Organic beer? Organic Oreos? Is organic food just the newest celebrity food fad or should we be supporting this $14-billion-a-year industry? The food giants are slapping the word "organic" on everything now, and consumers frequently relate "organic" with "healthy". Is organic really better for your health? Let's get one thing straight first:
- Organic junk food is still junk food. The organic candy bars, mac 'n cheese, Oreos and snack packs are not good for you, despite the fact that it is organic. Sorry.
- Hence, we won't be discussing the fortitude of organic processed foods. Processed foods are most always detrimental to your health. Slapping an organic label on them unfortunately won't change anything but the price.
What does organic mean?
Organic food must be grown and manufactured based on standards laid out by a countries regulatory program or agency. For the United States, these standards are defined by the National Organic Program (NOP) and enforced by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
When you see the organic label on a product, it must be at least 95% organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt). These products must also be manufactured using only approved methods and must not use sewage sludge or ionizing radiation in production. You can read more on organic labeling here.
In the case of animal products, organic additionally means the animal received no antibiotics or hormones and was fed organic feed containing no animal by-products. The animal should also have had "access" to the outdoors. Although, "access" is not well-defined, so it's not clear what this provision means. In the case of produce, the grown food must not be contaminated with synthetic chemicals used as pesticides.
With extra regulation for organic food, comes extra cost. Consumers foot this bill and pay anywhere from 20-100% more for organic products. Is it worth it?
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) did some legwork for us on this. They performed 43,000 tests for pesticides on produce and their computer analysis found that consumers could cut their pesticide exposure by almost 90 percent by avoiding just the most contaminated fruits and vegetables. The EWG further came up with the "Dirty Dozen" - the most pesticide-laden produce varieties. The most important produce to consider buying organic are listed below:
"The Dirty Dozen"
- Sweet Bell Peppers
- Grapes (imported)
- Potatoes (but you don't eat these anyhow, right?)
There are other produce types that are largely unnecessary to buy organic. These foods regularly test clean of pesticides and either have a hard outer skin or don't retain pesticides well. Don't waste your money on buying organic versions of the following:
- Sweet Corn - frozen (remember, though, corn isn't really a vegetable)
- Sweet Peas - frozen
Don't see your favorite fruit or veggie on the above lists? The EWA ranked 43 foods in total. See them all here. And you'll want to click here for a handy wallet-sized list of these foods you can take to the store with you.
First, absolutely include meat in your diet, even if it's not grass-fed or organic. Ideally, we want meat that is "100% grass-fed". Additionally, we want to look for meat that contains “no hormones” and “no antibiotics”. The organic label will ensure that no hormones or antibiotics were used in raising the animals. If you don't have access to "100% grass-fed" meats, choose organic (no antibiotics or hormones), grain-fed meats instead. If you can't buy either "100% grass-fed" or organic, remember that most of the toxins of traditionally raised meats are stored in the fat, so opt for the leanest cuts you can find. But, if you buy 100% grass-fed, don't let that fat go to waste!
Meat labeling: Nearly all beef cattle eat grass at some point. If you're looking for grass-fed beef at the supermarket, look for "100% grass-fed" or "grass-finished" meats. Others labeled "grass-fed", are switched to a grain-based diet a few weeks before slaughter, ruining their beneficial omega 3 to omega 6 ratio.
USDA Organic doesn’t mean grass-fed, grass-finished, or 100% grass-fed. It does mean that the animal received no antibiotics or hormones and was fed organic feed containing no animal by-products. Still better than non-organic options.
Confusing, right? You can simplify things by buying direct from a farm. Ask them for information on how the animals are raised. In Texas, I'm sure this is significantly easier than other areas of the country. The Dallas Farmer's Market has a local farm, Truth Hill, that sells grass-fed beef, pork and chicken. If you buy in bulk and reserve some space in your freezer, you'll only have to make a pilgrimage out there every couple months.
What about fish? This is a tricky subject as the proposed organic requirements for fish are a little sketchy.
In November 2008, the National Organic Standards board issued recommendations to the USDA stating that farmed fish could be labeled 'organic', but cast their wild-caught counterparts outside the 'organic' realm. Why? They can't control a wild fishes environment. Their recent recommendations are not as stringent as the other organic labeling requirements, and have caused a fuss among environmentalists, consumers, and fisheries.
We still prefer wild-caught fish to farmed varieties. Until they make more sense of the organic fish requirements, will likely ignore the label altogether.
The Bottom Line
While we wouldn't waste our money on many organic items, the "Dirty Dozen" is likely worth the extra few cents. You can get away with buying a few organic items each trip to the grocery store and improve your health without having your grocery bill skyrocket. For meats, we suggest buying the best you can afford. The key is to get good quality, lean protein with each meal. Whether that comes from ground beef bought at WalMart of grass-fed filet mignon, entirely depends on what is within your means. Just be aware of what you value...do you really need to pay for 450 cable channels or go out to eat twice a week, or could use the extra cash to improve your diet? It's your choice. Good quality meat is worth every extra penny you pay for it.
Lastly, sometimes fresh, local food is just as good, or better, than organic. An organic apple traveling 2,000 miles to reach you might not be as nutritious as an apple picked from your local orchard, whether the orchard is certified organic or not. Go to local farmer's markets, talk to the growers and ask questions about how their food is grown and produced. Be savvy with your shopping and we're betting your grocery bill won't go up at all. It may take slightly more time and effort...but isn't your health worth it?