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Today's world is becoming increasingly more complex and fast-paced, which has caused many people to adopt a catch-as-catch-can attitude towards their food. We have become accustomed to receiving things instantly, hence the popularity of fast food restaurants, and we have also become accustomed to receiving larger portions of food. Food today is more processed, refined, pre-packaged, and instantly available than it ever has been at any time in our history to date.
However, such convenience and processing comes with a price. Fast foods, prepackaged foods, and other "convenience" foods are loaded with fat and sodium, not to mention all the chemicals, preservatives, and additives they contain. One source (McGraw, p.133) estimates that eating out at fast food restaurants five times a week compared to having a healthy meal prepared at home adds an additional 280 calories a week and 14,560 calories a year to a person's diet. This translates to a weight gain of four pounds in a year! While this might not seem like much at first glance, this weight gain can quickly add up. Children, especially, are fatter now than ever before, and they learn their eating and health habits from their parents. While it is a generalization, it is quite likely that people who eat out at fast food restaurants five times a week are probably also people who have other poor health habits, such as lack of exercise, smoking, and drinking.
Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other problems often related to overweight and poor nutrition are reaching epidemic proportions in the United States, and as a result, some people are turning to organic foods as a means of combating this. Research on "fruits and [vegetables] grown organically show significantly higher levels of cancer-fighting antioxidants than conventionally grown foods, according to a new study of corn, strawberries, and marionberries" (Byrum). In addition, biochemist John Paterson found that "organic vegetable soups contain almost six times as much salicylic acid as non-organic vegetable soups. The acid helps combat the hardening of the arteries and bowel cancer" (Soil Association).
An analysis of several hundred studies shows that "organically grown fruits, vegetables and grains may offer more of some nutrients, including vitamin C, iron, magnesium and phosphorus, and less exposure to nitrates and pesticide residues than their counterparts grown using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers" (Organic Connection).
However, organic foods are not just about weight loss and fighting disease. There are several reasons why people choose organic foods other than for health-management reasons. Some people prefer to know the origins of their food, in other words, the path the food took, whether it be animal or vegetable, to get ultimately to the dinner table. Others either don't want to consume pesticides and chemicals along with their food or have an extreme sensitivity to such things. For example, studies show that "our daily diet is now reported to contain residues of some 30 different artificial chemicals, and a supermarket apple may have been treated up to 40 times with any of 100 chemicals" (Maxted-Frost).
Still others turn to organic foods because they want to help the environment and try to leave the earth a better place than when they found it. For example, the company Nutiva had a rather extensive list of the benefits the planet -- and we by association -- receive from organic gardening. It includes such things as a reduction in toxic farming runoff, which keeps our water sources clean; a buildup of topsoil, which combats the "worst topsoil erosion in history due to our current agricultural practice of chemical intensive, mono-crop farming"; and the preservation of biodiversity (a variety of species), which is the result of "organic farmers and gardeners collecting and preserving seeds and growing unusual varieties for decades."
Taste is yet another reason -- most people agree that organic food simply tastes better. There is overlap among the reasons people choose organic foods, of course, but everyone who chooses organic does so because they believe that the benefits from organic foods far outweigh any inconvenience there may be in price, harvesting, gardening, and so on.
Organic gardening is actually a movement that comprises two different things: sustainable gardening and organic gardening proper. According to author Megan Sexton, sustainable gardening involves environmental, economic and quality-of-life concerns at its core. It calls for reducing the use of chemicals to improve the land. Certified organic food is produced without the use of synthetic fertilizers, hormones, antibiotics, pesticides or genetic modification.
The biggest reason that most people seem to have for choosing organic foods -- that is, the biggest benefit they feel they receive -- is the lack of chemicals or pesticides in the food. And while this is true to a degree, not all food is pesticide-free. Naturally occurring pesticides occur in many fruits and vegetables. According to Better Nutrition magazine:
All plants -- including organically grown ones -- contain natural pesticides, which are chemicals that plants use to try to kill off insects that try to munch on them. Even when we eat organic produce, we're eating natural pesticides.
Granted, naturally occurring pesticides are not the danger here. The danger is posed by the artificial ones that many large farms and food producers use in order to combat disease and increase yields of their crops. Those who produce meat, too, often use artificial hormones or other chemicals to ensure more egg production from chickens, for example, or bigger beef cattle. It cannot be denied that these chemicals have a detrimental effect on people, especially children.
A study conducted by Environmental Health Perspectives found that children who consumed conventional produce and juice had six to nine times higher levels of pesticides in their systems than children who ate organic. Richard Wiles, senior vice president at the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy organization, adds that pesticides used on conventional produce can damage the nervous and hormonal systems and the thyroid gland, according to animal studies. Children are at greatest risk because they eat more relative to their size and their bodies aren't able to filter out chemicals as easily as adults do.
Thus, chemicals in our food are obviously a problem. As studies continue to gather information on the specific effects such chemicals have in the long-term, organic food is gaining in popularity. Even the federal government has given its "seal of approval" to organic foods. Recently, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released an organic-labeling campaign designed to implement a set of standards and guidelines for organic food, much like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does with regards to food production, handling, and manufacture. According to author Vicky Uhland, "The organic label approved by the USDA in October 2002 established national standards for organic claims on all foods, removing a great deal of inconsistency and confusion." These guidelines apply to all food labeled "organic," regardless if it is produced in the United States or abroad.
It is worth noting that "organic" is not the same as "natural." According to the National Organic Program there is nothing in the USDA's National Organic Standards defining or regulating the use of the term "natural." [The' USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) regulates the term "natural" on meat and poultry labels. ["Natural"] is defined as "a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product). The label must explain the use of the term natural ([for example,] no added colorings or artificial ingredients; minimally processed).
By way of comparison, the National Organics Safety Board has established "organic" as products produced...[using] materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole....Organic agriculture practices cannot ensure that…[continue]
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