3 Major Myths About Organic & Conventional Food

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organic blueberries, raspberries and blackberries

 

There is very little that distinguishes organic food from conventional food. In an attempt to follow the pervasive “good food vs. bad food” storyline, many people have grossly exaggerated the differences between organic and conventional foods leaving readers with few facts grounded in scientific evidence. Don’t let the top three misperceptions about organic and conventional food influence your food choices.

This post covers:

  • Pesticide residues on food and human safety
  • Organic foods, conventional foods and the environment
  • Nutrition differences between organic and conventional foods

This post does not cover worker safety or in-depth environmental issues.

#1 Myth: Organic Foods are Grown Without Pesticides

Both organic and conventional crops are sprayed with pesticides, compounds that control a variety of pests (1, 2). In fact there is a long list of substances, including pesticides, allowed for use on organic farms. The differentiating factor between organic and conventional farming is the source of pesticides. Organic farmers primarily use naturally occurring pesticides in addition to a small number of man-made pesticides while conventional farmers primarily use man-made pesticides.

In some instances there is a man-made form of a compound identical to the one found in nature. For instance, methyl bromide, a fumigant gas used to kill fungi, nematodes and weeds, is found in nature and also made in a lab. Both conventional and organic farmers can use methyl bromide on strawberry plants. Bacillus thuringienis, the most commonly used organic pesticide, is both naturally occurring and man-made; incorporated into some genetically engineered foods. One is natural, one is man-made yet there is no detectable difference between the two (3).

#2 Myth: Organic Foods are Safer for Human Consumption and Better for the Environment

Compounds found in nature are not automatically safe and non-toxic, or safer than man-made compounds (4, 5). Both naturally occurring compounds and man-made chemicals are completely harmless, extremely toxic at a certain dose, or fall somewhere in between these two extremes. You’ve probably heard the saying “the dose makes the poison.” Many compounds we consume every day, from vitamin A to water, can be lethal if consumed in extremely high doses. The same is true for pesticides. Dose and length of exposure determine toxicity. Our government has several safeguards in place for the use of pesticides. First, the EPA evaluates all pesticides. Prior to use in the United States pesticides must be free from unreasonable risk to human health or the environment. Regardless of the type of pesticide used, whether organic or man-made, the Environmental Protection Agency limits the amount of pesticide residues allowed in food and water. The USDA Pesticide Data Program routinely monitors pesticide residues in foods and has found pesticide residues, whether organic or conventional, “pose no safety concern” (8, 9).

Organic pesticides are also not necessarily better for the environment, though they are considered safe in the amounts used (just like man-made pesticides). As an example, rotenone, a naturally occurring compound used in fisheries and can be fatal if inhaled (staff spraying this pesticide must be protected from risk of inhalation) and kills fish within an hour of spraying. Waters treated with rotenone are closed for public swimming for several months after treatment allowing dead fish time to decompose. When used according to instructions, rotenone poses “no overall risk to human health” or the environment (6). In addition, a study in soybeans found organic pesticides did not control aphids (plant lice) as effectively as man-made pesticides and they were more detrimental to the environment (partly due to the amount that needed to be used) (7).

There are environmental effects, both good and bad, from conventional and organic farming. Organic farming has advanced nonchemical methods of pest control and in some instances improved soil quality while decreasing soil erosion. However, organic farming also produces a lower yield, which means more environmental resources are used to produce the same total amount of food.

Can’t we farm without any pesticides?

Sure. Some conventional and organic farms do not use pesticides. A conventional farm may choose not to get organic certification, even if they don’t use any pesticides, because of the cost of certification. Keep in mind pesticides help get rid of pests and, can therefore help make food safer by the decreasing the likelihood of pathogens such as E. coli through use of anti-microbial compounds (10, 11).

What about the “Dirty Dozen”, Should I Steer Clear of the Foods that have the Most Pesticide Residues?

Some groups rank foods based on total pesticide residues – foods that are the “most contaminated.” Though some foods may have more pesticide residues on them than others, a study from the University of California Davis found all 12 commodities identified in the Dirty Dozen contained pesticide residues well below the established safe level (called the chronic reference doses or RfDs for short). In fact, only one pesticide residue, found on bell peppers, exceeded 1% of the RfD, coming in at 2%. So the largest total “dose” of a pesticide residue found was still 50 times lower than the established safe dose. Three quarters of the pesticides detected were at levels 1,000 times below the RfD. Therefore, the 12 foods listed on the Dirty Dozen “most contaminated” foods pose “negligible risks” for consumers. Choosing organic over conventional to avoid the fruits and vegetables on the Dirty Dozen will not completely negate your exposure to pesticides (because some organic produce has pesticide residues as well) or lower your risk from exposure to pesticides because your risk is negligible to begin with (12). Given the low amount of pesticide residues found on conventional and organic produce, there’s little appreciable difference in total pesticide exposure, whether you eat conventional or organic.

Though some studies, as well as pesticide monitoring programs have found conventional produce contains significantly more total pesticide residues then organic produce, significantly more than a miniscule amount is still a miniscule amount. Here’s an analogy: if I give you one penny and give your friend 2 pennies, your friend has 100% more money than you do – that’s a statistically significant difference. However, the financial impact of two pennies vs. one penny is meaningless.

If you want to add up your total exposure, check out the Alliance for Food and Farming developed a pesticide calculator and research behind the calculator:

http://safefruitsandveggies.com/pesticide-calculator

#3 Myth: Organic Food is More Nutritious

Several studies have examined nutrient differences between organic and conventionally produced foods. Most of this research shows no appreciable difference in vitamin or mineral content or health effects. What about plant compounds including antioxidants? In some cases organic farming may improve antioxidant content while in others man-made pesticides actually increase concentrations of certain beneficial plant-based compounds (13, 14).

In a world where we have many food choices and an overabundance of incorrect nutrition information, it’s easy to grasp onto a concept that isn’t evidence-based. Don’t get caught up in the hype and instead look for the scientific details. When it comes to organic and conventional foods, you’re not stuck choosing sides but instead can enjoy both – there is no appreciable difference in pesticide residues or nutrition content between the two.

Disclosure: I am an advisor for USFRA. All opinions expressed are my own after taking my typical nosedive into the scientific literature and government regulations on this subject.

References

1 Types of pesticide ingredients. US Environmental Protection Agency.
https://www.epa.gov/ingredients-used-pesticide-products/types-pesticide-ingredients

2 Food and Pesticides. US Environmental Protection Agency
https://www.epa.gov/safepestcontrol/food-and-pesticides

3 Koch MS, Ward JM, Levine SL, Baum JA, Vicini JL, Hammond BG. The food and environmental safety of Bt crops. Front Plant Sci 2015; 6: 283.

4 Pesticides – What’s my risk? National Pesticide Information Center.

5 Contaminants Found in Groundwater. The USGS Water Science School. http://water.usgs.gov/edu/groundwater-contaminants.html

6 Lake and stream rehabilitation: rotenone use and health risks. Washington department of fish and wildlife. http://wdfw.wa.gov/licensing/sepa/2016/16041_2002_fseis.pdf

7 Bahlai CA, Xue Y, McCreary CM, Schaafsma AW, Hallett RH. Choosing Organic Pesticides over Synthetic Pesticides May Not Effectively Mitigate Environmental Risk in Soybeans. PLoS One 2010; 5(6): e11250.

8 What Consumers Should Know. 2014 Pesticide Data Program Annual Summary. United States Department of Agriculture. https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/PDP%202014%20Annual%20Summary%20Consumers.pdf

9 Pesticide Program Residue Monitoring. US. Food and Drug Administration. http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/Pesticides/ucm2006797.htm

10 Mukheriee A, Speh D, Dyck E, Diez-Gonzalez F. Preharvest evaluation of coliforms, Escherichia coli, Salmonella, and Escherichia coli O157:H7 in organic and conventional produce grown by Minnesota farmers. J Food Prot 2004;67(5):894-900.

11 Johannessen GS, Bengtsson GB, Heier BT, Bredholt S, Wasteson Y, Rørvik LM. Potential uptake of Escherichia coli O157:H7 from organic manure into crisphead lettuce. Appl Environ Microbiol 2005;71(5):2221-5.

12 Winter CK, Katz JM. Dietary Exposure to Pesticide Residues from Commodities Alleged to Contain the Highest Contamination Levels. J Toxicol 2011; 589674.

13 Dangour AD, Lock K, Hayter A, Aikenhead A, Allen E, Uauy R. Nutrition-related health effects of organic foods: a systematic review. Am J Clin Nutr 2010; 92(1):203-210.

14 Rosen J. A Review of the Nutrition Claims Made by Proponents of Organic Food, Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety 2010;9(3): 270-277.

Save Money at the Grocery Store, Improve Health & Save the Earth

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Food: Fruits and vegetables

 

 

Today is Earth Day, a day focused on building a healthy, sustainable environment. Keep the earth healthy, slash your grocery bill and improve your health at the same time. Here’s how:

Avoid Food Waste

In America, food is cheap and always available. This oversupply of food combined with food marketing means we over buy and end up throwing out an average of 31 – 41% of the food we purchase. In addition to throwing your hard earned dollar in the trash can, food waste drains the environment. Rotting fruits and vegetables, the top food wasted, uses fresh water and contributes to ethylene gas, methane and CO2 emissions all of which are harmful for our environment (1). “Food waste now accounts for more than one quarter of the total freshwater consumption and ∼300 million barrels of oil per year” (1). Rotting food produces a large amount of methane gas, a gas that has 25 times the impact of CO2 on global warming (3). Dairy products are second behind fruits and vegetables followed by meat, which has the biggest impact on the environment.
Here’s what you can do to avoid waste:

    1. Use a shopping list to prevent impulse buys. It doesn’t matter if it’s on sale if you will end up throwing it out.
    2. Buy small amounts and only what you need and will realistically use before it goes bad.
    3. Buy frozen and canned versions, which have the same nutrition value and you can use them at your convenience (metal cans are endlessly recyclable)
    4. Keep fruits and vegetables fresh or for longer period of time with products that decrease the production of ethylene gas (find them in your local natural food store in the produce section).
    5. Don’t automatically throw food out when the “use by” date arrives. That date is a measure of quality and not food safety. Assess your food to ensure it is still safe (smell your meat, poultry, fish, dairy, nuts and oils; make sure fruits and vegetables are not molded).
    6. Follow these tips from Reader’s Digest.

Choose Plant Proteins

Plant proteins typically cost less $ than meat, fish and poultry and they cost less in terms of environmental resources to produce – less water, fewer environmental gases produced. Plant proteins also deliver plant-based compounds that protect the body. When choosing plant proteins you may need more, per meal, to get the right amount of muscle building amino acids.  In addition to swapping out some meat-based meals, consider eating smaller amounts of meat and adding a plant protein as a side dish. Here are some excellent choices based on their nutrition profile:

  • Peas, split pea soup
  • Legumes, beans, bean pastas, lentils (I soak lentils for about 45 minutes and add them to a variety of dishes)
  • Soy foods including tofu, tempeh, edamame
  • Nut, bean and other flours –  substitute some of the flour in your  recipe for: pecan, peanut, almond, garbanzo bean, fava bean, black bean and other higher protein flours

Buy Staples in Bulk

Whole Foods, Sprouts, Wegmans and similar stores have a bulk section where you can get everything from black rice to oatmeal. Consider shopping in the bulk isle. You’ll save $ and food packaging!

Meal Planning Made Easy

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salmon with veggies

If you don’t have the luxury of eating in a cafeteria with a variety of options each day, it makes sense to plan your meals ahead of time. Doing so will save you time and money. If saving money doesn’t entice you, consider this: eating at home can help you lose weight. A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found the average meal at 360 restaurant dinner meals examined contained 1,200 calories. If you choose to dine at an American, Italian or Chinese restaurant, that meal may cost you a whopping 1,495 calories. Don’t worry, I have no intention of having you replicate the instagram photos from fitness buffs who eat perfectly portioned bland-looking chicken, broccoli and brown rice twice a day, every day. Instead, I am an advocate for taste, variety, and better nutrition. Here are the 4 steps you should take to start planning better-for-you meals ahead of time:

1 – Take Inventory

Go through your cabinets, refrigerator and freezer at least once per month and throw out anything that is past it’s expiration date, freezer burned, molded, and stale or smells bad (smell your cooking oil too and if it doesn’t smell normal, toss it). Half-eaten anything that is more than a day old? Trash. This is also a great time to take inventory of what you have on hand.

2 – Stock Your Kitchen

After taking inventory, decide what you need (sticking to your grocery list will save you from impulse buys you don’t need after looking at your grocery store circular). Essential foods include shelf stable, refrigerator and frozen foods. I like the option of preparing a meal in 5 minutes or less. Frozen and canned items allow me to do this.

Shelf Stable:

  • Beans, lentils and legumes (tip: some lentils can be soaked for just 40 minutes and added to a wide variety of dishes from salads to spouse, stews and grain-based dishes)
  • Bread
  • Canned vegetables, beans, fish and chicken
  • Condiments including chicken, beef or vegetable broth, mustard, hot sauce and any other commonly used condiments
  • Cooking oil – get good quality cooking oil. Pay more for a brand you trust. Olive oil is the most adulterated food on the market so you do get what you pay for.
  • Nutrition bars
  • Nuts, nut butters and seeds (all can be refrigerated; opened nut butters should be refrigerated)
  • Popcorn, whole grain snacks
  • Protein powder
  • Rice, pasta, whole grains, cereals and other similar foods. Grab a few options that you can make in a just a few minutes including couscous. Also, vary your rice, pasta and whole grains – look for black, red or purple rice, bean pastas and more.
  • Soups (boxed, bagged or in cans)
  • Spices & seasonings (including salt and pepper). If you don’t use these regularly get dried spices or refrigerated spices in squeezable tubes.
  • Ziploc bags – these will come in very handy if you travel (always pack food and supplements to go)!

Fresh:

  • Dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese)
  • Eggs (consider egg substitutes for their shelf life)
  • Fresh vegetables and fruits
  • Fish, poultry, meat

Frozen:

  • Fish, poultry, meat
  • Fruit
  • Vegetables

3 – Menu Planning

There are a number of ways you can approach menu planning but one of the easiest ways is to center your meals around the protein rich foods you plan on eating. So for instance, if you choose chicken, lean ground beef and fish, you can center 7 meals on those three proteins. Or, if your week is hectic and you are very busy, you can plan meals around protein-rich foods that take just minutes to prepare such as canned tuna, eggs and rotisserie chicken.

After you pick your protein rich foods, decide on recipes or quick prep meals. You might want to do this by determining what perishable foods you have on hand and need to use. So, let’s say you have mushrooms in the refrigerator and chicken defrosting. If you don’t feel like eating chicken Marsala but you aren’t sure what else you can make with a little flavor, type these words in Google to get other meal ideas “chicken, mushrooms, recipe, quick, easy.” (Also check out Cookinglight.com’s “5 Ingredient Cookbook, Fresh Food Fast”)

After determining which meals you are eating each day of the week, write a shopping list by figuring out any extras you may need to buy and what staple foods you are out of. Be flexible with your list depending on the season and sale prices. Shopping in season often means you will not only get the best looking produce but you will save money too. So for instance, if your recipe calls for sweet potatoes but butternut squash is a steal – go for the squash.  When you make your shopping list, you can do it on an app, in the notes section on your phone, or the old fashioned way with pen and paper. I make mine in the order of the grocery store I am shopping in so I can cross items off one by one without having to scan the entire list to make sure I’m not forgetting something before I move onto the next section of the store.

If the weekly circular tempts you with sugary cereals, cookies and candies on sale, don’t pick it up. You won’t miss out on a bargain because you’ll figure out which healthy foods are on sale when you look for the items on your list – all stores flag these items for you.

Quick sample meal ideas:

  • Rotisserie chicken, 10 minute brown rice (or thawed and microwave brown rice from your freezer), frozen veggies
  • Rotisserie chicken wraps with hummus (spread the hummus on first) and any crunch veggies you desire (shopped carrots, cucumbers etc.)
  • Whole-wheat pasta, spaghetti sauce and frozen turkey meatballs with added veggies such as cooked (or steamed) mushrooms, squash, zucchini
  • Whole wheat pasta, canned tuna, light cream of mushroom soup (either made into a casserole and baked along with frozen peas, ½ cup milk and chopped onions at 400ºF for 20 minutes or you can heat up the soup and mix the ingredients together and eat it.
  • Canned tuna, light mayo, chopped celery and onions for a tuna sandwich.
  • Grilled salmon drizzled with lemon, asparagus and a sweet potato.

4 – Storing and Packing

You can freeze almost any food and reheat it easily. Even brown rice – just cook it, let it cool completely and portion it into zip-loc bags (make sure no air is in the bag) for later. Two important things to remember when freezing foods – freeze them in airtight containers and label them so you know what you made and when it was frozen. The longer you leave food in the freezer the greater the likelihood of texture and taste changes over time (sometimes resulting in freezer burn). Foods that freeze well include:

  • Breads
  • Canned foods (once out of the can of course)
  • Casseroles (keep in mind that mayonnaise and other cream sauces do not freeze well)
  • Egg whites (raw)
  • Grains, cooked
  • Granola (homemade or store bought)
  • Herbs, fresh
  • Nuts, seeds (these should not be kept opened on shelves for long periods of time as they can go rancid)
  • Cheese – some types freeze better than others
  • Fish, poultry, meat (raw meat and poultry freezes better than cooked meat and poultry because of moisture lost during cooking).
  • Fruit, though this must be completely dry and frozen in portions (unless you want it stuck together in big clumps). The texture may change so fresh fruit that is frozen may be best used when blended in shakes.
  • Sauces
  • Soups, stews, stock
  • Yogurt – if you want to eat it frozen. If it defrosts the consistency isn’t so great.

Thaw food in the refrigerator, a microwave or immersed in cold water only (in a leak proof plastic bag submerged in the water that should be changed every 30 minutes), not out on countertops or in kitchen sinks.

Recommended Freezer Storage Time (for quality only, frozen food is safe indefinitely if left frozen).

Food Months
Bacon and Sausage 1 – 2
Casseroles 2 – 3
Egg whites or egg substitutes 12
Frozen dinners 3 – 4
Ham, hotdogs, lunchmeats 1 – 2
Meat, uncooked roasts 4 – 12
Meat, uncooked steaks or chops 4 – 12
Meat, uncooked ground 3 – 4
Meat, cooked 2 – 3
Poultry, uncooked whole 12
Poultry, uncooked parts 9
Poultry, cooked 4
Soups and stews 2 – 3
Wild game, uncooked 8 – 12

See, that wasn’t so tough! Get started planning, preparing and cooking right away. If there are a limited number of dishes you feel comfortable cooking, check out quick and easy cookbooks or resources on line. Each time you try a new recipe you’ll expand your horizons and taste buds and also be able to prepare a wider variety of meals on the fly in the future.

References
USDA. Freezing and Food Safety. http://www.fsis.usda.gov/factsheets/focus_on_freezing/