We’ve all been there… you’re in the grocery store looking at the rows of meat, most on sale for only a few dollars per pound. You’re overwhelmed with all the confusing labels, not even sure what they really mean. You see the small section of organic meat and they want to charge you an outrageous $13 for a package of chicken breasts. Considering you need a 3 of those for meals this week, it’s just too much. You decide to be budget-conscious and go with the cheaper meat, feeling a little better that you’ve at least picked the “all-natural” option. Can you relate?
Since “organic” became a thing, it’s been controversial. People think it’s a Whole-Foods-created hoax to charge consumers more money. With so many different opinions out there, its hard to sift through it all and find the facts. What’s the truth here? Is organic meat healthier than natural? Are organic vegetables more nourishing than conventionally grown ones?
This word makes us think of rolling green hills, cows grazing, crops blowing in the wind and of a hard-working farmer harvesting his land. Consumer Reports found that 1 in 3 people thought “natural” = “organic.” Companies put this buzz word and pictures of idyllic farms on their labels to make you buy the product, and even pay more for it. While the term “organic” is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, “natural” isn’t; it has no clear definition. (Source: ABC News) So, although we may assume these foods would be minimally processed or not containing any hormones or artificial ingredients, it is in fact meaningless.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires all organic foods to meet strict standards on how those foods are grown, fed, handled and processed. Any food with the USDA Organic label must pass organic certification annual inspections. Unlike conventional foods, this ensures that the food has been grown using no toxic pesticides, no synthetic growth hormones and no petroleum-based fertilizers. And that it has been processed without artificial colors or flavors, without artificial preservatives and without GMOs. (Sources: Consumerist and Organic: It’s Worth It)
Additionally, there is another important label you might find on organic foods – “Non GMO Project Verified.” This certification is managed by a non-profit organization that believes you “should have access to clearly labeled non-GMO food and products.” It is a very strict verification process, ensuring that no more than 0.9% of the product contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs), with complete absence being the goal. “This is in alignment with laws in the European Union (where any product containing more than 0.9% GMO must be labeled);” Europe is way ahead of America on this and other dangerous food ingredients. (Source: Non GMO Project)
Is Organic Healthier?
Now that we understand the labels, the real question becomes: is organic really better for you than natural/conventional? There are studies that have found organic produce to be no more nutritional than its conventional counterpart. That makes sense – an apple is still an apple and will still have the same amount of calories. But, which version causes your body harm? Let’s look at what “organic” labels promise not to include to see what effects those in conventional food might have on our bodies:
Toxic Pesticides: Pesticides are intentionally toxic substances used to kill living things – aka poison. They are used consistently in conventional agriculture, even though many studies have shown to cause chronic health impacts like cancer, hormone disruption, neurodegenerative diseases, and reproductive issues. Children are especially at risk, even from minimal exposure, because they absorb more and don’t yet have fully developed brains or immune systems. A study by Harvard University and the University of Montreal found that exposure to pesticide residues on fruit and vegetables may double the risk of developing ADHD. (Source: Toxics Action Center) Oh, and one of the most commonly used pesticides, organophospate, was first developed as nerve gas in WWII. Hmm.
Beyond the harmful health effects, they also make our food less nourishing. One of the most popular herbicides (used to kill weeds) on the market is Monsanto’s product RoundUp – the main ingredient, glyphosate, steals nutrients from crops. And when pesticides are applied to crops, as much as 60% of the antioxidants in the fruits and vegetables are lost. Antioxidants are what help your body fight cancer-causing free-radicals.
As for how they effect our meat: “In a potato, the pesticide residue is .003 . in a piece of animal flesh, it is .281, nearly 100 more parts per million in every bite. It would take you over 90 days of eating conventionally grown potatoes to get the same amount of pesticide residue that one serving of chicken contains. Why? Because not only do the animals’ bodies collect and concentrate the poisons into their flesh, their feed is allowed to have 20% more pesticides used than that of crops grown for human use.” (Source: Natural News)
Watch this video to see how levels of chemicals changed in the children of a family who switched to all organic:
Synthetic Growth Hormones: Growth hormones are widely used to increase weight gain in animals and enhance milk production in dairy cattle, one of the most well-known being rGBH. These synthetic hormones mimic estrogen and, when they are passed on to us as we eat, can have serious side effects. After studies showed a 55-60% increase in breast cancer for women, rGBH was banned in many countries around the world; it’s still allowed in the US. Many researchers believe that steroid hormones cause children to undergo puberty prematurely, who are now entering much younger than just a generation ago. Just a small amount of these estrogenic hormones can have significant impact on children, both on their development and risk of obesity. (Sources: Genetic Roulette, Health.com)
Artificial Colors: You would be hard-pressed today to try to find an item in your pantry that doesn’t have artificial dye in the ingredients list (Yellow #5, Blue #1). Most artificial colors are made from coal tar. Gross. And more research has been coming out lately linking food dye to brain cancer and ADHD. Not good. (Source: Forbes) While research is still limited on this newer additive, many countries around the world have decided to ban these.
Artificial Preservatives: Preservatives are used to help prevent the growth of bacteria or fungus, to prevent oxidation causing discoloration or rancidity and to inhibit the natural ripening of produce. Sulfites and nitrates are common preservatives that cause allergic reactions in many people. (Source: Sustainable Table) More research is needed to determine the long-term side effects of these.
GMOs: Genetically Modified Organisms are created by putting the DNA from one species into another to get benefits from both. For our food and farming purposes, this means creating a seed that makes a plant produce its own pesticide or makes it pesticide resistant so that farmers can spray without damaging the crop. It sounds like a great idea, except that it’s all a science experiment in genetic alteration, resulting in mutations and unpredictable side effects, creating toxins, allergens, carcinogens and triggering inflammation. Some of the crops highest (90%+) in GMOs are canola, corn, soy and sugar beets, all of which are extremely common in processed foods. Unfortunately, infant formula is full of both GM soy and synthetic growth hormones (and high levels of aluminum too).
The best example of what this does to our bodies is this: GM corn is created to include BT toxin within the seed. When an insect eats the crop, it is designed to break open the stomach of the bug and kill it. It does the same to us, opening up tiny holes in our intestines leading to what’s called leaky gut. Then, when food passes through our intestines, it slips through these holes, entering our body… our body attacks those particles, seeing it as an invader; over time, we develop food allergies to those items. To watch an illustration of this or to learn more about the health effects of GMOs, read my other blog post here.
What About Antibiotic-Free, Pasture Raised & Grass Fed Animal Products?
None of these are promises made by an “organic” label, but fortunately many producers who have an organic certification will also believe in these practices too. While a big part of this is related to the humane treatment of the animals, there are also some health effects to consider. When animals are kept in close proximity to each other in cages all day, keeping the cages clean is impossible, leading to poor hygiene and the spreading of disease. Antibiotics must be used with these animals to prevent illness and ensure they survive to sell. When we eat the animals, these antibiotics are passed on to us, worsening the antibiotic-resistance epidemic. In fact, 80% of all antibiotics are used with animals rather than prescribed to humans.
As for pasture-raised and grass-fed meat, it is important to know the sources of the meat, eggs and dairy that you buy. I buy my eggs from a local farm (at the grocery store!) called Coyote Creek. The chickens are allowed to forage for food naturally on organic pastures; they are also fed soy-free feed. The grass-fed meat that I buy ensures that these cows aren’t being fattened up by GM corn and soy feed. They naturally graze the fields, ensuring I am getting the most nutrients from soil rich with minerals. “Research indicates that grass finished meat has superior ratios of Omega 3 to Omega 6 fatty acids, linked to a reduced risk of heart disease.” (Source: Eat Wild)
How to Shop:
Even if you’re now convinced that buying organic is worth trying to avoid all those detrimental health effects and ultimately healthier for your family, you may think I simply cannot afford it. Here are some tips on how to make it possible:
- Compare & coupon – Where you shop can make it or break it. I’ve shopped around and discovered that usually a natural foods store can have the best pricing. The organic produce & meat at my local grocery store, HEB, is usually several dollars more (sometimes double!) that of a natural foods store. Farmers Markets can also be inexpensive since you are buying directly from the source. Read about how I’m able to buy all organic on a budget here.
- Buy fresh – Organic processed and pre-prepared foods are expensive. Stick to the edge of the store as you shop and load up with fresh ingredients to cook at home.
- Avoid the worst – There are some fruits and vegetables higher in pesticide residue. If you can only buy some items organic, at least avoid the conventional dirty dozen. And always thoroughly wash your produce when you get home!
- Plan ahead – Meal plans, grocery lists and a strict budget can help you stay on track as you shop.
Or you can look at it this way: Is high-quality, organic food really that expensive by comparison? This awesome 11 yr old kid makes a pretty good argument… “It seems to me that we can either pay the farmer or we can pay the hospital.”
Do you think you’ll make the switch to buying organic?