25 Feb 2018
Should you be eating organic? This can be a somewhat complicated question. So, first, let’s address what the word “organic” really means when talking about food. Understandably, many people think that organic refers to no chemicals used in the growing process or animals eating only their traditional diets: nothing genetically modified. In reality, the word “organic” has several layers. Have you ever seen this sticker on food? According to the USDA website, in order to make an organic claim or use the USDA Organic seal, the final product must follow strict standards and go through the organic certification process: addressing a variety of factors such as soil quality, animal raising practices, and pest and weed control. Additionally, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used. Basically, USDA Organic is a legal term: part of a government program that companies or farmers must pay to join in order to use the label. On top of the cost, there is a certification process and plenty of paperwork involved. So, for large food conglomerates, participating in this process is just one of the costs of doing business. For a small family farm, the money and time involved can be prohibitive. More on that later. From a consumer’s point of view, you might think that any product carrying this label is made entirely with organic ingredients. Again, according to the USDA website, only if something is labeled “100% organic” would that be the case. If a food is labeled “organic,” up to five percent of the ingredients in the finished product can be non-organic. If the label reads “made with organic ingredients,” only 70 percent of the item must include certified organic ingredients. And that excludes water and salt from the calculation. Now, you might ask, what does “organic ingredients” actually mean? An organization called the National Organic Standards Board makes the decision on which products can be labeled organic. Seems pretty simple. Not really. This board is made up of volunteers from different areas of the industry: farmers to retailers, scientists to environmentalists. These people are appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture for five-year terms. Already, you can sense how politics may get involved. Is everything that’s labeled organic healthy to eat? Not necessarily. Many foods are highly processed and are just an organic version of another processed food. Take a stroll through the organic cereals section of your local supermarket. You will see plenty of products that might be labeled “organic,” but in reality are still boxes of processed grains and sugar. Are all organic foods labeled with the USDA Organic mark? Definitely not. Small organic farms with under $5,000 in gross sales are exempt from organic certification. Here in the Hudson Valley, there are many small family farms that for various reasons are not part of the certification system, yet they employ organic farming practices. These small farms are generally closer to the spirit of the organic food movement. The farmers believe in maintaining the quality of the soil, rotating crops, letting their animals graze on the land, and in many of the other ways that people farmed before the advent of the industrial food business. Their foods may not be “certified organic,” but otherwise meet the highest standards. Is organic food more expensive than conventional food? Sometimes, but not always. Each year, more and more organic food is available as an increasing number of farms are becoming certified to meet the growing demand, so prices have been dropping. You do not need to shop at health food stores anymore to find organic food. It is on the shelves at most major supermarkets, warehouse clubs such as Costco and BJ’s, Trader Joe’s, and online. And when produce is in season, the price will drop. Additionally, don’t presume anything is organic unless you’ve checked the label. Whole Foods, for example, sells both organic and conventionally grown/raised food. Now, the big question: Why is it important to eat organic food? On the animal front, whatever the animal ate, you will be eating. Any hormones and/or antibiotics given to the animal will go into your body. So, it’s healthiest to eat organic poultry and eggs, meat from grass-fed animals, and wild-caught fish. Meat eaters should understand that cows are designed to eat grass, but most industrially-raised cattle are fed corn because they get fatter faster. The problem is that cows cannot digest corn, so they are often given antibiotics to keep them from getting sick from the corn. Those antibiotics get passed on to the people eating that beef. Similarly, dairy cows are often given growth hormones to get them to produce more milk at a younger age. And we do know that girls are entering puberty at younger and younger ages, possibly due to the hormones they are ingesting from dairy products. Grass-fed cows, whether for beef or dairy use, are not fed antibiotics or growth hormones. Disconcertingly, the largest user of antibiotics is not the medical world taking care of humans, but rather the veterinary industry focusing on industrial-raised animals. According to a September 2017 article in Forbes, “80 percent of all antibiotics are consumed by food animals.” Produce is a little different. You might choose to eat organic fruits and vegetables because of concern about your carbon footprint. Perhaps you’re worried about chemical runoff into the water supply. Or you might be concerned about chemical residue in the food itself after washing and/or peeling. All are valid issues. For discussion here, the focus is on chemical residue. Some plants can naturally defend themselves from pesticides, while others absorb them. You might think that peeling the fruit or vegetable would get rid of any pesticide residue. Unfortunately, that intuitive thinking doesn’t work here. Broccoli, for instance, does not get peeled before eating, yet the plant can naturally defend itself. Apples, on the other hand, a fruit that can be peeled, absorb the pesticide throughout the plant. The Environmental Working Group rates the chemical components of things, ranging from cleaning products to toys to foods. They post two lists: The Clean Fifteen and The Dirty Dozen, shown to the right, which get updated annually on their website: rating the chemical residue remaining after cleaning and peeling. If you’d like to pick and choose how to spend your money, the foods on the Dirty Dozen list are those you want to buy organic. The foods on the Clean Fifteen list are those that have a much lower chemical residue. We only get one body per lifetime, and one of the easiest ways to take care of it is to eat a diet based on whole foods, minimizing anything processed, and limiting our chemical exposure as much as possible. You will taste and feel the difference.