What do you do when you’ve been diagnosed with a food allergy and your favourite foods are taken away? Fear not! Each month FBC member and certified nutritionist, Sondi Bruner, takes a look at how to adapt to an allergen-friendly diet, while still eating delicious and healthy food. This month she discusses organic food and what to keep in mind when considering buying organic.
So is all of this organic stuff for real, or is it simply marketing hype?
A few years ago, in 2012, you might recall a study from Stanford making headlines across multiple news platforms. It declared organic produce no more nutritious than conventional, and reporters and pundits across North America told us we were wasting our money on what was essentially snake oil. Then, in 2014, another meta-analysis of 343 studies revealed the opposing view: that compared to conventional, organic produce contains more nutrients such as antioxidants, as well as lower concentrations of heavy metals and pesticide residues.
As consumers, how do we sort through all of our choices and make the best ones for our health? In this post, I'll walk you through some of the things to keep in mind when considering whether to buy organic.
Organic Food in Canada: What is It?
You can't just slap an organic label on a product whenever you please. Organic food production is regulated in Canada, and it involves a rigorous set of rules and regulations. To make a very long and complicated story short, organic agriculture aims to create a holistic system that supports the health of the soil, plants, humans, animals and the planet. In practice, organic agriculture rules dictate what we can put in the soil, how we treat weeds and pests, what we feed to animals and how we house them, and how the farm ecosystem is maintained. (You can read up on the complete rules of organic practices here.)
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is in charge of regulating organic products to protect us as consumers and reduce confusion about what qualifies as organic and what doesn't. A product can only be labelled with the Canada Organic logo if it contains at least 95 percent organic ingredients. If something has 70 to 95 percent organic content, the label must say "contains x% organic ingredients" and can't use the Canada Organic logo. However, logo use on product packaging is voluntary, so it's entirely possible that something could be organic and not labelled as such, though given the popularity of organic food, I don't see many companies opting not to do so.
For bulk produce, you can identify organic fruits and veggies by the number on the PLU code — any sticker with a number that starts with a '9' means organic.
The Pros of Buying Organic
I don’t think that organic food is a scam. Organically grown fruits and vegetables:
- Contain less pesticides and herbicides, and no synthetic pesticides. Pesticides have been linked to numerous chronic conditions, including cancer, neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, birth defects, and reproductive disorders. There are so many toxins we're exposed to in our environment that we can't control or change, but we can reduce our chemical exposure via the food we choose to buy. What we decide not to eat can be as crucial as what we do consume, and diminishing pesticides is important to me. Note that organic food doesn't mean there are absolutely zero pesticides. Since organic farms don't exist in a bubble they may have residues from non-organic agriculture, but they will have the lowest possible residues.
- Can be better for the soil and environment. I appreciate that organic agriculture approaches food holistically, taking the soil, water, land, animals and us into account. While organic food certainly uses energy and water, this Canadian report suggests energy consumption in organic agriculture is still lower than conventional and confers important environmental benefits.
- Retain more nutrients. Whenever I eat, I aim to make that meal or snack the most nutrient-dense as possible. If organic produce can give me a nutritional edge, I will definitely take it. Based on the latest research, organic foods contain a higher concentration of antioxidants — these are important compounds that mitigate cell damage.
Whenever I can afford it, I choose to buy organic. And I'm not alone: Canadians are certainly showing more interest in organic food at the grocery store. The organic market in Canada has tripled in the last decade, raking in about $3 billion annually. According to research by the Canada Organic Trade Association, 58 percent of us purchase organic products every week, and that includes demographics of all socio-economic backgrounds.
What to Consider When Buying Conventional
Organic does not always equal healthy. A conventionally-grown banana is objectively healthier than an organic double chocolate-chocolate chip fudge cookie (though sometimes you just want a damn cookie, and that's totally okay). Sometimes, consumers get sucked into the false mindset of "It's organic! It must be good for me!" The organic, gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan junk food industry is thriving, but those processed items usually don't support our health.
Depending on where you live, it's not always easy to access organic food. Eating a diet that focuses on fresh, whole and unprocessed foods, even if those foods are not organic, is far better for you than eating fatty, processed, sugary, artificial crap. So fruits and veggies of all kinds are still good for you!
There are certain conventional items that have lower amounts of pesticides on them. Check out the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. This is an amazing resource that suggests which fruits and veggies are better to buy organic, and when to choose conventional. Each year they release a list of "Dirty Dozen" fruits and veggies, as well as a "Clean Fifteen" list. It's so helpful! Consumer Reports also has a risk guide for buying conventional produce and a video cheat sheet.
It's worth noting that pesticides pose a greater health risk to children; they are smaller and more vulnerable and pesticides can affect their development and brain chemistry.
Another thing to keep in mind is that it's extremely expensive for farms and businesses to become officially "certified organic." There are many farmers out there who use organic growing practices and companies using pesticide-free ingredients, but they can’t afford the paperwork. That's why it's important to talk to your local farmers and ask them how they grow their food, or speak to business owners about what goes into their products.
How to Make Organic Food More Affordable
Don’t get discouraged if you think organic food is not in your budget. With careful purchasing and sourcing, you can incorporate organics into your diet without breaking the bank. Here's how:
- Buy organic selectively. Purchase organic foods when their conventional counterparts are higher in pesticides (such as the Dirty Dozen).
- Stay away from organic junk food and packaged meals. The organic cookies, crackers and chips are expensive. Skip the processed foods and buy ingredients — fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, grains, etc. — instead and prepare meals and snacks at home.
- Purchase locally from farmers' markets. They're not just for Portlandia-style hippies. As this US study found, food at farmers' markets can actually be less expensive than produce at the grocery store. You also have the opportunity to chat with farmers and potentially grab end-of-day deals. Buying locally, where food travels less from farm to plate, and seasonally will definitely save you money.
- Choose inexpensive whole organic foods. Some foods, whether they're organic or not, are more expensive than others. Generally, items like onions, garlic, carrots, cabbage, bananas, potatoes, beans, legumes and most grains are cheaper than things like asparagus, berries, mangos and avocado.
- Start slowly. If buying organic food is something you value, start slowly. You may want to begin by choosing organic for one thing you eat abundantly. (I would also recommend buying organic animal products and eat less of them.) And then you can incorporate more organics if your budget allows for it, or if you decide you want to go that route.
- Grow your own. You can decide exactly what you want to eat and what you put on your plants. For a handy guide to growing a garden, check out this post about how to create an edible garden.
Food is a very personal choice, and organic food is no exception. It's up to each person (or family) to decide if organic food is appropriate based on health goals, economics and values. Whether you purchase organic or not, moving away from processed foods toward whole foods is always a good first step. We can never forget that here in Canada we are so very fortunate to be grappling with the choices of what to eat.
Check out more of Sondi’s Allergen-Friendly Remixes for great ideas on revamping your favourite recipes to make them allergen friendly!
- Animal Products
- The FBC Guide to Using Gluten-Free Flours
- Side Dishes
- Dairy-Free Smoothies
- Chocolate Chip Cookies
Got a favourite recipe you’d like to see get an allergen-friendly makeover? Let us know in the comments!
Sondi Bruner is a holistic nutritionist, freelance writer and food blogger. She educates people who follow allergen-friendly diets about how to eat simply, deliciously and safely, allowing them to rediscover the pleasure of food. When she’s wearing her writer’s hat, she works with natural health brands to create content that will help their customers live fulfilling, healthful lives. Find out more at www.sondibruner.com. Or you can follow Sondi on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.