THE BIG ORGANIC FOOD DEBATE
ALICE MACKINTOSH, NUTRITIONAL THERAPIST
Almost every client I see wants advice on whether or not they should be eating organic food. Some people consider it to be overly expensive, untrustworthy and unsustainable to the planet. We also ask ourselves whether it’s actually better for us, as we spend up to a third more buying milk from cows fed an organic diet, or fruits and vegetables that haven’t been sprayed with potentially harmful pesticides.
A recent landmark study led by the Swedish University of Agricultural Scientists, commissioned and published by the EU parliament, has warned about the potential dangers on human health of many of the pesticides, medications (such as antibiotics) and other chemicals that we may be ingesting. Many of these chemicals, which are currently used to make farming processes more efficient and productive, have previously been deemed safe. This research challenges previous evidence ahead of the EU’s review of their current policies on what is actually safe for human consumption, which is set to be announced next year. The study suggests that there is evidence that some pesticides and insecticides may actually be damaging our brains and reducing the IQ of the population. It also raises concerns about potential cancer risks and damage to our reproductive systems.
The researchers recommend limiting exposure to non-organic fruit and vegetables and say particular care should be taken by pregnant women and children. The other worry is that many of these chemicals are tested in isolation, not as part of a cocktail. USDA researchers have found over 170 different types of chemicals and breakdown products on common foods, some of which remain even after washing.
This latest review is one of many that echo the same sentiment, which is extremely concerning for those of us who have been eating non-organic food for years.
So what should we be doing? Should we eat fully organic, and how on earth are we going to pay for it?!
Pick and Choose Your Fruit and Vegetables
Some fruits and vegetables can be sprayed multiple times before they gets to us, especially if they have to travel around the world to get to our plate. But this doesn’t necessarily make them less nutritious or mean that we shouldn’t be eating them. We can take easy steps that don’t cost the earth to limit our toxic burden. To help guide us through this process and understand what is safe and what isn't, the EWG publishes the “Dirty Dozen” list; the 12 most toxic fruits & vegetables. The rankings are in large part determined by whether the skin of any particular food is eaten, where it is grown and how much it needs to be sprayed. The list is refreshed every year, with the most recent suggesting that we should be trying to avoid the following non-organic fruits and vegetables in order to limit our chemical exposure:
- Strawberries (the highest in the USA – seasonal UK strawberries may not be as toxic but be cautious anyway!)
- Sweet bell peppers
Whether organic or not, it is always vital to wash fruit and vegetables thoroughly before use.
What About Dairy?
I always suggest that my clients choose organic dairy products wherever possible – especially milk and yoghurt if you consume them daily. This is because organic cows are fed grass and grains that contain fewer pesticides, meaning we are likely to get exposure passed on. Some organic milk has also been found to have higher levels of important nutrients such as omega-3 and iron. If the grass the cows have been fed on is rich in clover, there may also be added benefits from higher iodine, vitamin D, A and E. Organic cows are also administered fewer antibiotics, which is likely to be a good thing for us.
Meat and Fish
When it comes to choosing our meat and fish, going organic is great but so much more expensive, to the point that many simply cannot afford to do so... which isn’t ideal, especially for growing children who need protein, iron, omega-3, B12 and other nutrients that are found in abundance in animal food sources.
However, an organic label is not a guarantee that meat and fish are healthier. We also need to consider the quality of life and living conditions of the animals – how much light are they exposed to; how much can they spread their wings/legs; how stressed are they; what are they fed (whether organic or not). All of these things go a long way to determining how healthy an animal, and its produce (milk, eggs), will be. Studies show that the more nutritious the diet of an animal (grass over grain for example), the more nutritious the meat. We also know that animals that are less stressed are healthier and more resistant to infection than unhappy animals which are cooped up, and likely require less medication too.
The answer with this one is to try to choose good quality produce – going to butchers, buying at local farmers markets, buying eggs from local farms or choosing produce where you can clearly see the animal has been treated and fed well. For example, Clarence House Eggs or Omega 3-rich diet fed chickens, neither of which are organic, are great options and don’t cost as much as organic. I also advise people to eat seasonally, locally and go for cheaper cuts of meat that just need to be cooked more imaginatively compared to a standard chicken breast. Game meats for example are normally cheaper, extremely nutritious and sustainable.
Fish is a little more difficult as wild fish tends to be better than farmed (whether organic or not), but is often much more expensive. Get what you can though, and maybe consider sourcing from your local fishmonger.
To go organic is really a question of personal values and ultimately cost. Wherever possible, go organic for dairy and Dirty Dozen ingredients, go local/seasonal where you can and source your meat and fish from trustworthy local butchers and fishmongers, and with animal welfare in mind. And to limit chemicals in your diet in general, wash your fruit and veg thoroughly and eat fewer refined, processed and packaged foods!
As with all articles on www.alicemackintosh.com, this is no substitution for individual medical or nutritional advice. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information
Main photo credit – Laura Edwards