By VANESSA HAMPTON
I used to make food choices solely based on how they would affect my number on the scale. I never put much thought into how the foods I was eating could or were affecting my health. Over the past few years, however, I have started putting a lot of effort into understanding how food choices impact not only bodyweight, but also how we feel, and our potential risk for disease and sickness. “Organic” is a hot button word surrounding food choices and it can be difficult to determine if this is something we need to pay attention to or just another marketing ploy.
To determine if buying organic-labeled products is something we need to worry with, we first need to know exactly what it means as it relates to our food. The USDA describes their organic standards like this: “Organic producers use natural processes and materials when developing farming systems—these contribute to soil, crop and livestock nutrition, pest and weed management, attainment of production goals, and conservation of biological diversity.”
Basically, to be certified as organic, the USDA is requiring that these producers refrain from using harmful pesticides, fertilizers, and other additives in crop production and livestock must be raised without the use of antibiotics or growth hormones. The organic certified farmers must adhere to the USDA list of allowable and disallowed chemicals. The standards are strict and you can find out more about the USDA organic certification standards and regulations by visiting https://www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/organic.
Now we know the definition of “organic” but why does it matter what they are using? Well, as far as crops are concerned, the harmful chemicals being used in crop production leave behind residue. This residue is toxic for our bodies. It has been linked to a wide range of health issues including autism, ADHD, obesity, and even some forms of cancer. As it pertains to the meats we eat, the hormones that farmers inject into their livestock to boost their growth and milk production are believed by some experts to alter the balance of hormones as, well as the gut bacteria in the human body. There is controversy over this topic, but these altered hormone levels in our body is believed to cause early puberty for our children as well as increase our risk for cancer throughout our lives.
Organic products are more expensive and I, myself, have a difficult time spending that kind of money on a regular basis in order to buy all organic products. Because of this, I try to just make sure I buy organic for the things that make the most sense. A good rule of thumb is if you are not eating the skin of a particular produce (such as an orange or an avocado), your risk of exposure to leftover pesticides is greatly reduced. As far as making the decision of organic verses conventional meat is concerned, organic is always going to be a better choice when you have the option. If you do choose conventional meat, however, just keep in mind that any pesticide residue will tend to be left in the fat and skin, so trim it off.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a great resource for helping us determine which foods we eat and products we use that we should be most concerned about. Each year they put out a list of produce that contains the highest amount of chemical pesticides. You can find their “Dirty Dozen” list here: https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/dirty-dozen.php . Additionally, they have a list of the produce with the least amount of chemical pesticides. Their “Clean 15 list” can be found here: https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/clean-fifteen.php. When it comes to buying packaged products, pay attention to the labels. Not all things labeled “organic” mean you can rely on them being completely chemical free. Only labels that state “100% organic” are just that. In order to be labeled simply “organic”, the government requires 95% of the ingredients in a product be certified organic. If you see “Made With Organic Ingredients” then the requirement is that at least 70% of the ingredients are certified organic.
The reality is that there is no such thing as perfect. Unless we all decide to be farmers ourselves, raise our own livestock and grow our own food, we are not always going to be able to avoid every chemical. Our bodies are equipped to handle small amounts of this but the goal is to minimize our exposure and protect our health for the long term. Buying organic as much as possible is the smart choice. Your grocery bill may be higher but, at the end of the day, your health is worth it.