LEXINGTON, Ky. (1/7/2014) — For many people the new year brings a new resolve to eat healthier, which may have them venturing into the organic and natural foods aisle for the first time. This island of free-range eggs, antibiotic-free chicken and organic soymilk can give a natural-food newbie a little sticker shock and leave them wondering what exactly they are shelling out the extra cash for.
The first step to being a smart consumer is to know what all the different buzzwords you will find in the health food aisle actually mean. Natural, free range, organic, non-GMO, whole grain, oh my! Many of these words are used as marketing tools and do not have a universally agreed upon meaning. The United States Department of Agriculture has standards that govern the production and processing of organic foods and farmers have to go through an arduous process to be allowed to label their foods organic. Look for the green USDA organic label to be sure you are getting a certified organic product.
“If you buy organic you can be sure of what you are getting and what you are not getting in your food,” said Ann Stone of Elmwood Stock Farm, a certified-organic family farm in Georgetown, Ky.
What you are not getting when you buy organic is antibiotics or growth hormones in your meat and dairy products or chemical pesticides in your produce.
The jury is still out on what precisely this means for your health. There are no large, long-term studies in humans comparing organic and conventional diets in part because the widespread use of the types of industrial chemicals, hormones and antibiotics now used in food production only dates back a few generations. Also, there are a variety of genetic and environmental factors that cause diseases in humans so parsing out the precise effects of chemicals, hormones and antibiotics in our food can be difficult.
Breathing in pesticides routinely used by farmers has been shown to cause neurological damage in rats. It is unclear how these findings apply to humans and if there are similar effects when pesticides are consumed in the levels found on produce. A 2005 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that an organic diet immediately and significantly reduced pesticides levels in the urine of elementary school-age children. However, it is not certain how the levels of pesticides found in children consuming a conventional diet can affect their risk for specific diseases.
People looking to improve their health should focus first on consuming a diet rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, according to Andrew Wheeler, RD.
“If we look across the board, people who are eating whole foods—whether they conventional or organic—are going to be better off than someone who is eating processed organic food,” said Wheeler. “You can have a perfectly healthy diet without eating organic.”
He suggests reducing the amount of meat and dairy you eat from conventionally raised animals if you are concerned about pesticide, hormone or antibiotic exposure.
“Pesticides are fat soluble and they bio-accumulate in animals that are eating conventionally grown corn and soy,” he said.
He also noted that organic food production has a meaningful effect on the environment that may be a consideration for consumers.
The USDA’s Organic Standards Board states organic agriculture “promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity” and “is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.”
If you want to take the leap into eating organic but you’re on a tight budget, the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce is a good place to start. The EWG compiled a list of produce with the highest levels of pesticides, The Dirty Dozen, and the lowest levels of pesticides, The Clean Fifteen. Buying organic versions of just The Dirty Dozen can lower your consumption of pesticides without breaking the bank.
Wheeler and Stone agree that buying from local sources is the most economical and environmentally friendly way to get organic food. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs distribute locally grown, seasonal food to subscribers for a weekly or monthly fee.
“You are supporting the local economy,” Wheeler said of CSAs like the one at Elmwood Stock Farm or the University of Kentucky. “Nine-tenths of [the produce] is picked that day and it will be more nutritious compared to organic farms in California or Mexico that have to ship their food.”
Buying from close-to-home sources could help you save money by reducing the amount of food wasted when produce goes bad quickly after you buy it.
“If you buy local it is fresher and lasts longer,” said Stone. “You have more time to eat the food you buy.”
Wheeler said the choice to eat organic or conventional food comes down to how much you are willing and able to invest in a healthy diet.
“Eating organic is the icing on the cake,” he said.
Photo provided by Alanthebox via Wikimedia Commons
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