One of the best parts of my job is helping people set health goals, focusing on real food and what they should eat to fuel their bodies. Eating organic sometimes comes up during these conversations. Organic food is usually more expensive than non-organic, but its health benefits are real.
Here is the lowdown on the benefits of organic food and some ways to do it on a budget.
No evidence supports the proposition that organic food is nutritionally superior to conventional food in terms of macronutrients and calories. However, unlike conventional agriculture, organic food is grown without the use of chemical pesticides, according to rules promulgated by the federal government. According to the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, pesticides can weaken and compromise the immune system and may cause cancer and nerve damage.
Organic meat is also free of antibiotics and growth hormones, which can interfere with normal gut bacteria and cause intestinal problems.
Organic practices ban the use of food additives such as artificial sweeteners, which can have a laxative effect and may negatively impact metabolism.
A 2012 study in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture discovered higher antioxidants, including vitamin C, in organic broccoli compared to non-organic.
Organic food generally tastes better because it's lower in chemicals and pesticides. If fruits and vegetables taste good, you're more likely to include them in your diet.
Organic farming is also better for the environment, encouraging soil and water conservation and reducing pollution.
Which foods should I buy organic?
Not all organic foods are created equal. Some may be just fine in their conventional forms. According to the Environmental Working Group's "Dirty Dozen" list, the most contaminated conventional foods are apples, celery, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, hot peppers, nectarines, peaches, potatoes, spinach, strawberries and bell peppers. The "Clean Fifteen," or least contaminated foods, do not need to be purchased organic, based on their growing practices and because their outer layers are usually removed before they are eaten.
You may choose to buy organic meat and dairy products to limit consumption of antibiotics and growth hormones.
When it comes to seafood, a report from Greenpeace discloses extensive use of hormones and herbicides in farmed fish and shrimp. But conventional shellfish are fine, because even if they are farmed, they are not kept in ponds or treated with chemicals.
Making sense of labels
With descriptions such as "all-natural," "locally grown" and "free-range," food labels can be confusing. In the United States, foods that are 95 to 100 percent organic have the green USDA organic label on the front. Tricky labels include "made with organic ingredients" and "contains organic ingredients," which means they contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients but don't fit the strict definition of "organic."
"All-natural" is meaningless. All-natural meats may still contain antibiotics and hormones; the label has no relevance to how the animals are fed.
Be sure to look for the USDA label when shopping organic in conventional supermarkets.
Keeping it affordable
Labor costs are higher for organic food, so it tends to cost more than conventional versions. But your health is the best investment you can make, so although buying organic may cost slightly more, it does not have to be outrageously expensive.
Here are some ways to keep organic food affordable:
- Shop at local farmer's markets.
- Buy produce in season.
- Join a co-op and share the goods with friends and family members.
- Plan your meals and eat out less.
- Be selective: keep in mind the "Dirty Dozen" and "Clean Fifteen" lists.
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