Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Is Organic Better?

This article will also be available on the Total Cleanse website
Is Organic Better?
Sarah Reid, RHNC
“Organic” has been the buzzword of the consumer scene for several years, ravishing in a resurgence of popularity after a few decades on the back burner. Originally espoused by the “hippies” in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, it faded away in response to consumer demand for cheap, fast food. But now that organic labels are slapped on all sorts of food, not just produce but skin cream, cookies and chocolate bars, is that route really worth the extra money? Or are organic products not always the healthiest way to go?
The question as to whether “organic” trumps “conventional” is a complex one to answer. Yes, organic produce is not laced with chemical pesticides, but if you’re peeling or washing your produce before eating it there’s almost zero risk of contamination. Foods hard or impossible to clean thoroughly such as broccoli, cauliflower, berries and leafy greens are good choices for your money, while bananas and winter squash are just fine to buy “off the shelf”. Root vegetables are another class that is usually fine to purchase conventionally, unless the area they’re grown in is highly polluted. It is key to note as well that organic regulations are not the same everywhere, so even if you’re purchasing an organic avocado from Mexico it might just not be as “pure” as you think. Buying foods from outside your “growing zone” and out of season has another detriment in terms of your nutrition as well – shipped fruit and vegetables are picked green and trucked long distances, losing flavour, vitamins and minerals along the way. Organic food is not always sustainably grown food either. Crops, when grown organically, take up considerably more acreage and energy to maintain than conventional ones, mostly due to the high losses from the unprotected seed. The other consideration when purchasing organic produce for better nutrition is that the soil today is incredibly nitrogen-deficient. Conventional farm practices add nitrogen-rich fertilizer to supplement the earth, thus increasing the uptake of the substance by the plants, but organic farmers cannot do so if they want to keep their organic certification. In addition, the strict limitations on the substances added to the soil and the harvested crops also increases the risk of E. Coli and salmonella presenting in the food.
The bottom line is that by increasing the variety of total produce in your diet, you can limit the pesticide contamination you are exposed to and embrace more local, seasonal food as well. In the dead of winter, flash-frozen vegetables and fruit are perfectly fine to have – when you buy, keep in mind the same risk of pesticide use as for fresh, and buy unsweetened and unseasoned regardless.
When it comes to meat, eggs and dairy, if you’re paying the premium it’s best to focus on “free-range” or “grass-fed” goods rather than looking for an organic label. While often organic eggs and meat are also labelled as free-range, this is not always the case – hens laying standard “organic” eggs can still be kept in tiny cages and “organic dairy” cows inside cramped barns as long as their grain feed is organically sourced. “Pasture” or “range” raised animals, particularly beef and chickens, are allowed to run and roam outside and eat natural grasses and grains in their habitats. The meat often is more flavourful, tasting slightly “gamier” to the uninitiated, and provided there is adequate space at the farm for their free roaming the meat can be extremely lean. To avoid toughening a cut like this, a quick or moist method of cooking is best. Free-range or pastured dairy and egg yolks are often a buttery yellow colour and richer in flavour, prompting some first-time consumers of organic milk to claim a glass of 1% tastes more like a traditional homogenized type.
It gets even more complicated in the dry goods sector of the grocery store, and the labels tell the story. Products labelled “100% organic” must only have organically produced ingredients, apart from salt and water. If something is simply called “organic”, a minimum of 95% of the ingredients have to be organically made or sourced. Processed items with a minimum 70% organic ingredients are allowed to declare “made with organic ingredients”.  But cookies, pizza and chocolate are still junk-food treats, no matter what the flashy label says. If in doubt, check the label for the ingredients and nutrient facts. If something has any sugar as the first ingredient, be it “cane”, “Sucanat”, “raw”, “agave nectar”, “honey” or “fruit juice concentrate”, it’s still a high calorie food with very little nutritional benefits. Likewise, if your organic potato chips still have 16 grams of fat per ounce, you still can’t eat them unbridled without expecting a little extra weight.
The ideas of the “best” food to purchase in the market are as individual as the shoppers themselves. It is up to your conscience, social sphere and personal philosophies to make the initial investigation into what you eat, and up to your wallet to make the final buying decision.

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I started my "working life" as a holistic and allopathic nutritional consultant with a love of cooking. Teaching the value of wholesome meal choices to families became close to my heart after I battled a long history of struggles with weight and health, and the passion for teaching led me into where I am now. My blog, which focuses on "bringing good taste to healthier food" through creative use of whole grains, fresh produce and acknowledging the importance of the occasional treat, also features a wealth of "specialty diet" friendly recipes for gluten-, egg-, dairy- and sugar- tree nut-free items that everyone can enjoy without alienating those who need them.

Overall, I want to bring back the desire for good quality, homemade, (mostly) healthy food into the hearts and kitchens of families so that the next generation will be less box-reliant than mine. I firmly believe that any “homemade” food, even when labelled as "naughty", is a more wholesome treat than pre-packaged, cookie-cutter junk. With the knowledge of good food (and how to cook good food) as a base, a healthy lifestyle can follow, and then anything is possible!