* This is part of a year-long series called “52 Weeks to Eating better than Ever”. Click on the side bar for more information and to read the previous essays.
The organic food business is a multi-billion dollar industry. When I was growing up in the 1980s, I had never even heard of organic foods. But somewhere around the late 1990s, organic food commercially exploded and doesn’t seemed to have slowed down one bit. One of the largest publicly traded grocery stores, Whole Foods, which is owned by Amazon, markets themselves as an organic health food supermarket. There are also chains such as Sprouts and Fresh Market that sell quite a bit of organic food. Even Wal-Mart, Publix, and Kroger offer ample amounts of organic food. So it’s not hard to find, at least in grocery stores.
There have been many books written on the subject of organic gardening, and the ills of the food industry. The corporate industrialization of the food business, has undoubtedly had positive and negative effects. No one is going hungry, for the most part, which is obviously good. We live in a country where overnutrition is much more of a problem than undernutrition, so we are fortunate in that regard. But industrial farming has it’s downsides. With non-organic industrial farming there are concerns about:
• Synthetic fertilizers
• Sewage sludge
• Hormones and antibiotics
• No grazing land or access to the outdoors for animals
• Bland taste of industrial foods
• Possibly greater risk of bacteria in industrial foods
For a food to be labeled organic by the USDA in the US, it must be free from the preceding list of characteristics. US law requires products labeled as organic to be 95% organic ingredients. From the research I’ve done, these factors are legitimate concerns and organic foods, because they are harvested later do tend to taste better. Organic food has definitely been shown to contain less pesticides. And you don’t have to be a tree-hugging hippie to want an animal to not be treated cruelly. But there are downsides to organic food as well:
• Higher cost
• Increasingly common but still less accessible
• Research on long-term outcomes is murky and difficult to prove conclusively
• Plants have natural toxins which are higher in organic food
Do I need to eat organic?
Despite the downsides, I think it makes sense to eat some organic foods. I recommend following a middle way, where you select certain foods which are organic, if you can afford them. Like many things when it comes to eating, taking a balanced approach is best.
Some simple recommendations
1. The most important thing is to eat healthy, and to eat less.
2. If cost isn’t a factor, on the whole it makes sense to eat mostly organic food. Pesticides, herbicides, and hormones and antibiotics collect in the environment and we end up ingesting these things, which can’t be good in the long run. A prudent and healthy approach is to be conservative about taking anything like those kinds of chemicals into your body if you can help it. I have written about this concept many times, and it can be summed up the phrase Via Negativa – or literally, “subtracting.”
3. If cost is a factor, or you just are not that concerned about eating organic, try to avoid the foods highest in pesticides. These lists are easy to find online, but a guideline is to consider whether you will be eating the peeling. If so, choose organic.
4. If you want to take in more Omega 3 fatty acids, which is always a good idea because they are the healthiest fats, choose organic meat, dairy, and eggs.
The following is a list of foods highest in pesticides. Try to avoid, minimize or wash thoroughly:
• Sweet bell peppers
• Grapes (imported)
These foods are low in pesticides, and some on the list may surprise you:
• Sweet peas (frozen)
• Sweet corn (frozen)
Be aware, be intentional, but don’t obsess.
Don’t obsess over it, but it’s worth considering adding in more organic foods off of the list of “dirtier” ones. For full disclosure I eat mostly organic meats and dairy, and I can tell a big difference with much better digestion than with non-organic. Be wise, and be reasonable, but don’t be obsessive about organic foods. There are bigger problems in the universe.
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