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.