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08.11.09

Is Your Food Really Organic?

A lot of posh produce is nothing more than a consumer shakedown. Hungry Beast uncovers what you don't really know about the "organic" food in your grocery cart.

Once Wal-Mart gets into the act, you know it’s hit the mainstream, and so it’s no surprise that organic foods have mushroomed to the extent that they can be found just about everywhere, from the highest-end gourmet shop to the local supermarket and the smallest urban green grocer. No longer are they relegated to farmers’ markets and granola-crunching health food stores. Even the U.S. Government has gotten into the act by developing a standard by which foods are designated as “certified organic.” The organic food industry expands by about 20 percent every year and controls about 3 percent of the food market—a small number but one that is growing. Today, organic foods boast nearly $1 billion in annual sales.

“The organic food industry expands by about 20 percent every year and controls about 3 percent of the food market—nearly $1 billion in annual sales.”

This is good news for all Americans who care about their health and putting good, wholesome food on the table for their families. But before you dash out the door in search of organic produce and dairy products and responsibly raised meat and poultry, consider all the reasons for buying all organic. You may decide to curb your enthusiasm—or inflate it—at no risk to your health or the well-being of the planet.

1. The Dirty Dozen versus the Angelic Few. Food scientists and other experts have come up with a list of the foods that, when raised conventionally, are drenched with pesticide residue once they reach the market. These are fragile foods that require extra help to fight invasions of insects and disease, which the mega farmers are happy to supply. Unless they are labeled “organic” or you know where they were grown, avoid these foods:

peaches
strawberries
nectarines
apples
spinach
celery
pears
sweet bell peppers
cherries
potatoes
lettuce
imported grapes

Sturdier foods do better than more delicate ones when raised by conventional means. While we prefer these to be grown organically, they are tough enough to survive without intense spraying and so do not arrive at the market bathed in pesticides. Some of these, such as bananas, have thick skins that form a natural barrier between the fruit and outside invaders. Others, such as asparagus, simply are not particularly attractive to pests and so don’t require heavy doses of pesticides. If you are trying to save money or simply don’t see organic or locally grown specimens in the market, these are okay to buy:

corn
asparagus
broccoli
cabbage
cauliflower
onions
avocado
mango
kiwi
papaya
bananas
pineapples

2. Organic Farming is Good for the Environment. When a farmer makes a commitment to raise food organically on a sustainable farm, he or she reduces the amount of pollutants in the ground water and practices farming methods that contribute to richer soil. This results in safer drinking water—even in towns and cities far removed from the farm—and reduces erosion. Plus, food grown in healthy soil tastes great and is less susceptible to disease. Add to this that, according to many studies, organic farming uses about half as much energy as does traditional farming, and it’s a win-win proposition for the earth.

Michel Nischan, a James Beard Award-winning chef, author of the soon-to-be released cookbook, Sustainably Delicious, and owner of The Dressing Room, a Homegrown Restaurant, in Westport, Connecticut, says it beautifully: “When we choose local and sustainably grown foods, we are rewarded with the very best flavors nature is capable of producing. Just consider the difference between a vine-ripened heirloom tomato and one of those ‘on-the-vine’ tomatoes from the February grocery store shelf. The local tomato tastes way better, and eating them is way better for you and the environment.”

3. It Doesn’t Have to be Certified Organic to be Good. Many of the farmers selling their crops at farmers’ markets may not be certified as organic farmers. This does not mean they are not organic farmers. The certification process is lengthy and costly and a lot of farmers skip it, but do not skip out on their commitment to sustainable farming practices. Get to know the men and women who grow food nearby. Chat them up at the market and ask about their farming methods. Join a local community supported agriculture (CSA) co-op, where for an annual fee, you visit the farm and pick up what is most recently harvested.

Matt Pearson, who with partner Tara Bowers owns Howling Wolf Farm in Hope, New Jersey, says that for him the best part of operating a CSA is the “satisfaction of producing healthful, vital food for friends and families we know.” He and Tara oversee a diverse, organic, whole-food CSA farm, where they grow vegetables, berries, and pasture-raised fowl, steers, sheep and pigs. “When the farm is small and local, you know everyone who is eating your food. And so, you want these people to have the best food you can produce,” explains Pearson.

4. Organic Farms Attract Wildlife. Organic farms—whether they are officially certified organic or not—lay claim to a great diversity of wildlife, according to a number of studies. This extends to birds, reptiles and mammals. What good news for bird watchers and anyone who values natural ecosystems! The controlled use of non-synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, careful and sensitive management of areas of the land that are not cultivated, and more varied use of the land—as opposed to monocultural farming—create a range of habitats that attract all types of wildlife.

The downside of this reality is that while rotation crop farming creates natural impediments for pests, it is never as effective as are pesticides when it comes to protecting the harvest. Every sustainable farmer knows he will lose a percentage of the crop but with careful planting and planning, the percentage is, well…sustainable! Home gardeners face the same problems and hand-wringing frustration. With some research they can devise ways to reduce damage. These include sowing certain plants near each other to form a natural defense against insects and disease, fencing (including electrified fences and high deer fences), and netting. And in the end, it pays to plant enough so that a little loss is not the end of the world.

5. Even Organic Foods Need to be Washed. By the time organic produce gets to the market, it has picked up some dust and other foreign particles, and may still have some soil clinging to leaves and skins. This means it needs to be washed before you cook it. Even organically raised greens, packed in plastic bags and labeled as “pre-washed,” should be rinsed.

The best way to clean veggies and fruit is to hold them under room-temperature running water. Salad greens should be rinsed in cold water and then spun dry in a lettuce spinner. Some experts suggest using lukewarm water to bring out the flavor of the fruit or vegetable. Most say that even vegetables and fruit with rinds or skins that will be discarded should be rinsed—melons, bananas, and citrus fruit. Very ripe or fragile fruit, such as berries, do well being sprayed gently with water and then allowed to dry spread out on kitchen towels just before eating.

Special washes designed to clean fruits and vegetables are not effective. Nor is it advantageous to wash firm fruits with soap and water. A good rinse with clean, running water does the job.

Eating organic, locally produced foods is always a good idea. As Chef Nischan says, “After more than 25 years of hands-on involvement in the sustainable-food movement I have come to realize simply this: Where there is flavor, there are nutrients and where there are nutrients, there is health.”

Plus: Check out Hungry Beast, for more news on the latest restaurants, hot chefs, and tasty recipes.