By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Pretty much all of what I eat at home is organic. I’m convinced that part of the epidemic of chronic illness, including cancer, is associated with food, especially the hormone- and antibiotic-loaded dairy and meat we eat, as well as the pesticides and toxins contained in our fruit and vegetables.
Cleanest vs. Dirtiest Produce: Know When Organic Really Matters
Organic means food must be grown to specific standards regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). That means crops grown without synthetic pesticides, artificial fertilizers, irradiation (a form of radiation used to kill bacteria), or biotechnology (genetically engineered). Animals raised for food on organic farms eat organically-grown feed, are not confined, and not subject to preventative antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones. I have often lectured patients and audiences to include as much organic food in the diet as possible. It’s worth the extra outlay in this very toxic world we live in.
Until 2014, researchers were unsure about whether organic foods are more nutritious than conventionally-grown produce. One earlier study, for instance, a 2012 review from Stanford University, indicated there were higher levels of pesticides and antibiotic resistant bacteria in non-organic crops but not significantly more nutritional value in organics. However, a more comprehensive 2014 review of some 340 previous studies conducted internationally found that organic fruits and vegetables – and particularly fruit – are substantially higher in natural antioxidants, compounds linked to reduced risk of many common diseases. The review also confirmed that non-organic crops have significantly higher concentrations of pesticides and the toxic metal cadmium. It’s clear to me: non-organic has more of what your body doesn’t need. Organic has more of what your body needs.
For those of you who live in the sunshine states, organic food availability through local farmer markets has been a year-around opportunity. For those of us living in less sunnier climes – such as the Northeast, where I hang my hat – buying organic at these venues is a late spring, summer, and autumn proposition. And during those times I thoroughly enjoy going out with my wife, Jan, to explore and support the available organic fare.
However, organic farming and food have come of age…You can now find organic produce sections, and organic dairy, in supermarkets.
The once idealistic grassroots movement based on environmental and health concerns is now making serious money as consumers increasingly − and wisely − demand food grown without chemical fertilizers, pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics. By the numbers, U.S. organic food sales totaled nearly $27 billion in 2010, up from a $1 billion business in 1990. Leading the way are fruits and vegetables. Globally, the organic food market is more than $55 billion annually.
If you are interested in organic statistics, have a feast on the numbers provided by the Organic Trade Association.
I certainly applaud the growth of the organic industry but at the same time I think consumers need to be wary as to what is or isn’t organic. Obviously, anyone can be fooled by some local grower claiming his produce is organic − when it really isn’t − at the local farmers market. You reduce your odds of that by buying from “certified” organic growers.
In the marketplace at large, there is additional reason for caution simply because big business has jumped onto the organic bandwagon. Among others, Coca-Cola, Kraft, General Mills, supermarket chains, and other major players are now involved. They buy out organic companies, develop new lines of organic designer edibles, and create more shelf space to meet buyers’ demands. You can expect to see more and more processed foods, beverages, and other items embellished with “organic” claims on their labels.
Therein lies the reason to be alert, and to read labels. Those big business interests, with their lobbying muscle in Washington, are continually trying to weaken organic standards so they can shoehorn product into the organic category. When word gets out about these efforts, the organic community and its media allies usually mobilize a counterattack.
A fruit or a vegetable is either organic or it’s not. But a processed food can be organic to an extent and still be able put a USDA organic designation on its label, particularly where specific ingredients may not be available organically. So here is where you have to read the label carefully and be aware that there are three levels of USDA organic designations on such foods.
Organic in Whole or Part? Read Labels
When it comes to processed foods, watch for these label designations:
- “Made with Organic Ingredients.” This means that a majority of the product is organic, but the rest can be made up of non-organic.
- “95 percent organic.” This 5 percent buffer leaves food manufacturers the option to use cheaper non-organic ingredients if they are on an approved list. One big fuss in 2007 had to do with adding ingredients that included non-organic casings for organic sausages made from the intestines of animals that could be fed such things as bovine growth hormones.
- 100 percent organic. This means that the product is organic, top to bottom.
One organic type of product I do not recommend is organic fruit-flavored low-fat or no-fat yogurt. You might think that because it is organic it is healthy for you. But that’s usually not the case. This is most often wolf-in-sheep’s clothing food. Lurking behind the mask of organic purity is usually a product loaded with sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, or some other unneeded sweetener. Yes, you get less fat but as a substitute you get more sweets, calories, and an insulin response. If you like yogurt, your best bet is to opt for plain organic yogurt.
Be sure also to wash all produce well to minimize pesticide residue.
For related preventative information, be sure to check out the Avoiding Toxins section here at HMDI.
- Organic Consumers Association
- Environmental Working Group
- Alliance for Natural Health – USA
- Center for Food Safety
Remember, awareness is curative… knowledge gives you the power to take charge of your health!
- Smith-Spangler C, Brandeau ML, et. al. Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives?: A systematic review. Ann Intern Med, 2012:157(5):348-366. [Abstract.]
- Baranski M, Srednicka-Tober D, et. al. Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: A systematic literature review and meta-analyses. Brit J Nutrition, 2014; published online at http://csanr.wsu.edu/m2m/papers/organic_meta_analysis/bjn_2014_full_paper.pdf
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