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New Fit ‘N Healthy Column: Is organic food really better?

Mary

By Mary Rigney, owner of CrossFit Rockwall. Organic beer? Organic Oreos? Is organic food just the newest food fad or should we support 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.
  • 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 (appetizing, right?). You can read more on organic labeling here.

In the case of animal products, organic also 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?

Produce

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 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”

  1. Peaches
  2. Apples
  3. Sweet Bell Peppers
  4. Celery
  5. Nectarines
  6. Strawberries
  7. Cherries
  8. Lettuce
  9. Grapes (imported)
  10. Pears
  11. Spinach
  12. Potatoes (but these shouldn’t be on your grocery list for other reasons)

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:

“Clean Foods”

  1. Onions
  2. Avocado
  3. Sweet Corn – frozen (remember, though, corn isn’t really a vegetable)
  4. Pineapple
  5. Mango
  6. Sweet Peas – frozen
  7. Asparagus
  8. Kiwi
  9. Bananas
  10. Cabbage
  11. Broccoli
  12. Eggplant

Don’t see your favorite fruit or veggie on the above lists? The EWA ranked 43 foods in total. See them all here. And click here for a handy wallet-sized list of these foods to take to the store with you.

Meat

First, absolutely include meat in your diet, no matter where you buy it or how it was raised. Ideally, however, we want to eat the meat of animals that were not fed grains. Grain-fed animals are not nearly as healthy as their grass-fed or pasture-raised counterparts for numerous reasons. The best place to find high quality, healthy meats, is at a local farm. Ask them for information on how the animals are raised. Look for cows that ate grass all their lives. Similarly, look for pasture-raised pigs and chickens that were not fattened up with grains.

When buying meat at the grocery store, look for meat that contains “no hormones” and “no antibiotics” (the organic label has this covered). But beware: nearly all beef you buy at the store eat grass at some point in their life, but are switched to a grain-based diet a few weeks before slaughter, ruining their beneficial omega 3 to omega 6 ratio. This makes “grass-fed” labeling useless and misleading. Instead, look for “100% grass-fed” or “grass-finished” meats.

It doesn’t get any better than buying your meat direct from the farm – it tastes great, is great for you, and is extremely humane. But, if that’s not realistic for you, and you’re not sure how your meat was raised, remember that most toxins in traditionally raised meats (i.e. grain-fed) are stored in the fat, so opt for the leanest cuts you can find. But, if you buy from a trusted farm, don’t let that fat go to waste!

The Bottom Line

While you don’t need to spend money on many organic items, the “Dirty Dozen” is likely worth the extra few cents. For meats, we suggest buying the best you can afford. Eat high quality protein with each meal. Whether that comes from ground beef bought at WalMart or 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 could use the extra cash to improve your family’s health and quality of life? 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 farmers markets, talk to the growers and ask questions about how their food is grown and produced. It may take slightly more time and effort…but isn’t your health worth it?

For more information, contact Mary Rigney at CrossFit Rockwall, 214-454-XFIT (9348), 352-262-8978 (cell).

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