width=150Organic foods--are they better, safer, more nutritious? That's what many active people want to know. After all, when you are training hard to enhance your performance, you might as well enhance your health at the same time -- and that means eating wisely and well.

Questions arise: should eating organic foods be a part of your sports diet? This article addresses some questions athletes commonly ask about whether or not to go organic.

The Meaning of Organic

To start, what does organic actually mean? Organic refers to the way farmers grow and process fruits, vegetables, grains, meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products. Only foods that are grown and processed according to USDA organic standards can be labeled organic. (Note: The food label terms natural, hormone free or free-range do not necessarily mean organic.)

Organic farming practices are designed to conserve soil and water and to reduce pollution. For example, organic farmers do not use chemical fertilizers, insecticides or weed killers on crops. Nor do they use growth hormones, antibiotics and medications to enhance animal growth and prevent disease.

Why Go Organic?

Organic fruits and vegetables can cost about 30 percent more than standard produce, if not more. If you are a hungry athlete who requires a lot of food, you might be wondering: Are organic products worth the extra cost? In terms of taste, some athletes claim organic foods taste better. Taste is subjective and may relate to the fact that freshly grown foods have more flavor.

In terms of nutrition, some professionals agree the reason to buy organic food is not for a nutritional edge. Organic foods may have more minerals and antioxidants than conventionally grown counterparts, but the differences are debatable.

One important reason to buy organic--preferably locally grown organic--is to help sustain the earth and replenish its resources. Buying locally grown foods supports the small farmers and helps them earn a better living from their farmland. Otherwise, farmers can easily be tempted to sell their land for house lots or industrial parks--and there goes more beautiful, open green space.

Yet, if you buy organic foods from a large grocery store chain, you should think about the whole picture. Because organic fruits, for example, are in big demand, they may need to be transported for thousands of miles--let's say from California to Massachusetts. This transportation process consumes fuel, pollutes the air and hinders the establishment of a better environment.

Does this really fit the ideal vision of organic? The compromise is to buy locally grown produce whenever possible. To find the farm stands in your area, visit www.localharvest.com.

Pesticide Risk?

A second potential reason to choose organic relates to reducing the pesticide content in your body and the potential risk of cancer and birth defects. The Environmental Protection Agency has established standards that require a 100 to 1,000-fold margin of safety for pesticide residues.

They have set limits based on scientific data that indicates a pesticide will not cause unreasonable risk to human health. According to Richard Bonanno, PhD, agricultural expert at University of Massachusetts-Amherst and a farmer himself, 65 percent to 75 percent of conventionally grown produce has no detectible pesticides. (When used properly and applied at the right times, pesticides degrade and become inert.)

Results of testing vegetables from farms in Massachusetts showed no pesticide residues in 100 percent of the samples. Bonanno reports only 0.5 percent of conventionally grown foods (but three to four percent of imported foods) are over EPA standards. A 2005 survey of 13,621 food samples revealed pesticide residue exceeding the tolerance was 0.2 percent.(1)

Yet, watchdog groups such as www.beyondpesticides.org and www.foodnews.org wave red flags and remind us, for example, that small amounts of pesticides can accumulate in the body. This may be of particular concern during vulnerable periods of growth, such as with young children.

Conflicting Values

Clearly, whether or not to buy organic foods becomes a matter of personal values. Bonanno sees organic, in part, as a marketing ploy, with organic foods portrayed as being safer and better. He argues we do not have a two-tier food system in the US -- with wealthier people who can afford to buy organic foods being the recipients of safer foods.

An Athlete's Options

So what's a hungry but poor athlete to do?

  • Eat a variety of foods, to minimize exposure to a specific pesticide residue.
  • Carefully wash and rinse fruits and vegetables under running water. This can remove 99 percent of any pesticide residue (depending on the food and the pesticide).
  • Peel fruits such as apples, potatoes, carrots and pears (but then, you also peel off important nutrients).
  • Remove the tops and outer portions of celery, lettuce and cabbage.
  • Buy organic versions of the foods you eat most often, such as organic apples if you are a five-a-day apple eater.
  • Sometimes (if not all the time), buy organic versions of the fruits and veggies that are known to have the highest pesticide residue, even after having been washed. According to the Environmental Working Group (www.foodnews.org), the Dirty Dozen includes these fruits: apples, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, strawberries and red raspberries -- and these vegetables: potato, bell peppers, celery and spinach.
  • Save money by choosing conventionally grown versions of the Clean Dozen (with little or no pesticide residue): banana, kiwi, pineapple, mango and papaya (note that foods like papaya, mango and banana have their own protective shell, so this reduces pesticide exposure on the flesh of the fruit); asparagus, avocado, broccoli, cauliflower, onion, sweet corn and green peas. (For a complete list of 43 fruits and veggies, see www.foodnews.org.)

When all is said and done, whether or not to make the extra shopping trip and pay the higher price is an individual decision. But for athletes who are concerned about the environment, there's no question that buying organic food helps save small farms -- and the future of our planet.