To Eat or Not To Eat Organic?

That is the question on the minds of many Dallas grocery shoppers. We weigh in on the debate.

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, the buzzword for healthy eating was “vegetarian.” Red meat was the devil, and pasta was our saving grace. People thought they’d be better off without high-fat proteins, so carnivores ate tofu, hoping it would protect them from diseases such as cancer and osteoporosis.

Today the health food trend centers around organics, a controversial term that means different things to different people. Once just for Birkenstock-wearing hippies, foods grown locally and pesticide-free are now on the shopping lists of the rich and famous. But is organic at Wal-Mart the same as organic at Whole Foods? Does an organically grown orange taste better than one grown conventionally? Is eating organic really better for you? The only question we can answer definitively is that because the costs associated with organic farming are greater, buying organic foods is usually more expensive. But is it worth it?

Let’s take a look at how organic food is defined. According to the USDA, organic food is “produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations.” So, at the baseline, buying organic means buying into a “green” lifestyle that encompasses more than just food. It’s about air quality, recycling, and conservation. Sound good so far? It sounds even better when you learn that to be certified organic, meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products must come from animals that haven’t been given antibiotics or growth hormones, and produce must be grown without conventional pesticides, fertilizers, or ionizing radiation. Land must be “substance free” for three years before planting, farms must be inspected, and post-production records are required. Tough on the farmer? You bet. Healthier for the consumer? It’s a jump ball.

With threats such as E. coli, mad cow, and other food-borne illnesses, eating organic seems like a good idea. But to date, not even the USDA has claimed that organic food is safer or more nutritious than food grown conventionally. The USDA only goes so far as to report, “Organic food differs from conventionally produced food in the way it is grown, handled, and processed.”

So what’s the big beef? There are many mixed messages floating around the $15 billion organic food industry, a sector of agribusiness that is growing at the rate of 20 percent a year. To make the right choices for your wallet and your wellness, you have to ask a lot of questions and weigh what is important to your lifestyle.

Thankfully, Dallas is blessed with myriad choices for buying good and organic groceries. Whole Foods, which opened on Lower Greenville Avenue 20 years ago, now has six locations throughout Dallas and Fort Worth. Central Market, with four local foodie temples, provides miles of aisles lined with delicious choices. Most grocery stores, including Wal-Mart and Tom Thumb, now carry a variety of organic products.

But here’s where the buying gets complicated. If you seriously want to choose the right product for the environment, you have to understand a little about how the organic grocery business works.

Initially, organic referred to local, family-owned farms that sold to farmers markets or grocery chains. As the organic movement progressed, mom and pops, co-ops, and health food stores were bought up or consolidated by large companies. Today General Mills owns Rice Dream soy milk, Kellogg’s has Sunrise Organics, and Odwalla is brought to you by Coca-Cola. So when you buy that Odwalla smoothie, you’re also helping Coke sell sugar-laden soft drinks to the masses. Does that fit your sensibilities?

Another raging debate is, ironically, the adverse impacts on the environment from some segments of the organic food industry, such as milk and tomatoes. Organic milk requires 80 percent more land and produces roughly 10 to 15 percent more greenhouse gas emissions, while organic tomatoes require 10 times the land and close to twice the energy. That hardly seems environmentally friendly.

Perhaps the guide to eating healthy lies somewhere in the middle, and “eat, drink, and think local” should be our mantra. If that skinny stalk of organic asparagus catches your eye, look closely. If it’s a product of New Zealand, you’ll have to factor in the “carbon footprint” it made as it was transported to Dallas. The locally grown organic spinach in the same case may be a better choice: it will satisfy your craving for green in every way. And it will be easier on the earth and your pocketbook.

This reasoning is the heart of the debate between Whole Foods and Central Market. Whole Foods is the nation’s most successful purveyor of organic products, with more than 180 stores and $5.7 billion in sales. According to Karen Lukin, Dallas media and community relations representative for Whole Foods, “Organics isn’t a trend. It’s been part of our DNA and soul for 26 years.” The Whole Foods shopper is paying more for her groceries because she feels it’s better for the environment. At the recently opened store at Preston Forest, not only are the shelves lined with organic produce, dairy products, meats, and prepared foods, but the upstairs store also carries organic clothing, bedding, and home accents. “The cotton crop is the No. 1 user of pesticides,” Lukin says. “When you buy sheets and pillowcases made from organic cotton, you are contributing to making this a better planet.”

Central Market sells a variety of organic products, including its own brand, CM Organics. While environment is a concern for the Texas chain, its central focus is on delicious food, particularly local and regional items. The procurement team scours the countryside looking for small producers. In some cases, the team buys the whole crop from a farmer and exports it to Dallas. In other cases, they actually invest in an emerging company, like Fredericksburg Farms. Once the business is up and running and the products are available to the mass market, Central Market will contract Fredericksburg Farms to develop products exclusively for Central Market and, in some cases, one product for each Central Market location.

Buying food at your local farmers market makes a lot of sense. That is until you learn that some of the produce is trucked in and displayed in baskets to make it look like it’s fresh off the farm. Currently the Dallas Farmers Market is conducting a series of round-table discussions with commercial consumers and regional producers to explore community and institutional support of our regional foods. The goal is to restore a viable market where consumers can meet and greet farmers and buy direct.

Unless you have unlimited funds, buying good-for-you groceries has to be a trade-off. It makes sense to pay more for fruits and vegetables grown in pesticide-free soil, but do you really need to spend more on packaged, popped organic popcorn? If you’ve prepared a free-range, no-growth-hormone chicken, then you know that, besides the potential health benefits, it tastes better. So you wouldn’t think twice about paying twice the price. In any case, a higher level of consciousness about the foods we eat will help us feed our families better, think about our environment, and keep the grocery business honest.

Quick Tips for Good Eats

• Buy local and regional products. They are picked and sold when they are ready to be eaten. The Texas Department of Agriculture provides an extensive list at www.gotexan.org.
• Eat seasonally. Sure, you can find fresh, organic pineapple in December, but locally grown organic sweet potatoes are readily available and haven’t been flown in 2,000 miles. Weigh the environmental cost: “good” pineapple vs. cleaner air.
• Choose fresh fruit and vegetables from stores that document where they were grown. Thin-skinned fruits are more susceptible to toxic soil, as are lettuces and vegetables grown on the ground. According to the Environmental Working Group, the 12 most contaminated, conventionally grown fruits and vegetables are peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, grapes (imported), spinach, lettuce, and potatoes. No matter what type of produce you choose, thoroughly wash them. Just because it’s organic doesn’t mean it isn’t covered in dirt and bacteria.
• Pay extra for your kids. Even though research has yet to prove an adverse health effect from consuming the low levels of pesticides commonly found in conventionally grown food, it makes sense for the most vulnerable groups—children and pregnant women—to go organic whenever possible.
•  Organic meats and poultry taste better, making them worth the extra dollars. Plus, to be certified organic, animals cannot be fed any animal byproducts—bone or blood meal—that could cause disease.

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