Are Your Organic Products REALLY Organic? And Why Does It Matter?
Organic products are readily available in most places these days. Grocery stores now have entire aisles or separate sections packed with everything from organic pasta to beauty products. In restaurants, coffee houses, and even wineries, organic items can be found everywhere. Organic items aren’t produced with synthetic pesticides or chemical fertilizers and are often sold at much higher prices than their conventional counterparts. They’re also not processed with food additives or irradiation (radiation exposure).
In a study led by researchers at UC Berkeley, pesticide levels were tracked in families from across the United States for two weeks. The first week, the families ate their typical diets of non-organic food; the following week, they ate completely organic. Urine samples taken over the course of the study were tested for pesticides and the chemicals pesticides break down into, called metabolites. This study helps answer a question many of us ask when deciding whether to reach for the conventional or organic option at the store: does organic really make a difference? The results say yes, and a big one.
Choosing organic options can prevent you from exposure to toxic pesticides. Of the 14 chemicals tested, every single member of every family tracked, had detectable levels. After switching to an organic diet, these levels dropped dramatically. Levels across all pesticides dropped by more than half on average. Detectable levels for the pesticide malathion, a probable human carcinogen according to the World Health Organization, decreased a dramatic 95% .
Malathion was just one of the pesticides found in this study that are part of a group called organophosphates, which have long concerned public health experts because of their impact on children’s developing brains. Created as nerve agents in World War II, organophosphates have been linked to increased rates of autism, learning disabilities, and reduced IQ in children. The organophosphate chlorpyrifos, found in all of the family members, is so worrisome to public health that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) planned to ban it in 2017. In the wake of inaction from the administration, Hawaii passed the first state level chlorpyrifos ban in 2018; and Representative Nydia Velázquez introduced a federal bill to ban it.
It is important to know, then, how to decipher the products you are buying. If you want to know if the fruits and vegetables you are purchasing are truly organic, look at the Price Look Up (PLU) sticker. If the produce is organic, the code will contain five-digits beginning with the number 9. Nonorganic counterparts will have four digits. For example, organically grown bananas will be 94011, compared to 4011 for those treated with chemicals and pesticides. A five-digit PLU beginning with the number 8 means the item is genetically modified.
Organics may cost less at farmers markets because of lower shipping costs and no middlemen, but it can be hard to know what you're getting—especially when products lack PLU stickers. Under the USDA's National Organic Program, farmers who market their products as organic are supposed to have their wares certified by a USDA-accredited agent or face fines if they get caught. If the product is being touted as certified, you can ask to see a copy of the organic certification paperwork. Vendors are supposed to have it on hand. Similarly, in 3rd party establishments like restaurants or wineries, organic certification must displayed and/or provided to the customer when asked. Don't feel intimidated in asking, legitimate business owners in the organic industry are more than happy to discuss and provide information, and you just may find yourself in a "lengthy" and informative conversation.