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The Organic Debate: Healthier or not?

These Horizon Dairy cows enjoy a simple meal in the sun
These Horizon Dairy cows enjoy a simple meal in the sun  

(CNN) -- Growth hormones in cows, pesticides on produce and antibiotics in poultry -- these are among the reasons many Americans are turning to organic foods. In fact, sales of organics have surged more than 20 percent each year in the past decade. According to the Food Marketing Institute, more than half of Americans now buy organic food at least once a month.

But whether organic chicken or pesticide-free lettuce represent "healthier" alternatives has long been a subject for debate.

Proponents, such as Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, cite the fact that organics are grown under strict standards of purity based on the elimination of toxic agricultural chemicals.

DiMatteo says even the soil is better: "The soil that organic is grown in is healthier. This comes from the fact that the soil has nutrient value. Healthy soil, healthy plants."

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But any suggestion organic food is somehow superior doesn't sit well with Alex Avery, director of research at The Hudson Institute Center for Global Food Issues.

"Organic foods have never been shown to be healthier, more nutritious or more safe than conventional foods," said Avery, "despite dozens of scientific studies. There is no weight that organic is better or healthier for you."

Avery's institute is funded in part by companies that profit from the sale of pesticides, such as Monsanto, DowElanco and Ag-Chem Equipment Company.

Avery said some organics can make you sicker than conventional food.

"Because organic foods use pathogen-laden manure as their primary fertilizer, organic foods may pose a higher risk of foodborne-illness than conventional foods," he said, adding that damage from pests is likely to be greater, as well, and that could translate to more fungal growth, or colonization by molds. Some of these organisms produce toxins. One of them, aflatoxin, is considered highly carcinogenic.

Carefully wash all produce

DiMatteo said manure is used -- but that restrictions and procedures are used in handling it. Plus, it's only part of the overall soil plan.

"The organic system for soil fertilization includes crop rotation, cover crops, composted vegetable matter and manure," she told CNN.Com.

That's fine, according to the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, provided the manure is properly composted.

"Uncomposted or improperly composted manure that enters surface waters many contain pathogens and subsequently contaminate produce," the association warned.

Food safety experts say organic or not, consumers have to observe the same rules if they want to avoid getting sick. Thoroughly wash -- even scrub -- all produce. And, if the skin won't come clean, peel it off.

Organic livestock may have had the run of the farm and eaten pesticide-free grain, but that doesn't mean they won't come to slaughter loaded with bacteria. Just like conventional chickens, organic birds can harbor salmonella, E. coli and campylobacter. These can cause anything from a mild intestinal illness to a life-threatening infection. To avoid that, organic chickens (or any organic meat) should be handled the same as a regular product -- observing cleanliness rules in the kitchen and making sure they are cooked to the proper temperature: 180 degrees for poultry, 160 degrees for beef.

Organically-grown green onions are harvested
Organically-grown green onions are harvested  

What about genetically modified foods?

The other major argument around organic food is whether or not it is more nutritious. Even DiMatteo hedges on this controversial point, telling CNN.Com that there is no difference in nutrient value with regular foods.

If, in fact, organics have nothing much to offer beyond a higher price -- they often cost more than conventional items -- why bother with them at all? Taste is one reason. Some insist that organic products are more flavorful than other foods.

DiMatteo said there are broader reasons to go organic: "Environmental pollution does have an impact on the health of humans. We can definitely see a connection between chemical pest control and the potential for disease."

Plus, those who fear bio-engineered foods may be able to put their minds at ease by buying organic -- not that there's necessarily anything to fear in the first place say proponents of genetically modified foods. However, the Organic Trade Association supports a moratorium on genetically modified foods, known in the trade as GMOs.

The OTA fears that interspecies movement of DNA might one day lead to unwarranted effects on the environment and/or human health. But that is far from the intent.

"Food (might) be modified to provide enriched vitamins, nutrients, improve food quality, make food last longer and eventually decrease the cost of food," said plant biotechnologist Sivramiah Shantharam, with the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Some examples of bioengineering: increasing the protein content of potatoes, making oils healthier and increasing nutrient levels in rice. Shantharam says the benefits don't end with food: "In China, cotton fields are sown with seeds that are genetically implanted with a bacterium that is toxic to bollworms, the larval stage of boll weevils. Without these seeds, the crop would be wiped out."

Organic producers have waged a vigorous fight to keep bio-engineered foods from being included in the government's new organic standards. Some GMOs were included the first time the government proposed those standards, in 1997. They were withdrawn after criticism they included non-organic components-such as food irradiation and the use of sewage sludge fertilizer.

Until the USDA announced its standards, 'certified organic' labels meant a food had been recognized as such under a particular program or law. For example, the California Organic Foods Act has been in place since 1990.

"Sometimes it will be certified by a private program and sometimes by a state program," said DiMatteo.

But no matter how the product is labeled, Avery said the message should be clear: "The label does not imply organic food is healthier, safer or better for you in any way. It's purely a marketing label."