What’s the Deal with Organic Foods?

Veterans are becoming increasingly concerned about health. In both group classes and individual appointments Veterans want more information about nutrition. A common question that frequently comes up is, “should I be eating all organic foods?” Organic foods are more mainstream these days. Along with the expected fruits and vegetables you can also find processed organic foods, health and beauty products and even dog food. Many Americans think of organic foods as being healthier and safer for the environment, but is the hype behind organic foods worthy of your attention (and dollars)?

What exactly does “organic” mean? Organic is a labeling term regulated through the United States Department of Agriculture. The voluntary certification process allows companies to put the USDA organic seal on their product if they meet certain specifications. To meet these criteria, there can be no synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically engineered material or irradiation used in the growing or processing methods. Most organic foods fall into one of two categories:  fresh foods (such as fruits, vegetables, meat, or eggs) and ready-made processed items with several ingredients (cereals, frozen meals, soups, etc.). The term “organic” can only be used for processed foods if 95 percent of the ingredients are certified organic. “100 percent organic” on the label indicates that all ingredients are certified organic.

Organic methods of food production encourage farming practices that benefit the environment through water conservation, improved soil quality and reduced pollution. Presently, there is conflicting evidence that organic foods are more nutritious than conventionally raised foods. Many people imagine most organic foods to come from small, independently run farms and ranches. In actuality a lot of the commercially available organic foods found in grocery stores are produced by large corporations. While some small, independently owned farms go through the certification process to become organic, many practice sustainable farming methods but forego organic certification because of the cost.  As more people become aware of the importance of nutrition in both prevention and management of chronic diseases, more and more questions arise about which foods should be eaten. I often encounter Veterans who are concerned because they can’t afford to eat all organic. While organic has its merits, it is not the magic health bullet people think it is. Eating all organic won’t improve your health if you switch from conventional junk food to organic junk food. Even more important than eating organic is to try to eat more whole foods and limit your intake of processed foods, including organic processed foods.  Try something new and stop by a farmers market to include fresher, locally raised fruits, vegetables, and eggs. Some of these smaller operations practice sustainable farming methods but don’t undergo organic certification because of the cost. Plan ahead and make a list before heading to the grocery store so you know exactly what you need and don’t end up buying things that will go bad before you can use them.  Having a plan can help you save money and eat healthier as you avoid eating out or throwing food away that goes bad before you cook it.

Consider these tips to make better decisions:

Buy fruits and vegetables in season. This will help you get the best produce.  Seasonal fruits and vegetables will be cheaper, fresher, and probably tastier. If produce is locally grown it will also have less of an impact on the environment because that apple in your lunch didn’t have to hop on a plane to get there.

Wash all fruits and vegetables with running water.  This will help to remove dirt, bacteria, and some pesticide residue. Peeling after washing is also an option but this means losing fiber and other nutrients.

Read nutrition labels carefully. The term organic does not necessarily mean it is healthy. Organic mac and cheese is still high in calories, fat, and sodium. Many products have nutrition claims on the front of their packages, consider these advertisements! Always flip it over to get the nutrition facts.

“Natural” is not organic. For meat and egg products natural means they were “minimally processed” and contain no artificial ingredients. There are NO regulations for products that claim they are natural but contain no meat or eggs. For more information on related label claims you will find at the grocery store, check out the information about the National Organic Program at http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/

Some of the best advice is something many people consider common sense, but have a difficult time incorporating into their lifestyles. Choose more REAL foods, whether organic or not. Whole grains, fruits (not juice!), vegetables, unsalted nuts and seeds and moderate amounts of lean-meats, poultry, and low-fat dairy. Limit your intake of processed foods high in calories and added fats, salt, and sugar. When it comes to the choice of organic or not, there is no right or wrong answer. Hopefully this information made you a more educated consumer and will assist you in making healthier choices. For personalized recommendations or if you have additional questions, you can always make an appointment at the VA with one of the Registered Dietitians.

Liz Chrencik, MS, RD, is an outpatient dietitian at the Baltimore VA Medical Center.

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8 Comments to “What’s the Deal with Organic Foods?”

  1. Phil says:

    Another very important thing is simply portion control.

  2. Kimberly Ferrier says:

    Your article did not mention foods that are geneticaly modified (GMO). These could be very dangerous in the long run and are bad for environment as they affect our ecosystem. Sweet corn that you might buy at your local grocer or Superstore, and many products containing soybeans are some of the genetically modified foods. Animals if they have a choice, will not eat GMO foods. They know something is not right about it. Maybe we should pay attention.

    • David Newton RN - Boise VAMC says:

      Great Topic! I couldn’t agree with Kimberly any more. It is my understanding, that organic certification requires foods to be non-GMO. Let’s choose to patronize those who produce food with more sustainable techniques. Channel the money you would normally spend on expensive non-nutritious, heavily processed foods into buying organic, whole foods. You will find you CAN afford to buy organic.

      • Amy says:

        Kimberly and David- you are right, there should be an article discussing genetically modified foods. There are many consumers out there who know very little about GMOs. It is difficult to support a sustainable food supply while opposing GMOs.
        Genetically modified simply means that the DNA of seeds have been adjusted in a way to make their plant more tolerable to different environmental factors such as drought, insects, and heat. Because of GMOs, farmers have been able to bring a large food supply to the public for a lower price. This is very important when we think about sustainability. Let me give you an example- One hazard to corn is a corn rootworm. They eat the root of the corn plant, and therefore, decrease fruit production. To destroy the rootworm, farmers must spray pesticides to prevent crop damage. With GMOs, scientists have developed Bt corn, which is resistant to the root worm. Now farmer’s do not have to spray pesticides on the plant; this helps the consumer in two ways- 1) less chemicals, and 2) lower prices at the store, because now it cost the farmer less to bring the crop to harvest. GMOs are used in this way in many plants- including cotton, grains, beans, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. If it were not for genetically modified organisms, there are many families out there that would not be able to put nutritious meals on the table. Genetically modified foods are still very nutritious, have been deemed safe for human consumption, and they are key to ensuring a sustainable food supply.

  3. daisy says:

    I think it is imperative to educate our Vets on the importance of good wholesome nutrition.
    As clinical evidence suggests that certain diseases can be controlled by dietary means.
    More emphasis on prevention versus curing a disease is healther and more cost effective.
    It may not be known to (especially an older generation) of the change in our food pyramid, whereas our diet should consist of 80% fruits and vegetables. and 20 % meats and carbohydrates, (Kimberly Snyder, C.N.).
    The dangers of sugar in our diet and the hidden sugars in our food labels.
    On the macro level, change has to occur with our Dept of Agriculture being subsidized by the government for the widely used corn (high fructose corn syrup), which is detrimental to our health.

  4. I love the comment “choose REAL food”! There are plenty of low-calorie, high volume foods in grocery stores that can be easily implemented into a balanced diet. We need to choose to walk past those items that have 200 ingredients on the label.

  5. Steven says:

    Thje VA has their “Move Program” I got involved back in Dec 2010. Learned alot and have lost 50 lbs since then and have seen my Blood Pressure go back down to normal and Cholesterol & A1C showing normal range. Vets can benefit alot from this program. The program is not all about excerising, instead focused on nutrition and portion control. Give it a try.

  6. Angela says:

    I love this article as I am health conscious and the food industry is not appetizing. It pays to follow the natural coarse of nature and perhaps our animal kingdom knows what we just beginning to find out……washing of our fruits and vegies with distilled water and apple cider vinegar is excellent for cleansing.