It’s a question I’ve struggled with for some time: “Am I wasting my money if I buy organic / free range / grass fed meats and produce?” I mean, let’s face it, what an easy scam for a food producer to pull on a consumer. We know very little about the foods that we buy based on the information provided in the store. It’s not like there’s a pedigree on the steaks you buy, or a chemistry report on the carrots you just picked up. We count on our food providers to be honest with us and tell us that what we’re buying is actually nutritious. More important than that, does it really matter in the first place if we buy those foods instead of just the standard meats and produce scattered throughout the store?
The official stance I’ve found seems to be:
There is not enough evidence that organic foods are more or less nutritious than non-organic foods. Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean meats, low-fat dairy products, legumes and eggs are all nutritious regardless of whether or not they are organically grown.
That’s according to an article I found on unlockfood.ca a Canadian website. But even more recognizable websites, like the Mayo clinic don’t want to jump right in and say unequivocally whether there’s a benefit to buying organic foods. So unfortunately, I can’t tell you with any definitive certainty, that “Yes, organic is a healthier option.” The good news to that – if you’re a fan of organic – is that no-one can tell you definitively “No, organic is no healthier than standard foods.” either. So we’re going to have to make up our own minds about this.
With that said, did you think I would leave you without any sort of science or personal opinions to help you consider what’s best for you and your family? No way! Let’s dig into this a little bit!
Is Organic Important?
Since no-one is going to help us out, let’s take a look at some things that seem like logical conclusions. Let me start off by stating that I used to be a doubter. I was a firm believer that food was food, and organic was most likely a scam to help food companies increase their prices for practices that really didn’t matter or make a difference. But I have since changed my mind, and that is going to be the basis of the information that I’ll present to you here.
With that history out of the way, lets look at something we DO know as fact. If you eat nothing but unhealthy foods – junk food, fried food etc., avoiding anything healthy at all, your health will suffer. Your weight will increase, the percentage of body fat you retain will go up, you’ll develop things like clogged arteries, heart disease and diabetes, along with a plethora of other problems. I don’t think that anyone would disagree with the statement that a person who lives their life like this would be considered unhealthy. One of the chief definitions of “unhealthy” means to be in a state of illness – or to be sick.
So what does that mean to a vegetable? Well, in addition to what you may already know about organic produce not using pesticides or fertilizers, according to the organic trade association:
“It all starts with practices to help build healthy soils, which nurture the plants and help decrease the incidence of plant disease. In order to earn organic certification, land must be handled without prohibited materials for at least three years. With certification, organic farmers must develop an organic operating farm plan, which is overseen by their certification agency with annual third-party inspections.”
The important takeaway from that is the use of the term “healthy soils”. Healthy soil is rich in nutrients that the plants not only need to grow, but that they need to build the nutrients that we expect them to have. The less healthy the soil, the less healthy the produce. That last sentence is the one that’s up for debate, but I think there is some inherent logic to the assumption that healthy soil = healthy produce, along the same logic that a healthy diet = healthy people.
All Salads Are NOT Created Equal
So the question then becomes: Just how healthy is that salad that you’re eating? We presume it has a certain amount of nutrients in the vegetables used in it, but do we REALLY know those amounts? If a carrot is grown organically, in nutrient rich soil, then we can likely trust that the nutrient density has not be depleted, but if it’s grown in nutrient depleted soil, just how much vitamin A is really in that carrot? The USDA tests and keeps yearly records of “major food groups“ and their macro and micronutrient data dating back to 1909, but that’s for MAJOR FOOD GROUPS – not specific vegetables (to be fair, I did see tomatoes listed in their excel spreadsheets).
The interesting fact however, is that across the board, since they began testing, there are less nutrients in the foods we eat today, than there were a hundred years ago. The biggest difference in the foods themselves are GMO’s, pesticides, fertilizers and – maybe most importantly, and impacted by every aspect mentioned – is soil health. Since the organic movement seeks to do away with the modernized version of farming by eliminating all of the above and focusing on soil health, I think that’s another indicator that organic produce is likely healthier produce.
So, What About Meats?
I think it’s fair to apply the same logic to the meats we consume. We know that farm animals, if left in the wild will scavenge for their food – cows will graze on grass and wild plants, chickens will eat bugs, grasses and seeds and pigs will eat, well, pretty much anything, from leaves and roots to insects and even fish.
In order for an animal in the wild to eat, it must also move (or moove – if you’re into bad cow puns…) to find its food, which means it gets plenty of exercise, which equates to increased nutrient absorption due to increased blood flow. We know exercise is good for us and our health, so naturally it follows the same for an animal.
However, the way we factory farm in order to feed our population densities means that massive quantities of animals are kept in one place, in small pens, sometimes with limited or no movement available to them. They spread sickness and disease to one another routinely, and they’re fed the cheapest food they can be fed – grain feed, which is primarily ground corn, oats and/or barley – none of which are the natural food of choice for these animals. With such a narrow diet, and little exercise, I find it very difficult to believe that these animals are as healthy, or able to get the nutrients they need to be as healthy as a “free range grass fed” animal that’s living their life the way their ancestors have (more or less) for hundreds of thousands of years.
Remember when we (sort of) agreed that healthy diet = healthy people? The same goes for animals.
I’m not discussing this from a viewpoint of what’s nice or cruel to an animal. I understand we’re not raising “animals” per se in a factory farm, we’re raising food. I’m looking at this strictly from the point of nutrient density, and while there’s no “official” ruling on that subject, it seems pretty evident to me based on logic what the healthier choice is. An animal raised with limited to no exercise, eating what may be a nutrient deficient grain it’s not accustomed to vs. one obtaining it’s natural diet with plenty of walking and exercise simply cannot be as nutritious as the one living closer to nature and what its body has adapted to for millenia.
Nudge, Nudge, Wink, Wink
So if there is no official ruling on whether organic/free range is healthier than factory farmed (nudge, nudge, wink, wink), how do you make your own decision? Well, I think it’s important to form your own opinions, and decide for yourself. How important is it to you to get the nutrients out of your foods that you expect them to have? That’s not tongue in cheek, there’s plenty of evidence that can be pointed to that say that I’m wrong, and there are plenty of people leading long healthy lives out there, consuming standard meats and veggies. It boils down to what you think makes the most sense.
I’m a big believer that if you give a builder toothpicks and glue he can probably build you something resembling a house, but if you give him the proper materials, he can build you a better house. In people, the food is what determines whether our bodies are given toothpicks and glue, or lumber and nails, and it’s my opinion that organic / free range is the best chance we have of ensuring that we’re really arming ourselves with the best materials to build a healthy body.
So How Do You Know You’re “Getting The Good Stuff”?
From my research, it looks the the US Department of Agriculture has simplified things. They used to back a few different methods for different things – a label for organic, a label for grass fed, a label for free range etc., but looking at their certifications, it looks like they’ve decided to just go for one label (hint, it’s the one supporting this section!) That’s right, in a miracle, the government decided to simplify something! Look for the “USDA Organic” sticker on your foods to ensure they’re certified organic.
This label means that:
Been grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing, among many factors, soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives. Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible.
Animals raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors (like the ability to graze on pasture), fed 100% organic feed and forage, and not administered antibiotics or hormones.
One pitfall to look out for is the farmer’s market. While wonderful options to buy fresh meat and produce, bear in mind, there’s nothing stating that all participating farmers MUST supply only organic foods. So if you’re planning to hit up one of these places, make sure to check with the organizing entity, or ask the farm your purchasing from if the item your buying is organic.
Once again, I’m not an expert, and there really is no “official” ruling on whether organic is better or not, so if you have a different opinion, sound off in the comments! Teach me something, but for now, I feel organic is the best option for a healthy lifestyle.
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