Organic Foods for Athletes?
By Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD
The Athlete’s Kitchen - February 2007
Organic 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% 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 freshly grown foods have more flavor. In terms of nutrition, some research suggests organic foods may have slightly more minerals and antioxidants than conventionally grown counterparts, but the differences are insignificant. You could adjust for the difference by simply eating a larger portion of standard broccoli.
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 day 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.
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 (www.EPA.gov) 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% to 75% 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% of the samples. Bonanno reports only 0.5% of conventionally grown foods (but 3-4% of imported foods) are above EPA standards. A 2005 survey of 13,621 food samples revealed pesticide residue exceeding the tolerance was 0.2%. (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.
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.
So what's a hungry but poor athlete to do?
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 foods help save the small farms—and the future of our planet.
For additional information
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Beyond Pesticides (formerly the National Commission Against the Misuse of Pesticides)
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