It’s a question that’s been around for centuries and, in most families, it’s still the “question of the day” just about every day.
What’s for dinner?
And the questioning only begins there.
Will the kids eat it? Is it good for us? How do I make it? Am I going to get home and then have to go back to the grocery store because I don’t have the right stuff? Why can’t I just throw something in the microwave…again? And is it really so wrong to drive through and pick something up, the same way we did this morning for breakfast?
Let’s get real: June Cleaver had all day, but most families today have two full-time working parents, and it’s not just women taking care of kitchen chores anymore. (Whew, thank goodness!)
Now, amid all the challenges of answering the question of what’s for dinner or what’s for breakfast, comes a new question: Does it really matter if I’m buying organic or conventional foods?
We asked a graduate of that university famous for making food decisions based on science, not fad. Amber Kastler earned her bachelor of science degree in dietetics from Iowa State University. She is currently a registered and licensed dietician (R.D., L.D.) based at the Hy-Vee Food Store in Fort Dodge.
The question of whether or not to go organic is loaded with shades of politics and pop culture, but Kastler prefers to stick with science.
“The presumption with a lot of people is that organic is healthier,” she says. “But nutritionally speaking, organic foods and conventional foods are nutritionally exactly the same. They have the same amount of fat, the same amount of nutrients. The only difference is in how they are produced.”
Largely, it boils down to a matter of choice and personal preference, according to Kastler.
“In the world of nutrition, I have learned that there is a wide spectrum of where you’re at nutritionally,” Kastler says.
For some folks, the health goal may be to trim back the number of sodas they sip every day. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those folks who want to put nothing in their bodies that doesn’t appear naturally on earth.
Most folks are probably somewhere in the middle.
To Kastler, the choice of whether or not to go organic is far less important than simply ensuring that one is consuming a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, whether they are organically produced or the fruits of conventional agriculture.
“It’s up to the consumer. If you’re pregnant, or someone at high risk for disease, none of us want to be putting chemicals into our body,” she says. “But I’m more concerned about getting people to eat fruits and vegetables. Most people I see aren’t to the point where they want 100 percent organic.”
But even going organic will not mean that foods are completely free of chemicals, Kastler notes.
“Organic producers also user fertilizer, but they use organic fertilizer,” she says.
Indeed, there is a lengthy list of inputs that organic producers are allowed to use as part of their food production. But rather than using synthetic inputs, organic producers use crop inputs that are plant or animal based. To be fully certified organic, they must also show that the ingredients used in the making of the inputs are also organic. It can be a long and costly process to be certified organic.
While there is no difference in nutrition, one benefit that Iowa State University has noted from organic food production is the increased crop rotation. Organic producers grow a wider variety of crops and change it up frequently, which can help build soil health.
For people who are concerned about the residues of crop production that may or may not be on their fruits and vegetables, Kastler recommends a compromise that is both health and budget friendly.
“What I tell people is if you are concerned about organic products, then you should follow the ‘Dirty Dozen/Clean 15’ from the Environmental Working Group — they’re wonderful, and they do a lot of research on organic production,” Kastler says.
The principal here is to purchase organic foods from the ‘Dirty Dozen’ list, which includes those foods most likely to have residue left behind from crop production. Likewise, purchase conventional foods from the ‘Clean 15,’ which are less likely to be found with residue. This combination should result in the lowest risk of exposure to any residue from either conventional or organic production.
“If you can afford to go for some of the organics, but not all of them, go for the ‘Dirty Dozen,’ those are the ones where traditionally more chemicals and pesticides are used in their products because those particular products are more prone to diseases or pests and insects,” she explains. Choosing organic may be the healthier choice for the Dirty Dozen.
Kastler understands cost is a factor for families today and wants to make sure they are making healthy choices that are still affordable.
“If you’re concerned about residue on your fruits and vegetables, buy the organic from the ‘Dirty Dozen’ list, and buy the rest from the ‘Clean 15,’ because organic is much more expensive to produce, and I don’t want cost to be a factor as to why people don’t eat fruits and vegetables,” she says.
Foods on the Dirty Dozen, with a higher risk of reside, include apples, celery, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, hot peppers, imported nectarines, peaches, potatoes, spinach, strawberries, sweet bell peppers, kale, collard greens and summer squash. (OK, it’s a few more than a dozen, but who’s counting?) If residue is a concern, purchase organic choices of the foods listed above.
Foods on the Clean 15, with a lower risk of residue include asparagus, avocados, cabbage, cantaloupes, sweet corn, eggplant, grapefruit, kiwi, mangos, mushrooms, onions, papaya, pineapple, frozen sweet peas and sweet potatoes. To save money, purchase conventional choices of these foods.
“If you can’t afford organic, buy the conventional product; it’s still important,” she adds.
As a health professional, Kastler’s primary concern — regardless of whether one is dealing with organic or conventional foods — is proper food storage and preparation.
Once upon a time, when folks grew most of their own food, they understood the need to clean their food, because they saw where it came from. They knew that dogs, chickens, deer, and other animals run through the fields and leave behind all sorts of “organic substances.” Now, with most families farther removed from the farm, reminders about washing fruits and vegetables seems to be of greater importance.
“If you’re washing your fruits and vegetables, which you should be doing no matter if you’re buying organic or conventional foods, you can get quite a bit of that residue off,” Kastler says. “Of course, you’re not going to get 100 percent of it off, but you’re going to get a lot of it off.”
Back to her goal of getting people of all ages to simply eat more fruits and vegetables, Kastler says getting kids involved in the kitchen can help encourage them to try new things.
“If you do have a family, your family will see you working with the produce, and they’ll become interested,” she says. “It’s a great opportunity to bring your family around in the kitchen so they can learn about what they are eating.”
Kastler says she and her husband, a farmer, were raised on the typical Midwestern diet of meat and potatoes. One common mistake is that folks don’t realize that potatoes count as starch. They are still a vegetable, of course, but they are primarily a starch and do not replace the need for those good, green vegetables every day.
One of her favorite ways to incorporate more vegetables into meals at home is with a food that everyone loves — pizza.
“We are a huge fan of homemade pizza,” she says. “I love putting peppers and asparagus and tomatoes — not just tomato sauce but real slices of tomato — on pizza. You can use a whole grain crust, put a little bit of olive oil on it and then load on the vegetables, a little bit of meat and little bit of cheese, and you have a whole meal right there.”
If parents are concerned that kids might not try some of those things, start small and keep trying. Many tastes are acquired tastes, Kastler says, and you have to keep offering the foods to give them a chance.
What’s more, if a child is invited to help prepare the foods — washing vegetables or piling them on a pizza crust — they are far more likely to be willing to give them a real chance and perhaps discover they like a few things they may not have otherwise even tried.
As for Kastler, she says consumers can feel good about the quality of produce offered in abundance today, whether or not they choose organic or conventional.
“I really haven’t met a fruit or vegetable that I don’t like,” she says with a healthy grin.