Eating organically

HANCOCK – Decades ago, production and consumption of organically-grown produce was in a relatively small niche, but now even large chain supermarkets offer at least a few organically grown fruits and vegetables.

There may be disagreements about whether or not organically grown food is more nutritious than conventionally-grown food, but there is significant agreement about the possible health problems caused by consuming the chemicals used on conventionally-grown produce and other food items.

Denina Kaunonen, produce manager for the Keweenaw Co-Op Natural Foods and Groceries, said it used to be the co-op offered conventionally-grown and organically-grown produce.

“There’s been a lot of changes in the last 10 years in the produce department,” she said.

Now, all produce sold at the co-op is organically grown, Kaunonen said.

Kaunonen said she tries to buy as much produce as possible from local growers. Those items include mostly vegetables, but also some fruits, such as pears, cherries and several kinds of berries. In the winter, most of the produce the co-op sells comes from California and Mexico.

What produce sells best at the co-op may surprise some people.

“Our top selling items are bananas and avocados,” Kaunonen said.

Cynthia Hodur, Keweenaw Co-Op assistant manager, said many of the co-op’s approximately 950 “owners” and other customers shop there for health reasons.

“They don’t have to worry about pesticides in their produce or growth hormones or antibiotics in their meat,” she said. “They also know the product they are buying doesn’t contain genetically modified organisms, as long as the product is certified 100 percent organic.”

Karen Rumisek, Keweenaw Co-Op buyer, said in order for the producer of a product to call that product organic, it must be certified to meet requirements created by the United States Department of Agriculture. The exception to the requirement is if the producer has less than $10,000 in retail sales, annually.

According to the USDA website (1.usa.gov/1fpvGrB) the definition of organic reads in part: “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony. ‘Organic’ is a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act. The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole.”

The definition states, also, it’s unreasonable to expect there will be absolutely no chemical residue on some products picked up from air, water or other sources not in the grower’s or manufacturer’s control.

Whether or not organically-grown food items are more nutritious is a subject under debate, with proponents claiming it is, and some researchers stating studies don’t support the claim.

An article on the Harvard Medical School website (http://bit.ly/1cuzurM) dated Sept. 5, 2012, mentions a study from Stanford University, which states “researchers discovered very little difference in nutritional content (of fruits, vegetables, grains, poultry, meat, and eggs), aside from slightly higher phosphorous levels in many organic foods, and a higher omega-3 fatty acid content in organic milk and chicken.”

Another website, from a group which promotes organics, organic.org (http://bit.ly/1g5EYV2), sites a 2002 University of Missouri study, which showed “the smaller organically grown oranges delivered 30 percent more vitamin C than the large conventionally grown ones. Certified nutritionist Virginia Worthington found that a serving of organic lettuce, spinach, carrots, potatoes, and cabbage provided the recommended daily intake of vitamin C, but not so for the same veggies grown by conventional farming. Worthington reported that organically grown fruits and vegetables outpaced their conventional counterparts with as much as 27 percent more vitamin C, 21.1 percent more iron, 29.3 percent more magnesium, 13.6 percent more phosphorus, and 18 percent more polyphenols.”

The above-quoted Stanford study comparing organically-grown and conventionally-grown foods showed that organic foods had a lower level of chemicals than those grown by conventional farming. The fact organically-grown food has lower levels of chemicals is why many people buy organic.

According to the website (1.usa.gov/1kK4mHE) of the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health, an Agricultural Health Study of 90,000 men and women in Iowa and North Carolina, stated “the rates for certain diseases, including some types of cancer, appear to be higher among agricultural workers, which may be related to exposures that are common in their work environments. For example, farming communities have higher rates of leukemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and soft tissue sarcoma, as well as cancers of the skin, lip, stomach, brain, and prostate.”

Rebecca Anderson, Keweenaw Co-Op grocery buyer, said many of the people who shop at the co-op buy organics because they have a sensitivity to chemicals used in conventional agriculture.

Anderson said the organic packaged items the co-op sells are similar to non-organic items sold in supermarkets and grocery stores, and include soups, pasta, flour, breakfast cereals, coffee, tea and many other items.

“Everything you could find in a conventional store, you can find in organics,” she said.