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Is organic superior to regular food?
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Organic food a scam?
Joseph Rosen, who heads the Food Science Department at Rutgers University's Cook College, says there's "not one iota of evidence" that consuming organic food is healthier.

"Organic is, in my opinion, one of the biggest scams ever foisted upon the American public," Rosen says. "These foods have absolutely no advantage whatsoever, especially when you consider the high prices charged for them."

In fact, says Payet, the decision among small farmers to market homegrown products as organic was probably a mistake.

"The movement for wholesomeness was branded with the concept of organic, which just means no chemicals," Payet says. "That's certainly one component. It worked very well in the beginning, but it made it very easy for agribusiness to co-opt the movement when they realized there was money in it."

Rosen, an organic chemist, says that the growth hormones people worry about in animals "are produced by humans internally" anyway. He cites a study of free-range and conventional chicken that found "no difference, except about $2 a pound."

Irradiated meats, Rosen says, may even be healthier than their organic counterparts, which are cooked at high temperatures to purge them of possible bacteria. "The more you cook the meat, the greater your chances of incurring naturally forming carcinogens. So instead of the hypothetical risk of irradiation, you have a very real risk that comes as part of the cooking process."

As for pesticides, Rosen says, "the vast majority used are at a lower level of concentration than the maximum allowed by the EPA. So where's the danger? Once fruits and vegetables reach the consumer, very little pesticide is left on them."

So what does Rosen consider healthy? "Fresh," he says. "Fresh will win every time, whether it's conventional or organic. It's not so hard to figure out that produce from a roadside stand will taste better than food that has traveled thousands of miles to get to the supermarket."

The organic niche
Payet concurs, adding that some organic farmers agree that wholesome has at least as much to do with freshness as production methods. In fact, he says, his group focuses first on supporting family farms and next on the buy-local movement. Organic farming sits in third place.

"Agribusiness brought consumers better prices and greater convenience," Payet says. But it also "reduced the quality of food and took away intangibles such as community. People used to know where their food came from."

He says it was only about 15 years ago that people started realizing that "wholesomeness had been lost from the food business." In response, "the same local farms that were providers 40 years ago started fulfilling this demand through co-ops and farmers' markets."

But now executives for major chains are eyeing organics, Payet says -- and that's not at all about local farms. "It's about importing large quantities of produce from other countries. So the local farms that created the movement are being sidelined again."

Next: "There are tactics consumers can use to keep food bills down. ..."
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