People often wonder if the higher cost of buying organic is justified. Does an organic apple taste different from a conventional one? How can organic tomatoes have more nutrients; a tomato is a tomato is a tomato, right? Is an organic cheese puff really healthier than a conventional cheese puff?
Opinions are diverse, especially now that the big food companies have fully embraced ‘organics’ as a profitable market segment. In this week’s blog I’d like to share my opinions in order to help you decide whether and when eating food that is labeled organic is the right choice for you.
The first, and easiest, question to answer is about the organic cheese puff.
Now to supplement my knee jerk response with a bit more detail… An organic cheese puff is what I think of as “Franken-organic”. It is a highly processed product (I have a hard time even referring to it as a food); a bastardized version of what I must believe were constituent ingredients that qualified under USDA regulations to be called organic. The end result of all that processing creates a SUM that is very much LESS THAN ITS PARTS and nutritionally indistinguishable from a cheese puff created with conventional ingredients. But this blog is not about processed food so I’ll save a deeper discussion of that for another day and get back to the issue of organics.
First a little history. What today is commonly referred to as the organics movement is the result of a great many influences. The most significant one, I think, has been the reaction to the industrialization of agricultural methods in the United States. Industrialization led to the cultivation of vast mono crops which introduced new challenges not readily addressed by traditional farming practices. Mega-farming operations began planting huge swaths of land with the same crop year after year in the name of efficiency and profit. These narrowly focused and repetitive practices led to the depletion of soil fertility and created an ideal environment for pests (animals, insects, microorganisms), who had a preference for a particular crop, to flourish beyond control. The new mega-farmers turned away from traditional farming methods of amending soil fertility with animal manure and the composted remains of previous crops believing they could not scale to address the needs of their massive new operations. Also gone were the natural protections of growing a diversity of crops and rotating them from year to year that did not repetitively burden the soil in the same way or allow for any one group of ‘pests’ to grow out of balance to actually become pests. Industrial agriculture instead turned more to the use of synthetic, chemical and pharmaceutical means to fertilize the soil and to control pests and disease. Concerns were raised about these new farming methods including damage to the environment, loss of crop diversity, threat to human health and, not least of which, the end result of it all was a nutritionally inferior product. Many different farmers and organizations began setting their own standards and practices for preserving the quality of their product, the health of the environment and ultimately the health of the consumer.
Against this backdrop the US Congress passed the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) to set the federal standards for what it means for crops or livestock to be organically produced, packaged and marketed. The US Department of Agriculture was given responsibility for administering and enforcing the regulatory framework and developing the national organic standards. This took them another decade to come out with. The result is a politically influenced and complex set of standards that I can’t fully address in a doctoral dissertation never mind this humble blog post.
Though the entire regulatory framework is complex the most basic standards for organic production are as follow:
- Synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers cannot be used
- Seeds and foods cannot be treated with irradiation
- Do not contain genetically modified/engineered organisms
- Are not fertilized with sewage sludge
Since the organic standards are government regulation and politically influenced they are far from perfect; witness the organic cheese puff. However, at their core I think they set a solid framework for the protection of environmental and human health. And when applied properly I do believe they lead to better tasting apples and to tomatoes with a higher nutritional quality.
We can review just the first bullet point to illustrate my opinion; otherwise I’ll ramble on forever with this topic:
- Synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers cannot be used
First, Synthetics are manmade chemicals that would otherwise not occur in nature or at least not in an agricultural setting. When we put these chemicals on the food we are growing or in the soil it’s grown in or the animals its fed to that food becomes contaminated with those chemicals. We subsequently ingest those chemicals (if I want to get sensational about it, many manmade chemicals have been found to cause disease in humans and agricultural chemicals are no exception). Without getting dramatic, at the very minimum these chemicals, often referred to as toxins once inside our bodies, challenge our normal metabolic functions. It largely falls to our liver to neutralize and remove toxins from the body. The liver, though an amazing organ, is not invincible and over time can exhaust and succumb to disease from prolonged exposures. The liver also has a limited capacity to deal with toxins at any given time. And remember you are breathing in, absorbing and ingesting toxins from many other sources all the time. One of the tricks your liver has when it is overburdened and can’t remove all the toxins on hand is to isolate excess ones in your fat stores. There they will stay until your liver once again has enough capacity to process and remove them from your body. And if your liver never has enough capacity to fully detoxify your body, don’t worry, it will create more fat in order to store. Keep that in mind if you are struggling with weight gain.
Next, let’s just consider those two words “pesticide” and “herbicide” …. …. Their root meaning is “to kill”. In their primary application they are designed to kill a “pest” or a “weed” but they can easily do the same to a human if a large enough dose is consumed at once… now think “homicide”. OK that’s a bit dramatic but not so much if you scan back to my point in the last paragraph and consider what could be happening in your body if your liver is not keeping up with its detoxification responsibilities. You could end up storing, or as the health professionals refer to it, bio-accumulating, these toxins that were developed to kill another organism that is very likely not all that different from you at the cellular level. OK – point made – now on to taste and nutritional quality.
Finally, it’s been argued that the same variety of apple or tomato is still going to be the same whether it’s grown conventionally or organically, after all it’s the same thing, right? On the surface that makes sense but that logic is only superficial. An organic tomato is going to have a radically different lifestyle than a conventional one. Let’s just consider soil conditions. In factory farms the soil is typically used over and over again for the same crop leading to depletion of the same nutrients. Synthetic fertilizers are then added back to the soil to address that. On top of that other chemicals are typically added to address the pests associated with mono-cropping. So the resulting depleted soil conditions contain a mix of manmade chemicals. These chemicals are added specifically to aid and protect the growth of the tomato and rarely consider the health of the soil itself. Healthy soil is a very complex substance containing a wide variety of microorganisms, minerals, organic matter and all sort of critters that work together in an ecosystem. This ecosystem creates a variety of vitamins and organic compounds that plants take from the soil for their own growth and health. The soil literally gives nutrients to the plant that it can’t make on its own. In factory farming all those chemicals that are added upsets the biodiversity of the soil throwing off the microorganisms and critters that normally cooperate in adding their own set of nutrients to the soil. As a result the tomato that is grown in it is missing many of those nutrients. And guess what? When we eat that tomato and nutrients are missing from it our sense of taste will not perceive it in the same way. A good way to think about this is how you eat. Suppose all you ate was a cereal that claimed to have more than 100% of the recommended daily allowances of minerals and vitamins? You would not last long until your body started experiencing deficiencies that the cereal manufacturer did not anticipate. “Manmade” has so far fallen short compared to what nature provides in the nutrition department.
I’ll close by pointing out that foods do not have to be labeled organically to be healthy. As I mentioned the organic regulations are not perfect and there a many farmers that produce their food in a responsible manner but due technicalities in the law are not allowed to use the USDA Organic label. So don’t just rely on an organic label, get to know the source or your food and how it was produced.
Owner, Fitness Urbano