New Year’s Resolution: Organic Food

Organic Fruits and VeggiesSwitch your diet to organic fruits, vegetables and meats this year

2014 is a brand-new year. Let’s celebrate with a brand new you! But where should you start? Try your diet: switch to eating organic food such as fruits and vegetables.

Organic veggies are more expensive, so why eat organic foods? Because they’re free of pesticides and other chemical contaminants (most organic meats, too!).

Plus, organic fruits and vegetables are by definition not Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) … another good reason to switch what’s on your dish!

What Are Organic Foods?

You’ve probably heard the word “organic” tossed around in conversation. So what’s all the buzz about? Organic foods are fruits, vegetables, grain and grain products as well as meat and meat by-products that are grown or produced without chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, growth hormones, medications or other vaccinations.

USDA Organic logoOrganic foods are also usually grown or produced with careful consideration given to soil and water conservation techniques, reduced pollution and sustainable farming practices. The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) has a strict organic certification program that growers and ranchers must conform to in order to label their foods “organic”.

These rules mandate the way in which “organic” foods can be grown, handled and processed. Only organic growers who produce $5,000 dollars’ worth of product or less per year are exempt from the certification process – but they still must follow organic guidelines.

100% Organic – if a single-ingredient product such as vegetables, fruits or eggs are 100% organic, then they can use the certified USDA 100% organic seal.

Organic – breads and cereals which have at least 95% organic ingredients can use the term “organic” and the USDA Organic seal.

Organic Ingredients – if a product has at least 70% organic ingredients, the manufacturer can state “made with organic ingredients” on the packaging, but may not use the USDA-certified organic seal.

Other options – if a product has less than 70% organic ingredients, then the packaging may not call out “organic” or say “made with organic ingredients” – however, the manufacturer can list the ingredients on the back label as “organic” by individual ingredient within the dietary information.

There are other product description terms that are similar to organic but do not necessarily mean the same thing. That doesn’t mean they are bad or misleading – simply take care to establish what these words mean, and what they don’t: “natural, all-natural, free-range, hormone-free, etc.” While these descriptive terms may be true – they don’t necessarily make a food organic.

What is the Difference between Organic and Traditionally-Produced Food?

We mentioned earlier that there were several main differences between organic foods and conventionally-produced wares: fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and in animal stock, antibiotics, growth hormone and other medication use.

organic fertilizerFertilizers – traditional foods use chemical fertilizers to promote plant growth for obvious reasons: bigger yields, healthier (looking) fruits and vegetables, and faster growth times. These are all highly-successful aspects of traditional agri-business, however they’re not without peril.

Fertilizers are absorbed by the plants to which they’re fed, and certain chemicals and compounds in the fertilizers are retained by the fruit or vegetable material and then ingested by consumers. Furthermore, the fertilizers that aren’t absorbed often make their way into water runoff, causing environmental concerns in nearby waterways and aquifers.

Organic fertilization does occur – organic farmers use natural fertilizers like manure or compost to feed plants, which leaves less chemical imprint on the food itself and has a (less) damaging effect on the environment as a whole.

Pesticides – Akin to fertilizers, traditional agri-business protects their crop investment by spraying chemical pesticides on fruits and vegetables both on and off the vine. This prevents damage to the produce itself and the spread of fungi and insect-borne illnesses – so there are some good reasons to use pesticides.

But pesticides don’t always wash off fruit and vegetables (always wash fruits and vegetables before eating them, whether they’re organic or not). Sometimes they’re absorbed by the flesh of the produce itself, which leads to you ingesting poison. Also, poison is bad for the environment (this is so obvious we almost didn’t include it).

Organic pest control measures include using natural compounds that repel insects and fungi. Other more innovative techniques employed by organic growers include using specific predator insect and bird populations to control unwanted pests.

Herbicides – farmers have used herbicide compounds and techniques to keep only desirable plant species growing in their food plots for thousands of years. However, modern agri-business use synthetic and chemical herbicides which have much the same detrimental effect for consumers and the environment as pesticides: they stick around, get absorbed, then ingested – as well as often making their way into the water supply as runoff.

Organic farming endeavors to do the same thing using environmentally friendly means. These techniques also benefit the environmental sustainability of organic farms; by properly tending the land instead of using poison to achieve a desired short-term effect, the human impact or “footprint” on the land is reduced.

Organic weed-control measures include using naturally-generated weed killers as well as soil-tilling, hand-weeding and applying mulch over fallowed ground to prevent pest species from spreading. Crop rotation also plays a role in controlling weed population and maximizing yield month after month.

Organic Free Range LivestockLivestock Practices – when it comes to animal farming, organic techniques are even more involved. Traditional ranching uses very industrialized methods of feeding, raising, pest and disease control and even slaughter and processing. While these modern techniques yield cheap, widely-available meat products, they are far from the best thing for us.

Animal living conditions aside, livestock and poultry production usually requires antibiotics, growth hormones, as well as other medications to keep animal meat and products (such as milk and eggs) healthy and free from disease. But these chemical and pharmaceutical additives build up in food products and are then ingested – which can cause untold health problems, the prevalence of which are still being intensely debated today.

Organic meat and animal by-products are some of the more clearly beneficial of the organic foodstuffs, because the nutritional content of meat, eggs and milk is directly affected by the feed used by ranchers to grow the animals they came from. Organic animal meat is often a different consistency due to the fact that most organic animals are given outdoor access (referred to as “free-range”) and are often fed grass instead of cornmeal.

Rotational grazing, balanced diet practices and clean housing all contribute to the health of organically produced meat. Grass-fed beef and eggs from chickens fed fortified grains contain more Omega-3 fatty acids than their traditionally-produced counterparts. And wild-caught fish and game are even more nutritious (although not technically “organically farmed”).

Food Additives

This is one of the most important parts of Organic Foods – or lack thereof, to be more precise. Organic food production guidelines in the United States either severely limit or altogether ban the use of food additives, processors, and preservatives in the creation of “organic” foods. Fortifying agents are also forbidden.

Food fortification isn’t “bad” in and of itself – often, foods are fortified with micro-nutrients to enhance the nutritional value (as well as commercial shelf appeal) of food products. But the whole idea behind organic, natural foods is that the nutritional value of a well-balanced diet shouldn’t need foods artificially “infused” with nutrients and other compounds.

Organic foods have no artificial preservatives either. This means that they’ll probably spoil quicker than traditionally preserved foods – so keep that in mind when you’re shopping. Artificial sweeteners, colors and other flavors are banned by the “organic” certification process as well – but that doesn’t mean that you’ll avoid sugar altogether.

Monosodium Glutamate – the infamous “MSG” is a manufactured form of salt, therefore organic foods do NOT have MSG in their ingredients. Do check the label for MSG on every product you buy however; whether promoted as natural, “organic” or otherwise.

Genetically Modified Organisms

A genetically modified organism is a creature (plant, animal or fungi) whose genetic blueprint has been altered using modern biotechnology. Plants such as corn, animals such as cattle, chicken and other poultry and even yeasts for making breads, beer and yogurt can all be GMO’s – but by federal law, your “100% USDA certified Organic foods” are not.

So why isn’t this information on the label? In short, because there’s a legal controversy over stating things such as “GMO-free” on the label – while legally, the USDA defines “organic” as a product being free of genetically engineered ingredients, a result of the Organic Foods Production Act – the agency portends that there still isn’t a good way to ensure that there is no “genetically modified material” used in foods.

Because there are trace amounts of gene-modified material in the environment itself, this kind of certification is challenging. One option is to go with the US-based Non-GMO Project recommended guidelines of 0.9% GMO ingredients – Europeans already use this standard. However, until there is an official “Non-GMO” certification, you’re best sticking to the “100% USDA Organic” stuff – and hoping for the best.

Remember, the nutritional content of organic fruits and vegetables are almost the same – it’s really all the “other” stuff used to grow, protect, vitalize, fortify and process these foods that Organic food proponents say is to be avoided.

Here’s to Eating Healthy!

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