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 the 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?
The question of whether or not to go organic is loaded with shades of politics and pop culture, but Connie Buss, registered and licensed dietician at Boone County Hospital, prefers to stick with science and reliable research.
Many times, it seems, the perceptions of organic and traditionally raised foods don’t match the science.
“We have to look at the concerns that people have, and are the concerns valid?” Buss begins.
Looking at the research, her greatest concern is not whether a food can be called organic or traditional, but simply whether or not people are getting the recommended nutritional variety in their daily diets.
“We’re very short on our fruits and vegetables in our diet,” Buss says. “It’s getting better over time, but it’s still very short compared to what we need to be eating.”
When asked, most people assume that organic foods are healthier and offer better nutrition than their conventionally grown counter-parts.
To find out a little more about our public perceptions between organic and traditional foods, Boone Living magazine headed back to school. We asked students in a Family and Consumer Science foods class at Boone High School about their own eating habits and the differences between organic and traditional foods.
“Which is more nutritious, organic or traditional foods?” we asked.
All of the students in the informal poll agreed that organic foods are “probably more nutritious” than traditionally grown foods. The answer isn’t surprising because much of the general public holds the same belief.
“It just has a lot of healthy stuff inside for your body,” says J.R. Blomgren when talking about organic foods.
Buss couldn’t agree more. But the caveat is that while organic foods are full of nutrition, it is the exact same nutrition as in conventionally raised foods.
Taylor Andrews pointed out what is one major difference between organic and traditional foods.
“Organic is more expensive,” she says.
Another student replied that he assumed that organic food is more nutritious because he hears a lot about it in the news.
“All you hear is how good organic food can be,” says Jesse House.
Again, Buss is thrilled that young people are hearing good things about fruits and vegetables, but she also hopes that people — young and old — will understand that conventional fruits and vegetables are also wonderful. And, as she is careful to note, they are much more affordable, and, hence, families can take advantage of that nutrition more readily.
Indeed, Buss is a champion of a safe, affordable food supply and says traditional foods often don’t get the credit they deserve. Consider that previous generations could not take for granted the abundance of today’s supermarkets — an abundance made possible by modern agriculture,
“That’s how we are able to grow more food for our country and ship it all over the world to under-privileged areas,” she says. “We need high quality food, and high quality food is what the United States has. We are so blessed to have such a variety of healthy food here.”
Still, in a nation of plenty, there are pockets of real hunger, as well avenues of choice. Most of the students in our informal poll fell short when it comes to the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables in their daily diets. Several of them had an apple or banana for breakfast, but a few could go a whole day with barely any fruits or vegetables.
Kara Stevens swims against the trend here and is happy to share that her family likes to try something new.
“I like to try a lot of new things, different fruits and vegetables,” she says. “I try basically any food.”
Those are sweet words to a dietician’s ears.
“We’re supposed to be eating two or three cups of vegetables a day, and usually a couple cups of fruit a day — and to get that done it requires persistence,” Buss says.
Her goal is to help families meet those nutrition goals and provide them with good information about the choices available. And for those families that are concerned about both how a food is grown, and how much it costs, she says the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15” policy is a good way to go.
If you have the ability to afford organic, and that’s the way you want to go, by all means that’s fine,” she says. “But if cost is also a concern, and you still want to have some organic, then the ‘Dirty Dozen’ and ‘Clean 15’ can help with that.”
The “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15” list was first developed by the Environmental Working Group to help consumers made good choices, that are also affordable choices.
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.
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.
Buss notes that purchasing organic foods from the “Dirty Dozen” can reduce pesticide exposure by an estimated 80 percent. Still, she adds, there is a trade-off as quality, appearance, and shelf-life can decline with organic foods.
“You can end up throwing more food away,” Buss says.
Regardless of whether one chooses organic or conventional foods, safe food handling and storage is key, she notes.
“Failing to really use safe handling techniques — cleaning fruits and vegetables away from meat, using separate utensils — failing to do those things can do a lot more harm than whether any vegetable is organic or not,” she adds.
Buss also works hard to educate the public about processed foods and is happy to dispel some of the popular misconceptions here.
“What does ‘processing’ really mean?” she asks. “Processing food is anything that’s done to it.”
Processing might mean being thrown on the back of a pickup’s tailgate at a roadside stand, or it might mean being partially cooked and having extra fats and salts added to frozen food items.
While Buss does discourage purchasing frozen vegetables that have added sauces, she is actually a fan of plain frozen vegetables and says they can have wonderful quality and, because they are processed rapidly, can maintain great nutrition.
“Sometimes processed foods will have better quality,” she says. “With the frozen vegetables, they actually go from the field to the freezer very, very fast,” she says. “It’s usually about a 24-hour turn-around.”
Canned vegetables are also “processed” very, very quickly, but they can have more added sodium, although Buss says even that is going down and there are more choices for no-added-salt products.
One of the biggest challenges to a healthy diet can sometimes be the abundance of fast food. Buss counters that easily by noting that fresh fruits and vegetables can be some of the fastest food around.
“It’s so easy, and it tastes so good,” she says.
So whether one prefers organic or traditional, fresh, frozen or canned, the most important choice to Buss is simply to make room in the daily diet for a variety of fruits and vegetables.
In a nation blessed with abundant food choices, the choice of going organic or staying traditional can vary from person to person, and Buss is pleased to help people make those choices based on sound research and nutritional diversity.
“We have safe, wonderful food supply,” she concludes.