Certifiably different

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Jeremy Long/Lebanon Daily News via AP Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf gives a thumbs up to Scott Sechler Sr., chairman and president Sechler Family Foods Inc. after he cut the ribbon on June 22 to open a new $40 million organic chicken hatchery in Fredericksburg, Pa., the first of its kind in the United States, according to Bell & Evans.

By JERRY HITCHCOCK

Staff Writer

If you’re like me and do the lion’s share of the grocery shopping for your household, you’ve no doubt noticed the transition to more of a variety of options throughout the store.

Gluten free. Non-GMO. Sugar free. Low sodium. It is enough to drive you mad if you aren’t really searching for these types of products.

But one option I have tried to follow in the last few years is the vast array of organic foods available. Once only found in health-food stores, plenty of companies have offered up bags and boxes of this and that. But is the cost, quality and benefits really worth it? Well, let’s see.

To be certified organic, a company must follow the program set up for that particular product by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

I have been buying organic romaine lettuce for a couple years now, and I have to say the taste is better than the non-organic counterpart (same company) I was buying. Same goes for the fresh baby spinach I eat.

Coming from a framing background, I’ve been well aware of the trend of converting farmland to organic endeavors. At least a decade ago, the going was rough, since little information on growing without chemicals was available, and word of mouth and trail-and-error was the best option if you so chose to go down that road. This lead to years of struggle from small farms and traction was slow to take hold in regard to organic being a profitable and bankable venture.

Organic farmers are aiming to enhance the soil and water quality for their crops, and reducing pollution is also a goal. On the livestock side, a safe and healthy habitat is key, with “natural livestock behavior” and a self-sustaining cycle of resources also important.

Organic farmers are barred from using synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and radiation as a food preservation technique. Growth hormones and antibiotics are banned for livestock. Access to outdoor land and pasture feeding for a portion of the livestock’s growth cycle during a grazing season with organic feed is required as well.

Two manure types are allowed for organic farming. Green manure (plant waste that is left over from the harvest process) and livestock manure can both be used to improve soil quality and improve yield. Plant rotation preserves soil quality and will mess with the pest cycles and provide a defense against disease. The use of cover crops can prevent erosion and saves time and money in tilling while possibly improving soil conditions. Mulch can be used to control weeds between crop cycles, and insect traps and natural pesticides aid in controlling pests.

• • •

So with all this preparation, is the product worth the struggle?

Recent studies are building a growing body of evidence that there are health benefits to long-term consumption of organic food as opposed to consuming non-organic, conventionally grown food.

The biggest benefits overall include a moderate increase in nutrients, high levels of flavonoids (known for their antioxidant properties) and Omega-3 fatty acids increases in organic livestock.

Toxic metal levels in people who consume an organic diet have been shown to decrease significantly, with cadmium levels falling in people who consume organic grains on a regular basis. While the jury is still out, this is thought to occur as a result of a ban on synthetic fertilizer for organic farming.

No scientific evidence has been shared about the effect of decreased pesticide residue in organic foods. Likewise, bacteria levels in organic meats has shown no health benefits or risks when compared to a conventional diet.

Depending on which study you want to believe — and there are countless — organic foods should have some staying power on our grocery shelves. Is this due to the promising data that suggests they are better for us, or is it just a case of the investments that have already been made in organic agricultural endeavors? Perhaps a little of both, and consumer sentiment in the next decade or so may decide which road becomes the only road to our supermarkets.

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Finally, a common mistake is to think of the terms “organic” and “natural” as interchangeable. To correct, a natural product must have no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives, either in the product itself or the methods and materials utilized to create the product’s ingredients. As stated above, organic is more about the environment and non-synthetic materials used to generate the finished product.

Are there people who have lived to be 100 years old or older eating conventional foods? Sure, it happens every day still. Does this mean that organic food in hooey? Hardly. Like most things, the affects of the foods (and ingredients within) we consumer will differ from person to person. One ingredient could cause cancer or some other life-threatening condition in one person, and not affect the next in the slightest. Is organic worth the added cost? Let your taste (and maybe your conscience) be the judge.

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Jerry Hitchcock can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2017, via email at jhitchcock@cdapress.com, or follow him on Twitter at HitchTheWriter.

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