Defining what it really means to eat organic
By Caroline Shannon-Karasik
“Organic.” It’s not exactly a new term or one with which we do not all come in contact each time we hit up the grocery store.
But is it a label that we all understand?
Ask the average person what “organic” means and they’re bound to come up with a general definition. But challenge him to tell you the difference between “natural” and “organic,” and it becomes a bit more difficult.
Why? Because there are so many damn labels these days that boast a food’s health properties that figuring out what it all means can be enough to cause a shopper to head straight for the frozen meal section and call it a day.
But Kim Barnouin, author of the bestselling, tell-it-like-it-is book “Skinny Bitch,” and the newly-released “Skinny Bitch: Home, Beauty & Style: A No-Nonsense Guide to Cutting the Crap Out of Your Life for a Better Body and Kinder World,” says there is one simple rule to remember when analyzing labels:
“The only label to look for and trust is the USDA Certified Organic stamp, the term ‘natural’ or ‘authentic’ doesn’t mean anything — companies can put whatever they want on the packaging except the organic label,” Barnouin said. “Free-range, however, does have some merit. It means the animal has been able to roam freely outside instead of being confined all day everyday. [But] the USDA does not specify to farmers how much space is needed for the animals to roam or how much time they should be allowed out. Looking for the term ‘organic’ with the USDA stamp is the safest way to choose organic foods.”
Carol Goland, executive director of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, agrees with Barnouin, explaining that farmers and processors have to go through a very involved process on an annual basis to use that label, and it is highly verified.
“’Certified organic’ is really kind of a prestigious label,” Goland said in a news release. “By and large, unless it says ‘certified organic,’ it is not organic, and consumers can’t have that assurance.”
That process of earning a “certified organic” label is what author and green living expert Alexandra Zissu says makes it the only way to go when shopping for organic grocery items.
“[It’s] the only government regulated and third party certified label,” Zissu said. “There are sometimes definitions of the other terms, and a lot is inferred, but no regulation.”
“If you want to buy something that is labeled ‘natural,’ then it’s a good idea to either know the company you’re buying from, read labels, or get in touch with that manufacturer to see what that word means to them — and how they’re backing up their claims. There are other certifications that are third party certified you might find on a package that also uses a term like ‘free range’ — say AWA (animal welfare approved). If you see that, the claim free-range becomes more realistic and trustworthy. Generally speaking, it’s all hype.”
Speaking of “hype,” while we are a lot clearer on labeling and what consumers should be looking for when shopping to fill the fridge, there are a lot of naysayers who take issue with purchasing organic foods at all. In fact, one of the top complaints is that organic food is just too pricey to even consider as an option.
“I think it’s important to take stock of your priorities, for some people they find it a top priority to buy mostly all organic,” Barnouin said. “However, I find that most people can successfully get away with being somewhere in the middle.”
Barnouin points to the fruits and veggies that are most important to purchase organic as a result of the heavy pesticides that are used on them. By leaning on a resource like the Environmental Working Group’s (www.ewg.org) “Dirty Dozen,” Barnouin says a consumer can pinpoint the items that are crucial to purchase organic while still keeping within his or her budget. The group also offers a “Clean Fifteen” list, teaching consumers about the foods that are A-OK to eat conventional. Options like this, Barnouin says, help shoppers to find a healthy balance that is not wreaking havoc on their cash flow.
“I also believe in buying from your local farmers market,” Barnouin said. “The prices are typically cheaper and they provide foods grown in season and locally, which will support their farms.”
Zissu says it’s also important to pay attention to the other things that are going into a shopping cart in addition to the organic items that are being purchased.
“I’ve done experiments with clients, readers, and for magazines before where I shop along side someone in a supermarket and when we compare baskets at the end of a shopping trip, we’ve both spent the same amount of money — and mine is mainly organic/local/fair trade,” Zissu said. “Packaged food and things like bottled water and soda are very expensive! If you reduce the amount of packaged foods you buy, and mainly buy whole foods (i.e. how it came out of the earth — a potato, not a potato chip), you can really save money.”
Zissu also offers a few additional tips:
1. Reduce the amount of takeout food you eat. This costs so much money! Spend what you save on local/organic food and cook more often.
2. Start making your own lunch — another huge money saver. Plus, you’re in charge of ingredients. Making an organic lunch rather than buying it out saves a remarkable amount of cash (and you can use reusable containers).
3. Reduce the amount of meat you eat per day and per week. Start to think of meat as a condiment you work into other parts of a meal. You’ll save more than enough money to buy grass-fed/pastured/well raised meat. In my latest book, ‘The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat,’ we talk about how to get 10 meals of meat on $50. It’s impressive.
What’s also astounding about organic produce are the health benefits that come hand-in-hand with eating a cleaner diet.
“There’s something cool about eating clean foods without all the extra crap in them,” Barnouin said. “Research has shown that organically grown foods are higher in cancer-fighting chemicals, have higher levels of antioxidants, and are more nutrient dense than conventionally grown foods.”
Zissu added: “It’s better for you, the planet, and the farmers who raise/grow it. Sprayed pesticides don’t just stay on an apple — they go into our groundwater and come back to us in our drinking water. They make the people who grow our food sick, and their kids — who grow up on the farms — sick, too. Agriculture is a system. By choosing an organic apple, I am reducing my own pesticide intake, but I’m also keeping those pesticides out of our shared drinking water, and making sure my farmers’ kids are as safe from those sprays as my own.”
But, while the overall benefits of organic foods are evident, don’t be fooled into thinking “organic” always equals “healthy.”
“[I see that] people see the USDA organic seal and stop thinking, stop reading labels — to them that seal means they can turn off,” Zissu said. “This is a misconception. Organic gummy bears are still junk food!”
That’s right: You’re still not getting a pass on those gummy bears — organic or not.
Caroline Shannon-Karasik has been a long-distance runner for 15 years and is a certified Pilates instructor. She is the author of the healthy living blog, TheGSpotRevolution.com. Reach DCP freelance writer Caroline Shannon-Karasik at CarolineShannon-Karasik@DaytonCityPaper.com.