The world of nutrition and healthy eating is one that’s filled with information — some of it contradictory. One nutrition expert might recommend a low carb or high fiber diet. Another might caution against processed foods, artificial sweeteners or food dyes. Others argue against genetically modified foods.
Many wonder what organic food actually is and whether it can help achieve the goal of healthy eating. Let’s explore what organic food is and why some Waukee 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 meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products do not take antibiotics or growth hormones.
The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) defines organic food as “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 three categories for labeling organic products:
• 100 percent organic: Made with 100 percent organic ingredients;
• Organic: Made with at least 95 percent organic ingredients;
• 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.
Is organic better?
That’s a difficult question to answer, and the answer might also change depending on what’s important to the consumer.
Some consumers eat organic because they want pesticide- and chemical-free food, and some people subscribe to the lifestyle because they believe it’s healthier. Hy-Vee Dietitian Erin Good says she likes to find out a person’s goal is. She steers him or her to the produce aisle if he or she wants to start eating organic.
“It’s obvious what is organic and what is not,” she says. “If you go to the meat counter, there are natural products or organic products versus grass-fed beef and a lot of different labels, so it can be harder to figure things out. The health market also has more organic products.”
For those concerned about healthy eating, Good says there’s 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.
“Currently there is no strong scientific evidence saying organic is healthier,” Good says. “It’s more of a personal preference.”
People can 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. 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 states.
The mere presence of pesticide residue on fruits and vegetables doesn’t necessarily mean they are at harmful levels either. Good says people who are concerned can use fruit and vegetable wash to remove a lot 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 you’d eat the outside of, 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 fruit and vegetable is better than none. Those who are unable to afford higher-priced organics shouldn’t shy away from buying a “dirty” conventionally grown counterpart.
It’s also important to consider the fact that processed foods that are organic are not necessarily healthier than non-organic whole foods.
“You still need to look at the label and see what’s in it,” Good says. “Organic macaroni and cheese or organic fruit snacks aren’t always the best choice. Sugar or fat can be added in. If you make homemade food, you know what’s going in it and can control ingredients that way.”
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 was unsuccessful in her search. She then started her own company, Prudent Produce, which delivers organic produce throughout the metro, including to Waukee.
Prudent Produce allows customers to purchase a weekly box of organic produce delivered 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 love 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.’ ”
Robin Spear is one Waukee resident who believes in choosing organic foods. She says, for her, it’s about eliminating any additional chemicals or pesticides that she and her family are exposed to.
“For my family, I’m trying to avoid it because I believe any toxins, whether from processed foods or pesticides or just having a bad lifestyle, it’s hard for your body to get all that out of your system,” she says. “So since we’re exposed to so much, I want to take one thing out. It’s one less toxic thing I put in my body.”
Spear makes a conscious choice to choose organic produce, meats and eggs and even dairy products. For her, the extra cost is worth it. That said, she says her choice is simply a decision she’s made based on her own feelings and beliefs, and she still thinks those who choose otherwise are perfectly justified.
“I grew up on conventionally grown food,” she says. “I don’t think the pesticides are necessarily the problem, but it’s just one thing to eliminate. I believe in farming, and I love that farmers do what they do. And for those who don’t believe in it, that’s ok, too. I got scared when my dad got cancer, and it was one of things they talked about, so it was a change I decided to make. I’m glad I did.”