We’ve all been hit with the organic food wave.

I fought it for a while, not wanting to join the wheatgrass shot-drinking, “Coexist” sticker hippies. Isn’t it just a fad any way? An apple is an apple…is an apple, right!?

Last summer, though, I had a chance encounter with the movie Food, Inc, which FLOORED me and left my mouth hanging open in disgust.

Check out a bit for yourself:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5eKYyD14d_0]

As movie critic, Jason Buchanon, states,

“The USDA and FDA are supposed to protect the public, so why is it that both government regulatory agencies have been complicit in allowing corporations to put profit ahead of consumer health, the American farmer, worker safety, and even the environment? As chicken breasts get bigger and tomatoes are genetically engineered not to go bad, 73,000 Americans fall ill from powerful new strains of E. coli every year, obesity levels are skyrocketing, and adult diabetes has reached epidemic proportions. Perhaps if the general public knew how corporations use exploited laws and subsidies to create powerful monopolies, the outrage would be enough to make us think more carefully about the food we put into our bodies.

Powerful, right!??

The SECOND the credits started rolling after the movie, I committed 100% to joining the organic groupies.

After doing more research, I learned that the the benefits DEFINITELY outweigh the costs (literally and figuratively) of being susceptible to disease, bacteria, parasites and infection.

Here is a condensed version of my findings to help make sense of it all so that you, too, can make the shift to fresh, organic food (and all of its benefits)!!

What’s organic and conventional farming? 

The Mayo Clinic shows an easy breakdown of the differences between both farming methods:

CONVENTIONAL ORGANIC
Apply chemical fertilizers to promote plant growth. Apply natural fertilizers, such as manure or compost, to feed soil and plants.
Spray insecticides to reduce pests and disease. Use beneficial insects and birds, mating disruption or traps to reduce pests and disease.
Use herbicides to manage weeds. Rotate crops, till, hand weed or mulch to manage weeds.
Give animals antibiotics, growth hormones and medications to prevent disease and spur growth. Give animals organic feed and allow them access to the outdoors. Use preventive measures — such as rotational grazing, a balanced diet and clean housing — to help minimize disease.

With three levels of organic products to choose from, with “100% organic” being the best choice, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines the different levels below:

  • “100% Organic:” Can only contain organic ingredients, meaning no antibiotics, hormones, genetic engineering, radiation or synthetic pesticides or fertilizers can be used. Can display the USDA organic logo and/or the specific certifying agent’s logo.
  • “Organic:” Contains 95% organic ingredients, with the balance coming from ingredients on the approved National List. These products can also display the USDA organic logo and/or the certifier’s logo.
  • “Made with Organic Ingredients:” Must be made with at least 70% organic ingredients, three of which must be listed on the package, and the balance must be on the National List. These products may display the certifier’s logo but not the USDA organic logo.
Look for the logos below to identify organic food in your local grocery stores!

In addition to the term “organic,” there are also several related terms (just to confuse us further) to look for when shopping to ensure you are getting the best quality product.

  • Free-range: The flock was provided shelter in a building, room, or area with unlimited access to food, fresh water, and continuous access to the outdoors (may be fenced and/or covered with netting). Regulated by USDA.
  • Cage-free: The flock was able to freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water.
  • Natural: Must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. ONLY applies to meat, poultry, and egg products and does NOT include any standards for farm practices. There are no standards or regulations for labeling other natural food products (besides meat or eggs). 
  • Grass-fed: The flock receives a majority of their nutrients from grass (their natural diet!!) while organic animals’ pasture diet may be supplemented with grain. The grass-fed label does NOT limit the use of antibiotics, hormones, or pesticides. Meat products may be labeled as grass-fed organic. Regulated by USDA.

Why should you care what animals are fed?? 

Grain = bad in both humans and animals (more on that later).

We all know that animals’  natural diets involve a majority of grass, so why would feeding them corn and other grains even enter the picture? Grain fattens the animals, creating the “marbling” of fat in meat, and it is subsidized, and therefore cheaper.

Omega-6:Omega-3 Ratio Matters

This throws the healthy Omega 6:Omega 3 ratios WAY out of proportion (which are important for managing inflammation and disease), which means less “good” fats and MORE “bad” fats. Case-in-point, most grain-fed animals have a 20:1 ratio, and most grass-fed animals have a 3:1 ratio.

Along with hormones to make them grow faster, grain causes animals to get sick, which is why they are given so many antibiotics. This is just the tip of the iceberg, as we haven’t even covered its damage to the quality of soil and natural resources, or the inhumane treatment of animals…

Why you should buy organic!

study done comparing the chemical composition and nutritional value of organically and conventionally grown plant foods found the following:
  • “…a significantly higher amount of certain antioxidants (vitamin C, polyphenols and flavonoids) and minerals…”
  • Lower level of pesticide residues and heavy metal contaminants
  • Risk of diseases caused by contaminants is significantly reduced

The President’s Cancer Panel, which monitors and executes activities of the National Cancer Program and reports DIRECTLY to the President, printed a report with the following:

  • “Exposure to pesticides can be decreased by choosing… food grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers”
  • “Exposure to environmental contaminants can result in harm to health because they may alter or interfere with a variety of biologic processes, including hormone production and function, DNA damage, and gene expression or suppression.”
  • “Exposure to antibiotics, growth hormones, and toxic run-off from livestock feed lots can be minimized by eating free-range meat raised without these…”
  • “The number and prevalence of known or suspected carcinogens is growing… waste and by-products… and other chemicals used in farming and for landscaping…”
  • “In the United States, about 42 billion pounds of chemicals are produced or imported daily. Many of these chemicals are used in massive quantities exceeding one million tons per year. Exposure limits have been set for some of these substances, but the vast majority are unregulated.”

Plus, every time you choose organic, you support sustainable agriculture, and healthy soil and water, which helps combat climate change and prevents damage and exposure to chemicals.And if all of that powerful information is not enough to convince you, I don’t know what is!??

Why does organic cost more?

Organic food doesn’t always cost more!  In fact, some items, like coffee and cereal (though I don’t advocate for eating grain!) may cost the same or even less than their conventional versions.

The organic market continues to boom and hire more employees exponentially as well (8% growth in 2010!), which means that costs will continue to come down. In fact:

  •  4 in 10 families are now buying more organic products than they did a year ago.
  • 78% of U.S. families now buy organic food at least sometimes, according to the latest research from the Organic Trade Association.

Organic.org points out some powerful considerations for the cost of organic food as well:

  • Organic farmers don’t receive federal subsidies like conventional farmers do; therefore, the price of organic food reflects the true cost of growing.
  • The price of conventional food does not reflect the cost of environmental cleanups that we pay for through our tax dollars.
  • Organic farming is more labor and management intensive.
  • Organic farms are usually smaller than conventional farms and so do not benefit from the economies of scale that larger growers get.

PLUS, if you aren’t purchasing processed, packaged chemicals, as in chips, cereals, candy, bread and the like, that will save money towards the real, good stuff!!

So… what foods should you really buy organic?

Whether at the grocery store or purchasing from a local farmers’ market, make sure to either look for the USDA Organic logo or look for the following:

Meat, Eggs & Dairy

  • Organic, grass-fed and free-range

Fruits & Vegetables

  • Apples
  • Bell Peppers
  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • Cherries
  • Grapes (imported)
  • Kale
  • Lettuce
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Strawberries

So, there you have it… Your own personal guide to navigating the organic food hype, and reasons to hop on the bandwagon with the rest of us!!Check out the resources below for additional information on smart organic shopping in your area as well!

Organic Resources

Eat Well Guide – Local, organic, sustainable, seasonal food from farms, markets, restaurants and more

Local Harvest – Farmers’ markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area

Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides – List of produce with the highest & lowest pesticide levels

U.S. Wellness Meats – Purchase grass-fed, organic meat