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Home » Food Police, Gustatory Ruminations, Healthy supermarket picks, Nutrition myths put to the test

Is Buying Organic Worth It?

Submitted by on June 26, 2009 – 1:23 pmNo Comment
 

usda-organic-sealOne of the most common questions people as me is whether paying more for organic is “worth it.”

The answer, of course, depends on a whole number of factors, and, like most questions, is best answered as “it depends.”

If your concern is environmental or related to concerns for the health of agricultural workers, then organic always wins.  But if you can’t afford to let your green inclinations dictate all of your purchases and want to prioritize your organic spending based on personal health considerations, then read on.

Health considerations of organic vs. conventional foods

Fruits & Vegetables

In my opinion, the #1 health reason to choose organic fruits and vegetables would be to minimize the number of pesticides you consume.   While the individual pesticides used in this country have been approved as “safe” by the EPA and it appears that the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables are well outweighed by the risks associated with consumption of pesticides, there are still a number of good reasons to try and minimize your pesticide intake if you can afford to do so.  For one, while individual pesticides may be considered safe by our country’s  regulatory bodies, it is unclear whether the cumulative impact of multiple pesticides consumed over a lifetime is really harmless.  There are reasons to believe that it is not.  The most compelling scientific evidence points to a role of pesticides as endocrine (hormone function) disruptors and neurotoxins that impact proper brain development and functioning.  Because hormones play a role in everything from sexual development, reproductive health and breast health to blood sugar control and metabolism, it seems prudent to try to minimize exposure to chemicals that could disrupt their ability to function properly. In fact, the Endocrine Society has recently issued a Scientific Statement regarding endocrine-disrupting chemicals, linking them to a host of adverse health conditions, from genital abnormalities in newborn boys and early puberty in girls to insulin resistance, diabetes and obesity. For those people exposed to very high levels of certain pesticides (e.g., agricultural workers), the risk of certain cancers and birth defects also appears to become elevated.  

Because organic can be more expensive (though it is NOT always necessarily so), my own practice is to prioritize buying organic for those items whose conventional versions have been shown to have the heaviest pesticide loads.  The Environmental Working Group offers a Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides: a list of the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15″ that you can print out or download to your iPhone .  The “Clean 15″ refer to those fruits and vegetables that contain the lowest amount of pesticides even when grown conventionally, so if you had to compromise in your budget, this would be a good place to start.  Even cooler (but more frightening and time-consuming) is a new online tool launched by the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) called “What’s On my Food?” This interactive tool allows you to pick any fruit or vegetable and see how many pesticides are found on it, what type of pesticides they are, what percent of all the fruit/vegetables actually contain this pesticide, and to compare what percent of conventional vs. organic versions of this fruit/vegetable contain the pesticide.  All of the data comes from the USDA and EPA.  If the data freaks you out, PAN offers you the chance to Take Action by sending a note to President Obama right from their website.

Other agricultural products

For some people, genetically-modified (GMO) agricultural products are also an area of concern.  The body of science is only just starting to catch up with the industry, and there’s emerging evidence to suggest that we may in fact have reason to be concerned about GMO foods for health reasons, with increased risk of food allergies/intolerances being one of the more compelling concerns. The greatest concern about GMO foods, though, is not what we know, but what we don’t know; there is very little by way of long-term safety data on human diets that include GMO foods, yet we already eat a whole heck of a lot of them.  For a list of foods that tend to be GMO in our country, you can check out the Institute for Responsible Technology’s Non-GMO Shopping Guide. Currently, a good rule of thumb is that if the corn or soybean derivatives in your food don’t explicitly claim to be organic or non-GMO, then they are GMO. Ditto for cottonseed oil, canola oil and sugar.  If that concerns you, then buy organic for these types of products.

Dairy

Moving beyond produce, legumes and grains, is organic dairy worth paying a premium for?  The #1 health reason to choose organic milk would be to avoid consuming a hormone called rBGH or rBST. Conventional milk comes from cows that were likely treated with this hormone in order to boost their milk production, and it contains significantly higher levels of a compound called Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF-1) as a result.  From a health perspective, there is a concern that this IGF-1 is absorbed by our bodies when we consume these dairy products, and since higher levels of endogenous IGF-1 are associated with breast and gastrointestinal cancers, this additional exogenous IGF-1 could produce a similar consequence. Yet the FDA has studied this matter and concluded that there is not sufficient evidence to support this linkage.  So what to do?

This is one problem that the market may resolve for you.  Due to strong pressure from consumers, more and more brands of  non-organic dairy products are now pledging that their milk comes from cows are not treated with r-BGH.  For example, Lactaid milk, Wal Mart’s private label milk brand (Great Value), Dean, Hood and Farmland Dairy have already eliminated rBGH in some or all of their products, and Dannon yogurt recently pledged to remove milk containing rBGH from all of its products by the end of 2009.  Yoplait and Starbucks have made similar commitments, with the former company having promised to phase it out by August of this year. My own practice is to choose organic milk when a suitable lactose-free version is available for me (Organic Valley makes one, as does Horizon Organic); but I’ll buy conventional lactose-free milk from Lactaid, who claims that their cows were not treated with rBGH if the organic isn’t available.  Still, given the strong, clear evidence of the bone health consequences of not getting enough calcium vs. the more tenuous evidence of a potentially elevated cancer risk associated with conventional milk, I’d choose conventional milk over no milk at all even if organic and rBGH-free options weren’t available to me. Hands down.

Meat, Poultry & Fish

When it comes to meat and poultry, organic means that the animals were not routinely injected with antibiotics, nor were they treated with growth hormones.  It also means that the feed they ate was organic, which would imply much lower pesticide levels.  For many people, these are reasons enough to choose organic over conventional.  Still, it is worth mentioning that organic meat/poultry by definition does not imply that the nutritional profile of the beef/chicken itself is healthier, nor does it imply that the animal was raised humanely.  I’d look for “grass-fed” over simply “organic” for (though any beef that claims the former will often be organic, too) if you wanted beef that was higher in healthy omega-3 fats, and I’d look for “free range,” the “Certified Humane” designation or the Niman Ranch label if you want to know that your animal was raised more humanely.

When it comes to fish labeled “organic,” things get tricky.  Currently, the USDA does not permit any fish to be labeled as organic, since they have not yet established a standard.  Theoretically, however, since wild-caught fish would not be eligible to be certified organic (by definition), the only fish that will potentially be eligible to be labeled “organic” are going to be farm-raised fish that were fed “organic” feed.   In fact, a recently-adopted USDA panel approved guidelines for organic labeling for fish which specify that the fish-feed would need to contain 75% organic material and up to 25% wild fish for it to be labeled organic; it expected that this recommendation will pave the way for a formal organic standard for fish in the near future.   This seems sort of convoluted to me, as the healthiest fish are generally those that are wild-caught and dine exclusively on their natural diets of other wild fish, plankton or algae… not “organic” corn and soy feed.  But far be it for me to question the USDA’s infinite wisdom.

Personally, I think the more important claims to look for on seafood would be those that address safety, sustainability and country of origin. As I’ve suggested here before, you can download the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide, which combines a multitude of factors, including safety AND sustainability, in recommending the best seafood picks.  (The guides are even customized by geographic region).  Alternatively, you can download it to your iPhone so that its always with you when shopping.  You may be surprised to see that there are plenty of farmed fish varieties that make the cut as far as safety (low mercury and PCB levels) and sustainability go, so wild isn’t automatically the best choice in all circumstances.

Got all that?

Are organically-grown foods actually more nutritious?

While there are a small but  growing number of studies which suggest that organically-grown produce may be richer in nutrients than conventionally-grown produce when all other factors are controlled for, the reality is that your choices at a supermarket hardly resemble a controlled experiment.  You may have organically-grown asparagus that was picked a week ago from Argentina sitting alongside conventionally-grown asparagus that was picked 2 days ago from your own state: in this case, the locally-grown, conventional choice is likely to be more nutritious.  Organic farming methods are just one factor that play into the nutritional value of a given fruit or vegetable, with factors like weather, ripeness when picked, storage conditions,  processing and time since picking all influencing the final product.  So it’s not a foregone conclusion that always choosing organic will be a nutritionally superior proposition.

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