Tuesday, July 3, 2012

What Does Buying Organic Really Get You?

I have a confession to make.  Even as little as 3 years ago I drove by my local health food store and mocked people "wasting" their money on organic foods, even calling them hippies.  Oh how times have changed.  Amazing what a little research can do for you. 

One of my biggest concerns with buying organic was whether or not I was actually getting something worthy paying extra for. 

Well before 1990 there was no standard for what could be sold as organic.  The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), enacted under Title 21 of the 1990 Farm Bill, served to establish uniform national standards for the production and handling of foods labeled as “organic.”  In addition, the Program oversees mandatory certification of organic production. The USDA additionally developed the The National Organic Standards in 2008.

So what are these standards that tell us what we are spending our hard earned money on?
In order to ensure a standard for the use of the term “organic” and the use of the USDA Organic seal, the USDA has issued labeling protocols (click here for USDA fact sheet) for fresh, and processed products containing organic ingredients. Only the top two listings may use the USDA Organic seal on the product. Here is a summary:

100% Organic” must consist of 100% organically produced ingredients and processing aids, excluding water and salt. May display the USDA Organic seal.
Organic” must consist of a minimum of 95% organically produced ingredients, excluding water and salt, and the remaining ingredients must consist of nonagricultural substances approved on the National List, and/or specific non-organically produced agricultural substances not available commercially in organic form. May display the USDA Organic seal.
Made with Organic Ingredients” must contain at least 70% organic ingredients. May not display the USDA Organic seal.
Other products that contain less than 70% organic ingredients may not use the word organic on the principal display panel of the label, but they may list specific organic ingredients in the ingredients statement.
Each organic ingredient must be identified as such in the ingredient information box. The name of the certifying agency must be displayed on the information panel.
Certified Organic” applies only to products grown organically. It does not apply to products that may be used in organic production. In other words, a carrot, a bag of potato chips, or cotton may be certified organic, but the potting soil or biological pesticide used in growing these products is not certified organic. The closest thing to the USDA organic seal for products used in organic agricultural production is the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) listing, but this is an independent agency not run by the USDA National Organic Program. Companies pay to have their products evaluated by OMRI, and OMRI tests them to see if they comply with the National Organic Standards.
Another benefit to the USDA Organic label is it also means that the food isn't genetically modified. 

So the short of all that is that there are standards for what is considered organic.  I would like a guarantee that the soil is also organic, as organic soil tends to have a higher mineral content that goes into the food, but this is a great starting point.  Look for the USDA Organic label, and if you want to dig further feel free to call the question number on most every product, till your questions have been satisfied. 

Let's back up a little for a minute and talk about why we would spend our extra cash on organics at all.
Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may be used on non-organic produce and meat.  (source)  Beginning in 1986, the FDA has given the green light to expose nearly our entire food supply to nuclear irradiation.

Food is irradiated using radioactive gamma sources, usually cobalt 60 or cesium 137, or high energy electron beams. The gamma rays break up the molecular structure of the food, forming positively and negatively charged particles called free radicals. The free radicals react with the food to create new chemical substances called "radiolytic products." Those unique to the irradiation process are known as "unique radiolytic products" (URPs).
Some radiolytic products, such as formaldehyde, benzene, formic acid, and quinones are harmful to human health. Benzene, for example, is a known carcinogen. In one experiment, seven times more benzene was found in cooked, irradiated beef than in cooked, non-irradiated beef. Some URPs are completely new chemicals that have not even been identified, let alone tested for toxicity.
In addition, irradiation destroys essential vitamins, including vitamin A, thiamin, B2, B3, B6, B12, folic acid, C, E, and K; amino acid and essential polyunsaturated fatty acid content may also be affected. A 20 to 80 percent loss of any of these is not uncommon.  (source)

It sounds like if we want the chance of raw sewage on our food, to eat largely untested genetically engineered food, to have our food made possibly cancerous, and have the nutrients we are paying for reduced... then we should continue to buy non-organic food.

That sounds terrible you may say, but I can't afford to buy organic.  If you are in survival mode and barely making it I totally get that, as I have been there before too.  (Check out this article about 25 tips to Make Eating Healthy More Affordable.) 

I suggest starting with the dirty dozen (a list put out by the Environmental Working Group that tells the worst offenders out there to avoid, and buy organic), and some money saving tips from the clean 15 (another list put out by the EWG) which shares products that are very low in pesticides, so you probably don't need to buy them organic.

I can't afford to buy everything I would like to buy organic quite yet (that being everything :).  However I have made a lot of progress over the last 3 years.  Seriously not bragging but offering hope, that my family eats pretty healthy and we seem to hardly ever get sick.  When we do it seems to have always been after a time where we have eaten more sugar (which weakens your immune system), and we recover very quickly.  Again not bragging, just trying to encourage you about what power the food choices we make can have.

I love the quote that "You will either pay to stay healthy, or you'll pay to get well".  I wish organic food was cheaper, and hopefully, as demand is rapidly growing, we will see that in the near future.  For now we find more free outings, and spend a bit more on the foods that keep us healthy.

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