Dear EarthTalk: There’s been a lot of coverage on the topic of organic foods and how they aren’t actually any healthier than conventional foods. Is this true? — Gina Thompson, Salem, OR
There is no doubt that organic foods are healthier — for our bodies individually, as well as for the environment — than their conventionally produced counterparts. The question is how much healthier and does the difference warrant spending more on your grocery bill.
Conventional food is produced using synthetic chemical inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides, hormones and antibiotics to repel pests, boost growth and improve the yield of marketable product. It stands to reason that trace amounts of these chemicals are likely to get ingested into our bodies.
Before such chemicals became widely available, most food was produced organically. Recent awareness about the dangers of synthetic chemicals and antibiotic resistance has triggered a renewed interest in organic food. As a result, organic farms constitute the fastest growing sector of the U.S. agriculture industry. Given that these farms are smaller and have more of a niche clientele, they must charge more for organic products. These costs get passed on to consumers willing to spend extra to be healthy.
But after surveying over 200 other studies comparing organic and conventional foods, and in some cases their effects on the body, Stanford medical researchers found that, while eating organic produce can lower exposure to pesticides, the amount measured from conventionally grown produce was also well within safety limits. They also found that organic foods were not particularly more nutritious than non-organic foods. The findings were published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in September 2012.
The one area where the team found a divergence was regarding antibiotic-resistant germs in meats. While the chances of bacterial contamination are the same for organic and non-organic meats, germs in conventionally raised chicken and pork had a 33 percent higher risk of being resistant to multiple antibiotics. Many farmers and ranchers rely on antibiotics to fatten up their animals and keep them healthy until slaughter, but converting to more organic meat could help stem the oncoming tide of antibiotic resistance that threatens to make many of our medicines obsolete.
Of course, consumers may opt for organic foods despite the lack of much difference in nutritional content or chemical residues. According to the Mayo Clinic, a non-profit medical care and research institution and a leading voice on public health and health maintenance, some people simply prefer the taste of organic food. Others like organic food because it doesn’t typically contain preservatives, artificial sweeteners, coloring and flavorings. Meanwhile, others take a longer-term view and go organic for the sake of the environment, as organic agriculture reduces pollution and conserves water and soil quality.
If you’re trying to be both healthy and frugal, selectively buying organic is one option. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes its Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce each year to let consumers know which produce have the most pesticide residues and are the most important to buy organic. EWG’s 2012 “dirty dozen” non-organic foods to avoid were apples, celery, sweet bell peppers, peaches, strawberries, imported nectarines, grapes, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, blueberries and potatoes.
Dear EarthTalk: I like the feel of carpeting, but I’m concerned about all the chemicals. What are some good non-chemical (but still soft!) options? — Jennifer Jones, Madison, WI
Modern day carpets, in all their plush and stain-resistant glory, are wonders of technology and help make our homes and workplaces more comfortable. But the typical carpet, made from petroleum-based synthetic fibers, contains dozens of chemicals and gases, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other potential toxins-and they can compromise indoor air quality for years on end and cause dangerous reactions in the sensitive among us, including little ones and the elderly.
Fortunately today there are many green options when it comes to carpeting and alternative floor coverings. Green Depot — the nation’s leading supplier of environmentally friendly building products, services and home solutions with 13 retail stores nationwide — sells a lot of wool carpeting, which is typically all-natural, renewable and is the most logical option for those who want the look and feel of real carpet without the chemical impact. Wool carpeting is pricier than synthetic, but those seeking peace of mind might not mind paying a premium. Some leading makers of all-natural wool carpeting include Bloomsburg, Earth Weave, Helios, Natural Home and Woolshire. Wool is also a great material for rug pads, as it dampens sound, inhibits mold and provides insulation. Green Depot’s favorite is Whisper Wool Underlayment.
Some other choices in all-natural carpet include sisal, coir and seagrass — though these all-natural materials tend to be harder than traditional carpeting and, as such, might take some getting used to underfoot. Contempo Floor Coverings is one of the leaders in this up-and-coming segment of the flooring industry.
Another green option is carpet tiles, because small sections rather than entire carpets can be replaced when stains or other problems occur. One particularly green carpet tile manufacturer is FLOR, whose products are made with renewable, recycled and recyclable content. The company also takes back its old carpet tiles for recycling and reconstitution into new recycled fibers and backing materials. FLOR’s products use some synthetic materials, but most styles meet or exceed the Carpet and Rug Institute’s “Green Label Plus” standards for low VOCs. Greenfloors.com offers yet another option for synthetic carpeting made from recycled and recyclable materials, while Mohawk’s Aladdin carpet is made from recycled PET soda bottles.
While carpeting in one form or another is without a doubt the softest option, cork flooring is also warm and somewhat cushy. Cork is inherently green because it’s made from the bark of the cork oak tree, which grows back every three years with little to no fertilizer or pesticides needed. It’s also resistant to mildews, molds and other unwelcome microbes. Cork flooring is also a nice choice to “warm up” kitchen and bathroom floors. U.S. Floors offers a wide variety of cork and other sustainable flooring options.
Of course, keeping tidy is also key to a healthy indoor environment: Frequent vacuuming of rugs and cleaning of flooring can help reduce exposure to toxins like lead and pesticides that can be tracked in from outside. Using doormats and removing shoes when coming inside can also help mitigate such risks.