe level. There’s not enough evidence, Carroll maintains, to say whether organic food is a better bet in terms of health.

A growing trend

Still, more people are buying organic, especially in Michiana. Maple City Market in Goshen has seen consistent or growing sales in the last several years, carrying only local or organic produce, as well as a majority of organic products.

“There’s been a 20 to 30 percent increase in the last few years for organic food in general,” said produce supervisor Wendy Ginther. “But Goshen is one of the areas that can support several organic food stores. It’s different here because people think more globally and sustainably, and the organic food movement is part of that.”

On a national level, the Organic Trade Association found in a June 2014 study that 47 percent of people buy half or more than half of their groceries organically, despite the added cost (an average of $15 more per week).

Organics have also spread beyond co-ops to supermarkets – 70 percent of people buying organic go to the grocery store.

Local experts weigh in

As far as the debate goes, Ginther said the food being analyzed makes a difference. She highlights strawberries, an organic fruit that is proven to have a higher nutritional content.

“Studies will all tell you different things – that nutrition value is better or it isn’t, but that just depends on the particular piece of produce,” Ginther said. “Some are more affected by pesticides than others.”

Some experts argue that the focus shouldn’t be about the nutritional benefits of organic food; there’s more than just health at stake. Marion Nestle of New York University cites the environmental impacts and production values as reasons for organics – and Ian Spink, assistant front operations manager at Purple Porch Co-op in South Bend, agrees.

“The only way to get transparency in your food that’s overseen by governmental regulations is if it’s organic,” Spink said. “Organic has binding qualifications with sustainable crop rotation and it’s the best fit for what we’re trying to do.”

From a scientific perspective, organic foods are less resource-intensive and more carbon-efficient, Spink said. Crop cycles are more sustainable because growing practices don’t drain the topsoil as quickly, which would require more frequent use of fertilizers.

Ginther also cited that many studies don’t take into account at the effects of pesticides on the human body, even if levels may be certified safe, as well as the environment.

“You have to look at everything that comes with the food,” Ginther said. “There’s a lot more than just health involved; you aren’t poisoning the earth and you’re creating a healthier planet.”

At the end of the day, Spink said, Purple Porch Co-op’s first priority isn’t necessarily that everything is certified organic — as long as it’s local. Though the majority of the store’s products are organic, there is something to be said for a small farm one knows well.

“Lots of smaller farms in our area have a hard time becoming officially certified because of the time and resources involved,” Spink said. “We’ll go check out the farms whose products we carry to make sure they’re not using chemicals or pesticides and treating animals humanely. It’s all about transparency.”

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