By Amy Campbell, MS, RD, CDE
As a person with diabetes, you’ve most likely given some thought to what you choose to eat. Perhaps you’re counting carbohydrates or following a tailored eating plan; maybe you’re careful to make heart-healthy food choices or are trying to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your diet to help you lose weight. Whatever nutritional path you’ve headed down, undoubtedly you’ve noticed the ever-growing availability of organic foods.
Years ago, the term “organic” may have conjured up images of people with long hair eating bowls of granola or tofu and brown rice purchased at a health-food store. Things are different today.
Organic foods can be found right in your local grocery store and even in the closest Wal-Mart. And not all organic products are necessarily what you’d expect, either. Beer, wine, vodka, cosmetics, and even clothing are now all available in organic versions.
The decision whether to buy, say, organic bananas rather than regular bananas often boils down to the price. According to an article in Consumer Reports in 2006, almost two-thirds of US consumers bought organic foods and beverages in 2005, which was up from approximately half of consumers in 2004. Organic products are part of a fast-growing industry.
Organic foods in the United States are regulated by US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Since 2002, national standards have been implemented to help consumers make informed decisions when buying organic foods. This stemmed from the Organic Foods Production Act passed by Congress in 1990, which charged the USDA with developing national standards for organically produced agricultural products. According to the National Organic Program, created by the USDA, organic food is “produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations.”
This means that organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are not fed antibiotics or growth hormones. Furthermore, organic dairy products must come from animals that were fed organic feed for at least one year and given access to the outdoors. Organic food cannot be produced with most of the conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewer sludge, herbicides, antibiotics, hormones, bioengineering (such as genetic modification), or ionizing radiation. A certifier must inspect farms where organic food is grown and produced, and companies where organic food is handled and processed, to make sure that the appropriate steps have been taken to meet USDA organic standards.
The word “natural” on a food label does not necessarily mean “organic.” The USDA regulates the use of this term in regard to meat and poultry: Foods labeled “natural” cannot contain any artificial ingredients or added colors and must be only minimally processed. However, this meaning of “natural” currently only applies to meat and poultry, and not to other foods.
To simplify things for you when you shop, here’s a quick list of terms to know:
100% organic. The product contains 100% organic ingredients.
Organic. At least 95% of ingredients are organically produced.
Made with organic ingredients. At least 70% of the ingredients are organic.
Natural or all-natural. There is currently no standard definition for this term except for meat and poultry products. The USDA defines natural as not containing any artificial ingredients or added colors.
Free-range or free-roaming. Refers to products that come from animals who been provided with access to the outdoors. However, this can describe a wide variety of circumstances, and the US government standards are weak.
Many grocery retailers are taking things a step further by becoming “certified organic retailers,” a designation offered by the USDA that ensures the retailer will follow appropriate handling standards. For example, organic peaches can’t be stacked next to regular peaches, and organic deli meat can’t be sliced with the same meat slicer used for regular cold cuts.
There are several reasons people choose to “go organic.” Many people buy organic foods out of concern for the environment. Buying organic foods helps to support organic farmers, who use farming techniques that promote healthier soil and a healthier environment, ensuring quality and availability for future generations. Still other people choose to eat organic foods out of concern for animal welfare.
Then there are health reasons, which range from concern for the health of farmers and livestock, to more personal health-related reasons. For example, organic farmers are protected from the harmful effects of many pesticides. Consumers can avoid the effects of pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and other potentially harmful substances that may be found in foods. Pesticide residues can cross the placenta into a developing fetus. And children who eat organically have lower levels of pesticides in their bodies compared with children who eat a more conventional diet.
Some studies indicate that the use of synthetic hormones may increase cancer risk. The use of antibiotics by many conventional farmers to increase the growth rate in animals is linked to the development of drug-resistant bacteria. This means that there’s a chance that some antibiotics will no longer do the job to treat an infection. Finally, animal feed can sometimes contain toxins such as arsenic or heavy metals, which can be passed along to humans who eat products from these animals, accumulating in the body and leading to serious health problems.
Talk to anyone who has “converted” to eating organic foods and they’ll likely give you an earful about the benefits of going organic. Apart from the concern about pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics, there is some evidence that organically grown fruits and vegetables are more nutritious than conventionally grown produce. For example, a small handful of studies have shown that organic fruits and vegetables are, overall, higher in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients compared to conventional produce. Carotenes and polyphenols, two types of phytonutrients that have disease-fighting properties, may be found in higher amounts in organic produce. In fact, a recent study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry reports that organically grown tomatoes have higher levels of flavonoids (types of phytonutrients) than conventionally grown tomatoes. And according to a review published in the journal Nutrition Bulletin, organic potatoes are higher in vitamin C than conventionally grown potatoes.
However, this same review, as well as other studies, goes on to state that overall, there is limited data to show that organic foods really are more nutritious. The USDA makes no claims about organic foods being healthier or safer than conventionally produced foods. And critics of the organic movement claim that even 100% organic foods are not completely free of pesticides or toxins and that people can obtain the same health benefits from conventional foods. The American Dietetic Association’s position on organic foods is as follows: “Research shows that nutritionally there is no evidence that organic produce is better or safer than conventionally grown produce. Organic foods differ from conventional foods only in the way in which they are grown and processed.”
It’s important to remember that the amount of calories, carbohydrate, protein, and fat in organic foods is the same as in traditional foods. Therefore, eating an organically grown apple will have the same effect on your blood glucose as eating a regular apple, so the rules of carbohydrate counting and meal planning still apply.
Could there possibly be any reasons not to go organic? Perhaps you’ve been curious about the organic food products appearing in your local supermarket. But chances are, you’ve also experienced sticker shock at the high prices. Organic foods can cost anywhere from 50% to 100% more than conventional foods. Many people’s food budgets can’t accommodate the higher cost. Some reasons for the high cost are that organic farmers produce more labor-intensive foods, they typically grow organic foods on a smaller scale, and they don’t receive government subsidies the way other farmers do. But despite the price tag, more and more people are spending their money on organic foods, as evidenced by the over $15 billion in organic food and beverage sales in 2004. Consumer Reports states that organic foods sales are projected to be more than double that amount by 2009.
Something else to think about: Organic foods may spoil sooner than conventional foods. This is because no chemicals are used that would prolong shelf life. Mold, fungus, and contamination by insects and rodents are more likely to occur with organic foods. Organic foods may taste different from batch to batch, due to factors such as variations in weather and soil conditions, animal feed, and preparation.
Whether you’re already buying organic or are still mulling over the pros and cons, here are some guidelines that can help you eat healthier, benefit the environment and organic farmers, and save money all at the same time:
Some foods are definitely worth buying organic, but some are not. According to researchers at the Environmental Working Group in Washington, DC, you should consider buying organic versions of the following fruits and vegetables because the conventionally grown versions may contain high amounts of pesticides:
In addition to produce, it’s worth buying organically produced meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy foods because by doing so, you’ll limit your risk of exposure to mad cow disease, hormones, and antibiotics.
If you have the money to spend, you might consider buying organically grown asparagus, avocados, bananas, broccoli, cauliflower, corn, kiwifruits, onions, peas, and pineapples. However, pesticide residues are rarely found in their conventionally grown counterparts. Bread, cereal, pasta, potato chips, and canned or dried fruits and vegetables also tend to have low levels of contaminants, so you don’t necessarily reap any additional benefit by buying the organic versions of these foods. But if you decide to buy organic bread, for example, make sure that it’s labeled as either “100% Organic” or “USDA organic.”
It’s not worth the money to buy organic seafood because the USDA hasn’t developed organic certification standards for seafood. This means that being labeled organic does not guarantee that either wild or farmed fish is free of mercury or PCBs. California has a new law that prohibits seafood producers from using the term organic on fish and other seafood until state or federal standards are established.
Finally, don’t despair if your food budget doesn’t allow for organic foods. It’s better to eat conventionally grown fruits and vegetables than none at all. Remember that there is very limited evidence that organic produce is that much more nutritious than conventional produce. And you can limit your exposure to pesticides in your produce by buying fruits and vegetables in season, scrubbing them in clean water (no soap), trimming the tops and outer portions of leafy vegetables, and peeling and cooking them, if possible. As for meat, poultry, and fish, pesticides are more concentrated in animal fat, so you can reduce your exposure by trimming your meat of fat and removing the skin and fat from poultry and fish.
For more information on organic foods and products, visit the Organic Trade Association’s Web site at www.ota.com. The Organic Trade Association represents the organic industry in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, and its members include growers, retailers, shippers, and certification organizations.
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