“You are what you eat.” We’ve all heard this, and yet most of us never read the ingredients in the foods we eat. And if we do, we have little awareness of whether the ingredients are harmful or not. Our bodies are amazingly resilient, and can survive repeated exposure to unhealthy substances. And yet we wonder why, in spite of the advances in modern medicine, we continue to suffer from chronic conditions.
Organic food is getting more attention these days as people are taking a more thoughtful look at what they’re eating. For most of my life, I simply trusted that if it’s on the shelves of the grocery store, it must have passed some sort of test of the FDA or the USDA, which have been granted the authority to monitor and regulate the safety our food supply. While I’m not completely cynical about the good work that these organizations do, I have little confidence that they are acting in the best interest of consumers – particularly as the food industry seems to have a virtual revolving door into their offices.
I adopted a vegetarian diet after learning about the mainstream meat industry, which regularly uses hormones, antibiotics and unnatural feed additives in an effort to maximize profits while offering a cheap meal. Of course, there are other important concerns, including food economics, animal cruelty and the impact of excessive animal fat on human health. Yet eating vegetables from the corporate farm may be equally unhealthy, with the widespread use of chemicals in all aspects of food production. This includes fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides on the farm, as well as irradiation, preservatives and other additives in the processing plants.
The common myth is that eating organic is expensive. That notion is well-founded, particularly if your shopping experience is limited to the “organic aisle” of the traditional supermarket or upscale stores like Whole Foods (occasionally referred to as “Whole Paychecks!”) In fact, Whole Foods is a relatively affordable source for organic produce, even if the other foods are more expensive. Stores like Trader Joe’s offer an ever-widening array of organic options that are falling into line with traditional counterparts. Farmers markets are another great source, though you’ll have to confirm the extent to which each vendor embraces organic farming.
Here are some general guidelines to help you prioritize your shopping habits:
- Meat & Dairy: Look for antibiotic and hormone free meats and dairy products, fed an organic diet with free-range access to pasture. You can absolutely expect to pay higher prices for these products, but eating lower on the food chain more regularly will enable you to offset these higher prices.
- GMO Crops: While there is lively debate about the health and safety of Genetically Modified Organisms, it’s best to avoid them. The four most commonly modified crops include corn, soybeans, cotton and canola. Hawaiian papaya, zucchini and squash are also high-risk crops.
- Fresh Produce: The following produce have the highest pesticide residues: peaches, apples, peppers, celery, cherry tomatoes, nectarines, berries, cherries, pears, grapes, spinach, lettuce and potatoes. If you can’t afford to buy everything organic, make these a priority.
- Frozen Produce: Often organic produce is less expensive when frozen and may have more nutrients. Produce is frozen when it is still fresh, and more plentiful when it’s in season.
- Bulk Foods: You can save money by shopping for organics in bulk, and avoid excess packaging as well.
There are a variety of resources available to help you navigate the complex food world. FoodBabe.com offered 75 tips to eat organic on a budget, and Organic.org offers more background on the reasons to eat organic foods and how to best go about it.
The bottom line here: it’s better to pay the farmer rather than the doctor. Eat healthy, organic foods and you’re likely to stay healthy.
This was published in the Going Green section of the July 2013 issue of Spirit Seeker magazine.