With a new year often comes resolutions to become healthier and eat better. But the world of nutrition and healthy eating is one that’s filled with tons of information — some of it contradictory — that might make the task seem overwhelming.
Different schools of thought and nutrition experts might recommend low carb or high fiber diets. Others might caution against processed foods, artificial sweeteners or food dyes. Still others argue against genetically modified foods and push organics. That might leave people wondering about organic food and whether it can help achieve the goal of healthy eating. Let’s explore what organic food is and why some Ankeny families are choosing to go that route when it comes to feeding their families.
What does organic mean?
Simply stated, organic produce and other ingredients are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms or ionizing radiation. Animals that produce organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products are not given antibiotics or growth hormones.
The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) defines organic as follows: 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. Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled “organic,” a government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.
The USDA has identified for three categories of labeling organic products: 100 percent organic: Made with 100 percent organic ingredients; Organic: Made with at least 95 percent organic ingredients; and Made With Organic Ingredients: Made with a minimum of 70 percent organic ingredients with strict restrictions on the remaining 30 percent including no GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Products with less than 70 percent organic ingredients may list organically produced ingredients on the side panel of the package, but may not make any organic claims on the front of the package.
“It can be confusing,” says Hy-Vee dietitian Jenny Norgaard. “If a product just says ‘made with organic ingredients,’ then 70 percent of the ingredients are organic. Some things like Clif bars are a good example where it might say that, so those are the main classifications.”
Is organic better?
That’s a difficult question, as the answer might change depending on what’s really important to the consumer.
“I find that there are consumers who eat organic because they want pesticide free and chemical free, and some people just feel they should do it because it’s healthier,” Norgaard says. “We come across so many different reasonings behind why they’re asking about organic foods. I want to find out what their goal is.”
For those who are concerned about healthy eating, she says there is more to consider than just whether something is organically grown. Organic food is free of pesticides, but that doesn’t necessarily make it higher in vitamins or minerals.
“It’s a personal preference, but I don’t feel eating 100 percent organic is realisitic, and it’s not required to be healthy,” she says. “There is so much nutrition in whole foods that aren’t organic. I think the focus for us as dietitians is what does your plate look like? Add more vegetables and more healthy foods.”
Norgaard says she recommends people check out www.safefruitsandveggies.com for information on conventionally grown produce and organic produce. The website is devoted to scientific information about the issue.
Ultimately, according to many experts, people need to be eating more fruits and vegetables — period. Health experts and scientists say produce, grown either conventionally or organically, is safe to eat. Not only are conventionally and organically grown fruits and vegetables safe and nutritious, Americans should be consuming more of these, not less, if they hope to reduce their risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity, the website claims.
The mere presence of pesticide residue on fruits and vegetables doesn’t necessarily mean they are at harmful levels either. Norgaard says people who are concerned can use fruit and vegetable wash to remove much of those residues, though plain water will remove a lot of it as well, if there is any present.
For people who want to try organics, she recommends choosing foods that you eat the outside, like an apple versus a banana. Organic proponents have devised lists detailing which foods might be “dirtier” than others — berries as opposed to onions, for example. But nutrition experts argue that any fruits and vegetables are better than no fruits or vegetables. Those who are unable to afford higher priced organics shouldn’t be scared away from buying a “dirty” conventionally grown counterpart, they say.
Angie Laverty decided to give juicing a try, and she wanted to use organic produce. When she started shopping, though, she was discouraged at how expensive it was compared to conventional produce. She started looking around, trying to find a place that would put together boxes of organic produce at a reasonable price, but she couldn’t find anything like that. So she started her own company, Ankeny-based Prudent Produce, which delivers organic produce throughout the metro.
Prudent Produce allows customers to purchase a weekly box of organic produce delivered right to their doorsteps. Each week customers can go online to see what will arrive in their boxes that week, and they are also able to swap out ingredients based on their own preferences. There are three box sizes, depending on how big your family is or how much you want to eat.
“We’re year round,” she says. “It’s not all local. It comes from distributors. During the growing season, we deal with local farm. But I like Bunny Luv carrots, and we offer them all year round whether they’re local or not. There are some things I want because it’s a better product. So we give them a better price than if they go to the store. We get the best from wherever we can get it.”
Laverty says she decided organic was the way to go because of the quality. She says fruits especially have a better taste. She also believes it’s more healthy.
“I want the produce without the toxins,” she says. “I think it’s common sense. I didn’t think about it until I started juicing. I do think people are starting to realize ‘Maybe I don’t want to be eating these things over the long haul.’ ”
For those who want to eat healthier, Lavery says it’s important to start small so you don’t get overwhelmed. Start replacing things with organics as they run out. Try organic produce. Eat more whole foods.
“Then when you go have a Big Mac, you feel bad,” she says. “Then your eyes open up, and you start thinking about all the stuff you can replace. You have to be convinced that it’s the right thing that it’s an upfront cost, and you’re saving medical costs and expenses. It’s a lifestyle thing. You have to be really committed to it.”
Ankeny mom Julia Zaffos says it was sunscreen that got her started on the road to eating organic. She was looking for a chemical-free sunscreen for her young son who is sensitive to many ingredients in traditional products. She ended up finding Ava Anderson non-toxic products, and she has her own business selling their products now.
“We are becoming more aware of all the chemicals in products and in foods,” she says. “We started paying a little more attention to what we were eating, and so it was a gradual progression. We started with the dirty dozen. Now we try to look out for GMOs and avoid them where we can.”
Zaffos is also a Prudent Produce customer, and the family eats meat her husband brings home from hunting. They’re currently trying to find a source for chicken and pork.
For those who say there isn’t much benefit to organic, Zaffos says they’re entitled to their opinion, but for her and her family, the risks aren’t worth it.
“My goal is to reduce the chemical burden on my and my family’s bodies,” she says. “Of course we can’t avoid every potential danger, but we can take steps to limit our exposure to as many harmful chemicals and pesticides as possible.”