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What's the 411 about organic foods?

With the rise of buzz words like "sustainability", "environmentally friendly", and "carbon footprint", you can bet there is also a rise in eating organically.

Day 20: Buzz words, evidence, and health

Where an organic section in a grocery store was a rare find in previous years, there are now organic food aisles located in 3 out of 4 conventional grocery stores. So, this begs the question, is eating organically healthier? Before I answer this from my point of view, let's first define what organic means.

Organic products and foods must be processed in a manner that promotes the reuse of resources, are not harmful to the environment, and preserves biodiversity. This means there is no synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, antibiotics, or hormones. If a company abides by this and the product is deemed to be 95% organically made, it is classified as organic. Conventional foods may contain pesticides and antibiotics. Although antibiotics used are low dose antibiotics, they have been attributed to antibiotic-resistant food-borne illnesses and have made treatment more challenging.

There is no long-term evidence to suggest that eating a particular way would increase cancer risk, although this answer likely awaits us in years ahead. There are also terms like "free-range" that implies that animals have unlimited access to food and water and can free range outdoors at their leisure. "Natural" means there are no artificial ingredients and is minimally processed. However, these labels are only regulated if the product is meat, poultry, or eggs. "Grass fed" is straightforward and indicates that the food given to the animals is indeed grass as opposed to grain. This DOES NOT limit the use of antibiotics, hormones, or pesticides.

The other factor that should be considered, although it does not reflect nutrition status, is the cost. Organic is definitely more expensive and will only continue to increase. I should also mention that eating organically doesn't mean it's always healthier. There are plenty of organic food items that are still high in processed sugar or high in saturated fat. I say this to say that, just because it has the organic label, doesn't mean that it is nutritionally better.

To recap, organic is referring to the use of chemicals, pesticides, and antibiotics, not nutrition status. So, is eating organic healthier? Probably, however, it isn't always feasible to do so. It isn't helpful to buy organic if it will decrease your ability to provide adequate quantities of food to your family. My advice? Stress is still your number 1 risk for disease. Try to buy organic when purchasing meats, poultry and eggs, and porous produce like berries. Buying frozen berries is a good way to decrease cost as well. Foods that have thick skins, like bananas, are less likely to be affected by pesticides since their skin is harder to penetrate. If buying organic is too expensive, eating conventional fruits and vegetables are still 100% recommended. The benefits far exceed eliminating them all together. Just make sure you are always washing your produce really well to rid of any residual pesticides. And, don't forget, if you want to see what your health factors baseline is, click below and come in for a health and wellness assessment. Take care of you.

Jen Pfeilfer, MS, APD

Dr. Thomas R. Schneider, Medical Director

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