Cracking the Organic Code

Organic foods are popping up all over town and causing a stir in the minds of food shoppers nationwide–What does organic mean?  Is it better or healthier?  Why does it cost so much?  Do I need to buy organic?  This podcast will crack the code and allow you to make an educated choice of whether to purchase organic or not.


Cracking the Organic Code – Podcast Transcript

Hi and welcome to Nutritionally Speaking. I’m your host, Michaela Ballmann.  Today we are going to be talking about Organic Foods.  Organic food is now the fastest growing sector in America’s food marketplace, with organic food sales growing by about 20% a year for several years and organic products being available in most conventional grocery stores.  Remember the days when organic products were way too expensive for any “normal”/non-rich person to buy?  You had to go out of your way to a random health food store to get any organic products.  Now, though still expensive, they are affordable for many people and are available in the majority of supermarkets from Stater Brothers to Vons and beyond!


What is Organic Foods?

So, what does organic mean?  What is organic food?  To state it as simply as possible, organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers from synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge (sounds lovely!), bioengineering, or ionizing radiation.  The farmers emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water, and the resulting organic meat, poultry, eggs, and diary products are from animals that are given NO antibiotics or growth hormones.

In order to be labeled organic, the farmer must pay a Government-approved certifier to inspect the farm to ensure that it meets USDA organic standards.  Interestingly, even the companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to the supermarket or restaurant must be certified too.


USDA has 3 categories for labeling organic foods

So, if you’ve been looking at food packaging recently, you may have seen some organic claims.  How do you know if that food is actually organic, and how much of it is organic?  The USDA has 3 categories for labeling organic products:

  • First, 100% Organic means it is made with 100% organic ingredients.  It can display the USDA organic logo and/or the specific certifying agent’s logo.  This is your pure, totally organic product.  For you organic “junkies”, this is your elixir!
  • Second, “Organic” means that the product contains 95% organic ingredients with the balance coming from ingredients on the approved National List (basically no GMOs, sewer sludge; stuff like that).  These may also display the USDA organic logo and/or the certifier’s logo.
  • Lastly, “Made with Organic Ingredients” means that it is made with at least 70% organic ingredients, 3 of which must be listed on the package, and the rest must be on the National List.  The products may NOT display the USDA organic logo, but they may display the certifier’s logo.

The take-home message is that if organic is the way you want to go, then look for the 100% organic, or simply the “organic” claim as well as the USDA logo.  The USDA organic seal is there to assure you of the quality and integrity of the organic product as well as the food’s origins.

Interesting side-note: Now if a farmer wanted to make his/her land “organic”, they would be undergoing a 3-year process.  Not until the 3rd year can the produce be stated as being fully organic because of building up the fertility of the soil takes time.  Bummer!  The first year doesn’t really count and the second year is considered a conversion year.  The farmer will be suffering during those years until he can finally get credit for his changes to organic methods.


Why choose organic foods?

So, what are the main reasons that consumers choose organic foods over conventionally grown foods?  First, they are free of pesticides.  Why are pesticides such a big deal?  Well, long-term exposure to pesticides has been associated with cancer, infertility and neurologic conditions, like Parkinson’s Disease.  Now, I said ASSOCIATED—that does not mean that pesticides cause these things, just that we are noticing an association.   Also, though you can remove some pesticide residues with washing, they can be absorbed into fruits and veggies.  The majority remains in the peel, so by peeling the food, you can lose a lot of the residues, but then you’re throwing away a lot of fiber and other valuable nutrients.  For those with children, small doses of pesticides are more dangerous than for adults, so organic produce would be of greater value to moms with young kids.

A good list to write down is the “Dirty Dozen” list of most commonly contaminated foods, which includes: apples, carrots, celery, cherries, imported grapes, kale, lettuce, nectarines, peaches, pears, sweet bell peppers, and strawberries.  You can keep this list with you when you go grocery shopping to remind you which items to buy organic if you so desire.

Other than being free of pesticides, what is the other main reason why people choose organic food?  It is claimed that organic foods contain higher levels of nutrients.  Though the jury is still out about that claim, and the specific amount or percentage more of nutrients, several recent studies showed that the organic foods tested contained more vitamin C, zinc, and iron, among other nutrients.


Why aren’t everyone buying Organic Foods?

So, with the benefits of having less pesticides and sewer sludge in our food, and possibly more nutrients, why wouldn’t everyone buy organic?  Well, first of all, it still is expensive!  Though you can sometimes find items that are the same price as their conventionally grown counterparts, this is not usually the case.  The higher price for organics takes into consideration the following:

  1. Organic farmers don’t get federal subsidies like conventional farmers do.  The price you pay is the price it pays to grow the food (+ a small profit).
  2. Organic farming is more labor intensive; you have to keep the bugs away without the pesticides, which automatically increases the workload!  You also get less output for your input—less crops are produced when less substances are used to help in farming.
  3. Organic farms are typically smaller and can’t sell in such large quantities as large conventional growers.

Other than cost, what are other reasons for not buying all organic food?  Buying local often involves buying conventional produce, and buying local has a lot of benefits!  Local produce competes with organic produce on the nutritional level since nutrient values peak right after harvest, when you buy it at the farmer’s market.  Since it doesn’t have to travel across the state, the country, or the world to get to you, it is fresher and contains more nutrients.

[In fact, some foods are susceptible to more pests are are not able to be grown economically without using at least some pesticides.  ]

Also, several foods are not commonly contaminated with pesticides.  This list includes:  asparagus, avocado, broccoli, kiwi, mango, onions, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and watermelon.

The important thing to remember is that we need to eat lots of fruits and vegetables.  If buying organic will increase your intake, or buying economical will allow you to buy more, then both are good!

So, the organic decision is up to you.  Now you know what organic means, what the meaning of the different labels and claims, and the pros and cons of buying and eating conventionally and organically grown food.  Maybe you’ll find that you will buy all organic food; maybe you will find that you don’t need to buy organics at all; and maybe you’ll find a nice medium.

That’s it for today!  Thanks for listening to this episode of Nutritionally Speaking.  See you next time!

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