Organic food is hip hip hip these days, and it is on its way to being trendier than thou. I've been buying organic for years, and am rather delighted and bemused by the trend. Lots of ink is spilled on organics, but it's all rather simple: organic food is produced without synthetic chemicals - whether it is hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, or fertilizer. For that reason, organic food is great, but if you are budget constrained, you are much better off eating more unprocessed "conventional" food than focusing on organic. No contest. In fact, you are doing great if you are eating unprocessed foods, regardless of whether it's organic or not.
Lots of trade-offs are made in producing food, and I don't believe organic food will solve the world's ills. I buy organic for two reasons:
- I avoid putting chemicals in my body when possible - I get plenty of chemicals from things I don't even think about (like my furniture, street traffic, park grass) so I prefer to reduce what I can
- It is generally better for the environment and animals
- is more nutritious. It seems to make sense, but I can't prove it. There are some foods that are more nutritious (organic spinach has more Vitamin C and iron), but in general, this is unproven. Studies go both ways, and if it were true, it would be touted widely by the organic and industrial growers (agribusiness has invested in organic operations too, they're not stupid)
- tastes better. I find this to be true sometimes, but not always. Anyway, my palate isn't refined enough to tell.
- is more environmental. A lot of organic food is shipped far distances (bananas don't grow well in the northeast). The environmental toll from shipping can outweigh the benefits or organic practices. BUT, large industrial organic shippers may be able to achieve enough volume that the carbon toll of their shipping is less than that of inefficient local growers. It's a complicated calculus that you need to figure out.
- is kinder to animals. There are no hormone and antibiotic injections, and feed is more natural. But then again, there are dairies that use rBGH but have high living standards for cows, like free pasture.
- is grown by virtuous family farmers that practice high-quality natural farming practices like rotating crops and paying fair living wages to labor. Sometimes that's true, but not always. Some organic food is grown by large business (which doesn't make it bad), and some are grown by jerks. Unless you know the grower, you can't make any assumptions.
While organic is fantastic, "conventional" foods came along as a way to grow food more efficiently. This reduces the price of food, and if you don't have the budget to spend on organic, then conventional food is perfect. It's better to buy unprocessed conventional food than processed organic food. I see organic processed food like mac & cheese or crackers - it's still processed junk! Even if it is organic. Prepare and eat unprocessed foods!
If you want to start purchasing more organics, it's best to focus on meats, dairy and the "Dirty Dozen." These foods have the highest levels of pesticides. You can reduce your pesticide exposure 90% if you avoid the most contaminated (Dirty Dozen) and eat the least contaminated. Here is a pocket list of the new Dirty Dozen and Clean 15. The more demand there is for organic food, the more availability there will be.
What to do
- Buy and prepare unprocessed food, whether it's conventional or organic, frozen or fresh. Unprocessed is best.
- If you can allocate a small amount toward organic food, focus on organic meat and dairy as these have a high concentration of pesticides, hormones and antibiotics.
- If your budget allows for more organics and you are concerned about pesticides, focus on purchasing organic versions of the dirty dozen and conventional versions of the clean 15. Organic produce may spoil faster since it isn't pumped full of preservatives (yuck!) so you may want to use it more quickly.
- If you want to limit the environmental impact of your food, you are awesome. Buy organic or local. Organic and local is best, but it's not always possible, so think about the environmental toll of shipping (scale of volume, distance, etc).
- Talk to the growers at your local greenmarket. Just because it's not labeled organic doesn't mean the grower isn't using great farming practices.
- Grow some of your own food. Do a little research and find out what's easy in your area. For example, zucchini and tomatoes are easy in the Northeast. Even the Obamas are planting a garden on the White House Lawn!
What I ate: 14 oz. green juice, 12 oz. cafe au lait, cheese, 2 oz. Mindful Mix, 2 oz. pumpkin seeds, whole wheat spaghetti + Rao's Sicilian sauce + spaghetti, 10 apricots, 1 apple, 4 crackers and cheese, 6 squares of dark chocolate, 6 zuchinni sticks, 4 celery sticks, lump crab meat, tuna burger + 1/2 bun, pickled vegetables, 1/2 chocolate pie, 55 oz. water