So you decided to make a resolution to eat healthier this year. That means adding more fruits and vegetables to your eating plan and cutting back on the sugar. I think that the majority of us are in agreement that is a good healthy decision and have likely attempted to follow it at some point. We get to the grocery store to buy our produce and now there presents a dilemma, a conundrum if you will. You see two sections of brightly colored food items that look nearly identical. Which one are you supposed to choose? One the one side is the Organic section and the other side is the Conventionally grown section. From this vantage point the only difference you can see is on the price tag. So you ask yourself… is it worth it to spend a few more dollars?
That seems to be the golden question. Depending on who you are asking you may get different answers. There is mounting evidence that organic is the healthier choice yet some research shows that there is not much difference. Let’s take a look at what we know about how these crops are produced and then we can make a more informed decision about which items we place in our shopping cart.
We have all seen the organic label. In order for a food to get permission to use this label it must follow certain guidelines. In comparison to conventional farming, organic food is produced with natural fertilizers like manure and compost while non-organic farmers may use synthetic or chemical fertilizers. Weeds and pests are controlled with natural methods such as crop rotation, tilling and hand weeding while conventional crops use chemical herbicides and pesticides. For most people who choose organic, that is the main reason right there, avoidance of toxic chemicals, or at least a major reduction in exposure to chemicals. Not only are the product of organic farming free of chemicals and toxins but the soil is healthier also. That is better for the environment as it reduces pollution and is safer for the birds and animals that may live nearby. The organic labeled food may also not have any genetically modified ingredients, which we will discuss more about GMO’s later in the article.
Can’t we just wash the food and it will be fine? This is the next most common asked question. The answer is not always black and white. Washing your produce is always recommended, not just for the reduction in chemicals but also to get the dirt and germs off the food. However, simple rinsing may not be enough for many products. You may try advanced washing methods such as vinegar and alkaline washes that tend to reduce the hold of the chemicals on the skin, yet some products may have absorbed the chemicals into the skin or flesh of the food. So washing and peeling definitely helps but it may not get all the toxins off.
OK, well what about the nutrient content? Is organic food more nutrient dense? Researchers have shown that organic crops have higher levels of polyphenols which are micronutrients with antioxidant activity. The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that some foods have as high as 20% more antioxidant levels than conventional foods. They also give fruits and vegetables their vibrant color and when consumed help us to fight free radicals, cancer cells, lower inflammation and help protect our cardiovascular system. Organic foods are often a bit smaller also, so that would increase the nutrient density of the produce.
You mentioned GMO, what is that? A GMO, or genetically modified organism, is a plant, animal, microorganism or other organism whose genetic makeup has been modified in a laboratory using genetic engineering or transgenic technology. The main reason is to allow the plant to withstand the direct application of herbicides or insecticides. So the farmer may spray the whole field and only the weeks or insects would be affected. That usually means LOTS of chemicals used on these crops. Also there is the fact that we are not sure the long term consequences of genetic alteration. However some recent studies show it has increased tumors in rats when fed GMO food. There are a few ways to avoid them, one is looking for the organic label or this NonGMO label. There is a great website with valuable information at www.nongmoproject.org. How do you know if produce is GMO? Look at the sticker labels used as identification numbers. If there is a 4 digit number that is a conventionally grown item. If there is a 5 digit number, look at the first number. If GMO that first number of the code will begin with an 8. If it is organic, that first number of the code is a 9.
So where does that leave us? Trying to save money and still be healthy. The great folks over at Environmental Watch Group, www.ewg.org, have been rating 50 produce items the last few years based on the amount of pesticide residue still found on the product. They have coined the term- Dirty Dozen. These are the ones that you should take the extra time to find and purchase organic. Starting at #1 are: strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, peaches, pears, cherries, grapes, celery, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers and rounding out #12 is potatoes. The other end of the spectrum they call the Clean Fifteen. These you could get away with not buying organic if you are on a budget. #1 is sweet corn, avocados, pineapples, cabbage, onions, sweet peas, papayas, asparagus, mangos, eggplant, honeydew melon, kiwi, cantaloupe, cauliflower, grapefruit and I will add #16 is broccoli. In my house we do our best to buy organic when we can yet we make extra effort to buy organic from the dirty dozen list to help reduce our exposure to the toxins that may end up in our body. Go to their website to get the free guides.
Every little bit helps, so that we are able to function with as little toxic exposure as possible. Some groups are more susceptible than others, such as pregnant moms and little kiddos who are still developing, and people with autoimmune or neurological diseases. Studies have shown that chemical toxins affect the nervous system and developing brain. If you belong to any of these categories, or belong to the human race, my recommendation is to use organic as much as you can. There are many accounts of people having symptoms of diseases reduced or eliminated by eating an organic diet.
What I still don’t understand is why we have to change the name for the natural option. Shouldn’t they have to label the chemical stuff first? I love the quote, “Eat Organic Food, or as our ancestors called it…Food.”