When it comes to buying healthful food many people fall into two categories:
- Everything they buy is organic and devoid of all evils such as GMO ingredients, gluten, etc.; or
- They don’t buy anything in these so-called healthful categories because they think it’s too expensive and not worth the money.
This post provides strategies for the middle ground and clarifies some of the myths about these foods that are marketed as more “healthful.”
WHAT DOES “ORGANIC” ACTUALLY MEAN?
The label “Organic” when applied to food means different things in different countries. For the purposes of this post, I’ll be describing what it means for food in the U.S. All those non-food organic household goods you can buy (e.g. clothes, furniture, cleaning supplies, etc.) are beyond the scope.
At a high level, organic products are produced in a way that is intended to support the environment. Use of man-made pesticides and fertilizers are prohibited. “Natural” fertilizers and some pre-approved pesticides are allowed. Irradiation, industrial processing chemicals, and artificial food additives are right out.
As you can see the notion of “organic” is kind of lofty and vague. To address this, most countries have a certification process. In the U.S., that process is regulated by the National Organic Program which is part of the US Department of Agriculture. Products that are certified through this program include this seal somewhere on the label:
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF BUYING ORGANIC?
Proponents of organic foods identify several advantages of buying and consuming organics. These include…
ORGANIC FOODS ARE SAFER
The biggest concern about conventionally farmed foods versus organics is exposure to substances such as pesticides, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals and hormones that may be harmful when consumed by humans. Organic foods restrict the use of these products. There is mixed evidence on whether these harmful effects exist. Just about every food category and every potentially harmful substance has its own specific research and individual studies don’t always have consistent results. It is a complicated subject that we’ll avoid in this post by simply providing some high level recommendations later on.
On the other side of the food safety argument, there are claims that say organic foods are more likely to cause food poisoning from exposure to nasty bugs such as E. Coli. The biggest contributor to this would be use of natural fertilizers (i.e. poop). Research on this topic is also mixed but regardless, if these dangers do exist, they can be addressed through thorough washing and cooking of your food.
ORGANIC FOODS ARE MORE NUTRITIOUS
A review of the research shows moderately strong evidence that organically grown fruits and vegetables have more of the vitamins and antioxidants that make them such a valuable food source. If you think about it, this makes sense. Vitamins and antioxidants are used by plants the same way they are used by us, to fight disease. Those diseases are less prevalent when the plants are “immunized” with artificial pesticides and fertilizers. Therefore the plants own immune system is less stimulated. But when plants feel the stress of “attack”, their immune system kicks in.
For animal products, studies show that livestock that are raised organically, in an environment and with a diet that is close to their natural habitat, have more good fats such as omega 3 fatty acids and less inflammatory substances than conventionally raised animals.
As a side note, isn’t it ironic that animals and plants that are grown with techniques that include modern chemicals and inhumane techniques are “conventionally” raised while those that are grown in a way similar to how they lived thousands of years ago are therefore “unconventional”?
ORGANIC FOODS ARE MORE SUSTAINABLE AND HUMANE
Many people prefer organic foods because they have less of an environmental footprint. In the case of animal products, organic practices imply better treatment of the cow, chicken, pig, etc. In most cases this is correct. But, there are other considerations that should be included in your thought process.
For example, organic peaches from California consume a lot of energy in the process of getting them from the west coast to the east coast. Also, California is suffering from one of the worst droughts in ages and agribusiness, whether conventional or organic, is the biggest consumer of precious water.
Meanwhile you may need to reconsider the humanity of your organic purchases too. While most people consider organic animal husbandry practices as more humane, you really need to know a lot about the supplier. Because organic products demand a higher price, they attracts all sorts of bad actors to the supply chain. For example, Coleman Organic Chicken is brought to you by Perdue Farms. I am sure Perdue’s Coleman-brand chicken is sustainably raised but the biggest part of Perdue profit comes from conventionally raised chickens. Perdue is well-known for mistreatment of its chickens, workers, and the Chesapeake Bay.
ORGANIC FOODS JUST TASTE BETTER
This is a matter of personal, ahem, taste. There are way too many variables that affect this. Many organic foods have shorter shelf lives than their conventional counterparts. Personally I think organic strawberries taste better than conventional ones. But rotten organic strawberries? Not so much.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF CONVENTIONAL?
- Price – Conventionals are generally cheaper although actual “cost” may be higher if the purported health and environmental advantages of organics are factored in.
- Access – Conventionally grown foods are much more available than organics.
- Appearance – Conventional foods often last longer, are larger, and are more appealing in color. This is not universally true.
- Often better than nothing – Eating any kind of broccoli is better than eating no broccoli.
- Nonorganic doesn’t always mean Conventional – Small farmers often can’t afford the cost of being certified as organic even if they use organic or mostly organic practices. The lack of the organic seal does not necessarily mean you won’t get the benefit of organic eating.
- Learn the Dirty Dozen and avoid consuming them. Each year the Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes a list of the 12 types of produce that have the worst contamination by pesticides and other toxins. This year the list consists of apples, peaches, nectarines, strawberries, grapes, celery, spinach, sweet bell peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, imported snap peas and potatoes. Either eat their organic versions or avoid them.
- Learn the Clean Fifteen and don’t fret about them. The EWG clean 15 are foods that are generally low in contaminants either because they aren’t used or because they’re resistant. If you’re only worried about food safety, it’s OK to buy conventional versions of these. The other benefits of organic foods still apply however. This year this list includes asparagus, avocados, cabbage, cantaloupe, cauliflower, eggplant, grapefruit, kiwi, mangoes, onions, papayas, pineapples, sweet corn, sweet peas (frozen), sweet potatoes.
- Get to know your local farmer. Whether it’s through your local farmer’s market, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) or because he or she is your neighbor, you are almost always better off buying your food from someone you can talk to, ask questions to, and generally trust. I know this is not always reasonable but consider the following. Food is one of the biggest contributors to your health. You get to know your doctor. Many get to know their pharmacists. To the extent possible, do the same with your farmer. If you can’t do this, learn where the local produce section is in your supermarket.
- Don’t waste your money on organic junk food. Things get tricky when considering organic processed foods (as opposed to whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, and meats). The labeling standards get really flaky when there are many ingredients and processing steps required to make the food. Organic breakfast cereals or crackers? Maybe OK. Organic soda or organic bacon-ranch-flavored cheese puffs? Nope. If these are foods you crave, you’re just better off eating conventional versions in moderation.
- Many pseudo-organic labels mean nothing. Words like “all natural” and “pasture raised” mean nothing. They are not regulated or certified in any way. They are purely marketing terms.