Organic or Not?

Happy Earth Day! In honor of our precious Earth, let’s discuss organic foods. Organics is a $43 billion industry and growing every year. You may have noticed. You no longer have to go to specialty stores to find organic products because more and more mainstream grocery store chains are selling organic foods–with hefty price tags. While wandering through the grocery store, I frequently wonder whether organic food is worth the extra cost. As a result, I often buy some organic items, but not always. Maybe you too have wondered about organic, so here’s the low-down, including my tips for how to handle buying organic food.

What does organic mean?

  • Organic farming, by definition, may not use synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering (GMOs).
  • Animals raised for meat and dairy consumption must be raised in a natural environment with access to outdoors, must not receive hormones or antibiotics, and must be fed 100% organic feed.
  • If a food is labeled as “USDA organic,” the farm is required to follow strict regulations, it must be accredited, and there is a costly fee associated with the certification. However, this system is far from perfect and once a farm is certified, there is little to no monitoring to ensure organic practices continue over time.
  • Processed foods containing all organic ingredients may be labeled “100% organic.”
  • Processed foods containing 95% organic ingredients may be labeled “organic.”
  • Processed foods containing 70% organic ingredients may be labeled “made with organic ingredients.”

Is organic food better for the environment?

Yes. Organic farming is better for the environment and better for the treatment of animals for meat and dairy consumption. Organic farming leads to long-term sustainability, greater biodiversity and better soil. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the methods used in organic farming “must integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” These methods make it cost more to produce foods organically, but the environment may get what we pay for in the long run.

Is organic safer?

It seems so, but more evidence is needed. Studies have shown that organic produce can contain four to five times more pesticide residues than conventional produce.  And some studies have linked pesticide exposure to health conditions like Parkinson’s, cancer and birth defects, although these associations don’t prove pesticides cause  these diseases. However, tests on conventional produce have shown it contains levels well within the legal limits set by the USDA. So, the question remains, are the pesticide levels in conventional foods enough to cause health problems? No one knows. But it has been suggested the chemicals build up–in soil, in water, and in our bodies. If this is true, it could explain why some research suggests that those who work with pesticides may be at greater risk. So, the safest bet seems to be to reduce exposure to as many pesticides as possible. Eating organic foods as often as possible may help. But then again, are the non-synthetic “natural” pesticides used on organic food any better? And there’s the possibility organic foods can carry higher levels of potentially harmful bacteria.Unless you know where you food is coming from (which most likely means buying locally or growing your own), you may not be getting the “pesticide-free” organic food for which you think you are paying.

Of course, you may be choosing organic foods to avoid GMOs (genetically modified organisms) for fear they are unsafe. It does seem unnatural to be tinkering with nature, I’ll give you that. However, there is no conclusive evidence that GMOs are unsafe. According to the World Health Organization, “[Genetically modified] foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”  That said, science can’t prove absolutely there is no risk. So in my cautious opinion, it is smart to avoid processed foods for many reasons, only one of which is that they usually contain some type of GMO, usually in the form of corn or soy.

Is organic food more nutritious?

We are not sure yet. Research does not support that organic food is more nutritious than conventional food. Some studies have shown certain organic foods contain more nutrients than the conventional counterparts. For example, some studies have shown organic milk and beef appear to have more favorable fatty acid profiles than their conventional counterparts, and other studies have shown certain fruits or vegetables have more antioxidants than their conventional counterparts. But the data is limited and far from conclusive, so more research is needed. But it is also very difficult to determine whether observed nutrient differences have been due to other factors, such as genetic varieties of the produce, soil, ripeness at harvest time, or even the weather. For now, it appears nutrient profile is not a compelling reason to choose organic foods.

My Organic Tips:

The bottom line: only you can decide whether organic food is worth the extra cost. You are helping the environment and likely reducing your risk of exposure to chemicals, but most likely not getting significantly more nutritious foods than when you eat conventional ones. Consider these general tips for buying organic foods.

  1. Buy organic whenever you can if your means allow–but don’t avoid conventional produce if you can’t afford to buy organic. Check out the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” fruit and vegetable lists for guidance. Buying organic as often as you can potentially limits your lifetime exposure to pesticides and fertilizers, and fewer chemicals can’t be bad, for your body and the environment. But if you can’t afford to buy organic produce at all or even sometimes, don’t avoid conventional produce. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables far outweighs the risks of pesticides and fertilizers, and there are legal limits as to the amount of pesticides and fertilizers conventional foods may contain in order to keep the food supply safe.
  2. Buy local whenever you can. Some local farms employ “near organic” standards, but fall short of the expensive certification process. So, in practice, these farms may be providing produce, eggs, meat and dairy products that are just as good as organic, but without the certification. And perhaps at a more reasonable cost and with more accountability, since they are your neighbors. Ask about their standards. For example, one of my favorite local farms is The Neighborhood Harvest in Suffolk, VA. They are growing pesticide free, GMO-free greens and microgreens hydroponically and delivering them straight to your door every week! The greens are cut the day before they are delivered and their freshness is unreal…on the few occasions I haven’t used them quickly, they have lasted up to 10 days. You won’t find that quality and freshness in the grocery store, and I’m supporting my community. And you don’t have to wash them, so they are super convenient. And it’s bonus that your standing order ensures you eat your greens each day. Try them if you live in Hampton Roads (I’m not paid to say this!)
  3. Always wash your produce thoroughly with water before eating–organic or not–and even when the skin is not edible. Bacteria, fertilizers or pesticides on the skin can be spread to edible parts during cutting and preparation.
  4. Don’t be fooled by the word “natural” on food product labels.  A “natural” product is not necessarily as good as “organic,” nor is it necessarily better than a conventional product. This is because “natural” has no definition according to the FDA, except in the case of meat products, for which “natural” means the meats do not have “added color, artificial flavors or synthetic ingredients.” Therefore, “natural” meats are not held to the same standards of “organic” meats. These meat products and many other food products may use the term “natural” misleadingly; you may be wasting your money if these products cost more than other conventional options.
  5. Don’t be fooled into paying more for conventional pork or chicken when labels says “no hormones administered.” Of course, hormones are naturally present in all meat. But hormones are not allowed to be administered in any pork or chicken, so the meat manufacturer took no extra measures with these non-organic meats and it is misleading.  Buyer beware of spending extra money on these products that are not any better than cheaper conventional products.
  6. Don’t be fooled by “cage-free” or “free-roaming” on egg labels. This doesn’t guarantee the birds had access to outdoors, if that is important to you. “Free-range” is a better bet, since this means the birds are required to have access to outdoors for half their lives, but that said, it’s not monitored. Organic or local eggs where you know the producer’s standards meet your expectations are the best bet.
  7. Organic processed foods are still processed foods. Limit them and choose more whole, real foods (organic or not) whenever possible.
REFERENCES:

Environmental Working Group “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” Lists

Food and Drug Administration Basic Questions

Organic Trade Association

Baranski M et al. Higher antioxidant concentrations and less cadmium and pesticide residues in organically-grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses.  Br J of Nutr. 2014;Sept 14;112(5):794-811.

Freire C et al. Pesticide exposure and Parkinson’s disease: an epidemiological evidence of association. Neurotoxicology. 2012 Oct;33(5):947-71. 

Smith-Spangler C. et al. Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review. Ann Intern Med. 2012;157(5):348-366.

US Department of Agriculture Organic Agriculture

Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects. National Academies Press. Published 2016. Accessed April 22, 2017.

 

“Moderation” Makes Me Cringe

A while ago now, I read yet another nutrition-related news article that stated “moderation” was key–and I cringed. Then it hit me, I am a moderation-hating registered dietitian (RD). You will no longer hear me use the word “moderation” or worse, the phrase “everything in moderation.” You heard that right. Hear me out…

I used to preach “everything in moderation” as much as the next nutritionist. Especially when friends or acquaintances asked me on the fly for nutrition advice. Or when I addressed a group of people and couldn’t delve into individual specifics. I walked a line; I wanted to promote a balanced and sustainable way of eating, while not giving too much bad news. And I also towed the line with my fellow RDs; moderation was our mantra. However, recently I have become frustrated with the ambiguity and the political correctness of the “moderation” philosophy, which is geared toward the masses and therefore, grossly oversimplified.

I can see how this phrase came to be. Unfortunately, I think nutrition experts (like me), food industry, government, and consumers are all partly responsible for this ill-defined, mass-communicated, often ineffective approach to eating. But the fact that moderation has gotten out of hand as a philosophy is as much my fault as anyone else’s. As a nutrition expert, I now believe it is negligent telling people they can eat everything in “moderation” knowing it’s likely not specific enough to help them improve their health.

But in all honestly, one of the reasons I haven’t been posting (besides a busy life) is because I have been hesitant to say it. Afraid of turning people off immediately and not getting through to help them. Afraid of taking a stand when science may disprove me in the future. And I honestly think even our political climate lately has affected me so very personally, so that I have been generally afraid of voicing an opinion. Eeek. How meek of me…

Am I a middle-child peace keeper having a mild mid-life crisis? Maybe, but the bottom line is this: I’m over it. (Until the next one.) And recipe posts are not all I have to share (although it is my pleasure to offer this practical information since I’m doing it for my family anyway). That said, I can’t make any promises about posting a certain number of times a week, although more frequently than once every five months should be doable. Ha. Blogging on my own terms…ah.

Back to my main point…in our defense, sometimes we nutrition experts have engaged in the moderation conversation when it’s not the right time or place (in a group or in public), when what we really need is more time together to make individualized changes that you can live with to improve your health. But I now think it’s more harmful than helpful to give a cursory spiel of moderation even in these situations.

The way I see it, suggesting moderation for the masses can actually hinder individual behavior change. For example, sometimes during an individual counseling session— just when I think we have made progress together, forming some specific behavior change goals—I hear my moderation philosophy echoed back to me. At this point, it is as clear as a door slamming in my face that the conversation is being shut down. (We all do that sometimes, don’t we? Sabotage ourselves before we begin when we are not ready to make changes.) But when this happens, I am only half as frustrated as the people who later realize that eating in moderation hasn’t helped them achieve their food-related goals. I can only imagine how devastated they must feel, blaming me or themselves, or both. And the viscous cycle of weight-loss efforts and failures continues…

Just look around to see how moderation fails us with weight loss. Some people eat moderately and are not overweight. Some people eat moderately and are overweight. Some people do not eat moderately, and are not overweight. And yes, some people do not eat moderately and are overweight. Clearly, “eating in moderation” isn’t effective for everyone. It’s not simply a matter of increasing physical activity. There are many overweight marathon runners. And I strongly believe achieving a healthy weight is not only a matter of will power either. Obese people have different genes that are making it harder to be thin than people who are not obese. Weight control for overweight or obese people is an uphill battle that is definitely an injustice, yet deserves no judgment—only useful tools. And “eating in moderation” is simply not specific enough to be one of them.

I think the moderation philosophy also came into being because we haven’t wanted to negatively talk about certain foods. We don’t want to take away your eating pleasure by stigmatizing “bad” foods. Eating should be enjoyable! But what you may not realize (I didn’t for a while) is that certain food industry lobbyists go to great lengths to make sure government directed guidelines don’t identify and/or quantify “bad” foods. You could say I’m cynical (BTW, I think that’s when you know you’re getting old, when everything is a conspiracy!) but this really happens. So, we nutrition experts have been left frequently hoping we all have a “sixth sense” that helps us figure out how to balance mostly healthy foods with a few treats now and then, because that seemed reasonable. But it’s not reasonable or helpful.

Much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news, I care enough to spend my priceless free time saying this (among other things): there are indeed “bad” foods. While we might disagree on some, most unbiased experts can’t deny sugar-containing foods are among the worst. So, we’ll start there. Foods containing the refined white stuff we know as sucrose, the syrups (corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup) and all of the 50+ other names for sugar (cane sugar, brown sugar, and even honey, maple syrup, agave, etc.) are not healthy when eaten in excessand they almost always are eaten in excess if you’re not purposefully avoiding them.

Sorry, but there’s no sugar-coating it. And even though it may make me a nutrition extremist, I have to take a strong stance against sugar (all types)—and even a high carbohydrate diet (more on that later)—because I feel you should know it’s a serious health hazard. And it’s not just in regards to people who are overweight or obese. Sugar is linked to many different diseases—which means you might want to read on whether your weight is in a healthy range or not.

To be clear, I am not trying to take away your eating pleasure. Anyone who knows me knows I believe eating should be truly enjoyable! But I also firmly believe eating whatever your body craves is not the only way to enjoy eating.  Changing your mindset, “resetting your body” with easy, real foods, and focusing on many positive and social eating behaviors (shopping at local farmers’ markets, cooking with friends, eating as a family, etc.) will allow you to enjoy foods in a simpler, more meaningful way. I passionately believe (and there is some evidence to support this belief) “there is something in” these social connections we make while eating. And living overseas, especially in Italy, made it even more apparent that we are often lacking those connections in our American culture.

Who doesn’t crave simplicity and meaningful social connections in this often crazy, fast-paced, disconnected lifestyle we live? I think it’s a great start to eat easy, real food at your next snack or meal. Stay tuned for more on all of these themes, starting with more thoughts and data on sugar.

 

“Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost.”

I love this quote (by J.R.R. Tolkien). It is so reassuring. Because during the past few years I have been wandering more than I’d like to admit.

I mean, literally, I can’t stop wandering every 3 to 4 years because we are a military family. And I wouldn’t trade the wonderful opportunities we’ve had to explore 30 countries during 7 of the past 10 years. Especially because it gave me an excuse to not feel guilty about staying home full time with my three children.  But in this time, I have been pondering nutrition from the sidelines, which I feel has required more effort in keeping up with continually changing nutrition science and trends. I am easily distracted by my other jobs and interests and not surrounded daily by my knowledgeable nutrition peers to “talk shop” and stay current. Even though I’ve been inspired by other food cultures, if I’m honest, I have been floundering in my own “expertise”–and therefore, at times I have even questioned what to feed my own family. Gasp. I tell you this because mommy self-doubt even affects nutrition experts!

It didn’t happen overnight, but I began to feel unnerved a few years ago when my husband, B, a pediatrician, began an in-depth self-study of nutrition in his free time in an effort to help his patients achieve a healthy weight. He often discussed his readings with me, but I myself felt a bit out of touch with nutrition science. Wait, who’s supposed to be the nutrition expert here? (But you could ask me anything about travel planning in Europe or being a mother to 3 girls–not that I always do either well, necessarily!)

Well, ultimately, my husband’s dedication to help people with their nutrition inspires me to stay in touch with the latest nutrition. The bottom line is, the more I have delved in, the more uncomfortable I have become with many conventional nutrition guidelines. At first, I resisted my doubts, as all good dietitians would. How could I disagree with expert nutrition committees forming the guidelines?  But once I got past feeling overwhelmed, I realized questioning the evidence is never a bad thing to do, especially in the evolving field of nutrition. And in questioning, I reminded myself I am, indeed, a nutrition expert and it’s my responsibility to question the science. And now I’m on a roll with topics I want to share with you!

The number one thing I have wrestled with is whether our diets should really be so high in carbohydrate and grain-based, as the USDA dietary guidelines suggest. And in full disclosure–I, like Oprah, love bread.

But the list of things I have been grappling with goes on… Is saturated fat bad? Is “moderation” really the right approach to eating? Does exercise help you lose weight? Why is everyone you know eating a gluten-free diet? Why are there still so many overweight and obese people in America???

Well, I can’t claim to know the answer to every nutrition-related question. But I will certainly explore many of these topics, slowly but surely, in an attempt to find out the latest information–for you and me. Nutrition research is complicated, and economics, politics, and the media have such influence–you really have to tease out the actual evidence. And sometimes, more often than not it seems, the evidence is lacking. When it is, I will say so. When it is fairly conclusive, I will say so. But when nutrition guidelines suggest evidence is conclusive and it is not, I will also say so. No one is paying me to say otherwise. Oh, the freedom that provides!

In a nutshell, I describe my approach to nutrition as “unconventional in a conventional way.” I don’t believe you need special foods or products to be healthy. I believe in the natural simplicity of eating real foods as much as possible, as opposed to processed foods or proprietary supplements. You might agree this makes me pretty conventional. Boring maybe? (I hope to show you that’s not true, at least with regards to the way we eat!) But I am unconventional as a dietitian in that I no longer believe the nutrition guidelines always provide the most evidence-based advice. Nor have they ever provided hands-on practical suggestions for what exactly to feed your family.

So, this blog is my mission to share with you my every-day journey grappling with the science of nutrition, savoring delicious real foods, and balancing my humanity (read: vulnerability) along the way. Most importantly, I hope you will find something meaningful in my musings. It will feel like we are wandering, sometimes literally and sometimes figuratively, but I hope you will stick with me and relate with your food and nutrition experience. And even if we get a little lost, I’ve come to realize there’s growth in that.