Earth Promise: Organic? In This Economy?

organic_fv_34223903If you ask someone why they eat organic, they will most probably engulf you with reasons: tastes better/fresher; better for the environment (no pesticides means healthier soil, water and wildlife); supports small farmers; too much trucking/shipping involved to receive the food; and the top reason: better for your health.

Some may argue that the health studies on organic vs. non-organic are inconclusive.  The USDA believes the “health benefits from eating fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks from ingesting the pesticides on them.”  OK, that makes sense, chemical laden apples are better than a bag of chips.  However, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the results are there to prove that the risk of being exposed over many years to some pesticides, can, indeed cause various health issues such as birth defects, nerve damage and cancer, depending on a person’s exposure.  And what about the farmers who actually use these toxic chemicals day in and day out? Another issue to think about relates to the small farmers who grow and sell pesticide-free produce, but simply cannot afford the USDA’s certified organic label.  Whew! This is the struggle we face as consumers when trying to make healthy choices.

No doubt, organic foods are more expensive (the prices are dropping though!)  For those who are eco-health conscious and on a budget, it all boils down to making wise choices: understanding the terminology; knowing which fruits and vegetables contain the most amounts of pesticides. If you are fortunate enough to live near a farmer’s market, be sure to ask the vendors/farmers questions.  Ask how they raise their chickens; ask if they use chemical pesticides.  They may not be USDA certified organic, but it might make you feel better knowing it was grown locally and didn’t make a huge environmental footprint.

Important information:

According to the Environmental Working Group,

“When you see “organic” on a food label the food must be produced using growing methods that minimize soil erosion and maintain or enhance the fertility of the soil. Meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products must come from animals given organic feed and no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food may not be produced with conventional pesticides, petroleum-based or sewage-based fertilizers, genetically modified ingredients or irradiation.”

HIGHEST CONTAMINATED Fruits and Vegetables: (these are the ones you need to buy organic)
Bell peppers
Imported grapes

Keep in mind that thoroughly washing and peeling some of these will not detoxify the produce.  The chemicals are absorbed through the peel/skins.

LEAST CONTAMINATED FOODS: (notice that this list has thicker, inedible skins which protect the fruit/vegetable; you can buy these conventionally)
Sweet corn
Sweet peas

Getting confused?  Here’s a link to print out and keep in your bag to bring with you to the grocery store.  It’s your little cheat sheet when not sure whether to buy organic or convential produce.

There’s more than just organic produce to think about, right?  There are confusing labels on chicken, pork and beef.  Don’t let the “hormone free or no steroids added ” label fool you!  The FDA regulations prohibit any commercial grower from adding hormones or steroids to chicken and pork products.  What you need to look for is antibiotic free.  Despite the concerns, beef is not (yet) mandated to be hormone free.  This is where purchasing organic beef is a must. Harvard nutrition experts conclude “organically raised meat may prevent the spread of diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as mad cow disease.”

Lastly, dairy foods.  Organic or conventional?  The price difference can be staggering.  As mentioned above, beef isn’t mandated to be free from hormones. I, personally, purchase the organic brands when it comes to milk.  Publix grocery stores have their own line of natural foods cleverly coined, Greenwise.  Recently, they’ve added All Natural fat-free milk and Organic fat-free milk  to their line of growing products.  I’m anxiously waiting for other dairy products to follow suit!  According to the Greenwise glossary:

All-Natural Foods: These foods are minimally processed and contain no artificial colors, flavorings, preservatives or sweeteners

Organic foods: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) strictly enforces proper production of these foods by using the (specific) categories

Deciding whether or not to buy solely organic comes down to making sensible choices.  Educating yourself is imperative.  The choices become more complex when your budget is tight.  What I’ve learned through endless research, is the more certified organic (or local farmers who use natural pesticides but cannot afford the organic certification) you can buy, the better.  The data is always updating, so stay aware of the food safety changes. The Organic Consumers Association  has a food safety page  where you can learn about important organic food updates and find organic food resources and research.