Confused by the many labels and buzzwords that that cover product packaging these days? You’re not alone. Among the variety of “better for you” labels—low fat, gluten-free, natural, free-range, to name just a few—it can be a bit overwhelming to know which supermarket products are worth the hype. The organic label is one that continues to be on the rise. It’s no surprise that organics is a booming industry—supporting farming practices that better serve our health, animal welfare, and this glorious planet—is a standard backed by many companies and consumers. Still, it’s important to take a step back and examine how these products best fit into a healthy eating (and financial) plan.
At Ascend, we believe that a well-balanced diet rooted in whole foods and quality ingredients that feed our individual needs and taste preferences, is an important part of creating a healthy lifestyle that is both sustainable and enjoyable. Choosing a colorful variety of fresh fruits and vegetables is at the heart of this guidance, complimented by whole grains and quality protein sources. Not only is loading up on fruits and veggies helpful for our waistline, research shows the powerful nutrients in these foods can help reduce our risk of inflammation, prevent disease, and overall do our body (and mind) some good. Bring it on, right?
The dirty truth
Unfortunately, much of the produce farmed in our country is laden with pesticides and other chemicals that could pose harm to the health of our bodies and our environment. Conventional farmers use synthetic pesticides and herbicides to ward off pesky organisms and weeds and maximize crop output. Research shows that these toxic chemicals have been linked to health problems such as cancer, hormone disruption, brain toxicity and more. Far fewer pesticides are found on organic produce than conventional produce when tested (after washing).
Organic vs. Natural – what’s the difference?
Before you shop, know your labels. Organic and Natural are not interchangeable terms. Organic refers to products that have been processed without synthetic chemicals, genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge. It also means no antibiotics or growth hormones for livestock. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has implemented strict guidelines for organic certification and product labeling.
Here’s a peak at those guidelines:
· Products that carry the USDA organic seal and labeled “organic” must be made with 95% certified organic ingredients.
· A product labeled, “made with organic ingredients” must contain at least 70% certified organic ingredients.
· If less than 70% of the ingredients are certified organic, the certified organic ingredients can be indicated on the ingredient list but the product itself cannot be labeled as organic.
Natural is a labeling term that is unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration and can be misleading to consumers. Don’t be fooled. There is no formal definition in place, but it refers to food that does not contain artificial flavors, added color, or synthetic substances.
So, is organic food healthier?
There is conflicting research on whether the nutrient quality of organic produce is actually higher than its conventional counterpart. Some research shows higher antioxidant levels of organic produce, as well as a healthier balance of fats in animal products. When you get down to it, the quality of a farm’s soil—whether organic or not—play a larger role in determining nutrient levels. Many people choose to go organic due to more humane animal practices and restriction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
So how do you best optimize nutrients? Check out these tips:
· Shop locally. Frequenting your neighborhood farmer’s market provides the opportunity to ask about their pesticide and soil practices.
· Eat a variety. Change up your fruits and veggies to ensure nutrient variety and less repeated exposure to the same pesticides.
· Eat fresh food fast. Nutrient levels in plants naturally decrease after they’ve been picked so eating as close to harvest is best.
· Buy produce. Simply consuming more produce in general is hands-down more nutritious than reaching for processed foods!
· Read ingredient lists. Just because it dons the organic label does not mean a product is “healthy” as it can still be loaded with added sugar.
The hefty price tag of organic foods can really put a dent in your wallet if you go all out. Zone in on spending your hard-earned dollars where it matters most. The dirty dozen lists the most commonly eaten foods with the highest level of pesticide residue. Get the biggest bang for your buck by shopping these items organic (when possible), and save when it comes to the clean fifteen.
The benefit of eating fresh produce (and less processed foods) far outweighs the risk of pesticides from conventional produce. Fuel up for your Ascend rides by shopping local and choosing organic when you can (prioritizing animal products and the dirty dozen), but keep those fruits and veggies in your cart!
Blogpost written by Ascend content expert, Ashley Hart