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5 Mistakes People Make When Choosing Organic

By Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD

Organic Produce

If you haven’t heard, a review study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that organic food isn’t any healthier than conventional. This got me thinking about organic food and its benefits in our diet — real and perceived.

Like most nutrition trends, mistakes are often made due to the “health halo” effect, meaning the benefits get exaggerated. With this new study in mind, here are some common mistakes people make when choosing organic.

1) Making organic the yardstick for “healthy:” “Everything I make is organic and from scratch” an acquaintance told me as she listed off the comfort foods she provides for her family. She assumed her meals are healthy because of the fresh, organic ingredients she uses. But from the sound of it, she uses her fair share of butter, high-fat meats, sugar, and cheese.

One thing this review study showed is that as far as nutrition goes (nutrients in food), organic and conventional are virtually the same. Using organic as the yardstick of a healthy diet is a big mistake.

2) Assuming organic means the same for all food products: Organic means different things for different types of food. For produce, organic means no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers were used in farming. But there will be less pesticide residues in fruits with a thick skin like bananas.

With organic dairy, red meat, chicken, or pork, the use of hormones and antibiotics is the key issue. But this is less important in poultry and hogs where the use of hormones isn’t allowed, ever! And in April of 2012, the FDA issued voluntary guidelines to encourage the judicious use of antibiotics, so they are only used to treat sick animals (and not for muscle growth and prevention of illness). Instead of relying on the organic label, consumers can find out more about how the animals are raised.

3) Ignoring other health aspects of food: Another mistake is ignoring other health considerations. The produce may be organic, for example, but if it travelled half way across the globe its quality — and taste — may suffer. This also means it was picked before ripeness and it took a lot of resources to reach you, which is not so great for the environment.

What may be more important in foods of animal origin is the diet that livestock are fed. Research shows grass-fed cows produce meat (and milk, cheese and yogurt) that contains more favorable fats (less saturated fat, more beneficial CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) and omega-3 fatty acids, and higher antioxidants. Not all organic meats are grass-fed, and not all farmers can afford the “organic” seal, so they may use less costly certified naturally grown, which is similar to organic standards.

4) Believing organic has fewer calories: In a 2010 study in the Journal of Judgment and Decision Making, cookies described as being made with “organic” ingredients, were rated as having fewer calories than cookies not labeled that way. The researchers believe that this misjudgment of organic may make overeating of less than nutritious foods more likely. Organic cookies are still cookies.

5) Misunderstanding the benefits: The organic label is one of many claims that can help consumers make purchasing decisions. According to the review study, organic produce lowered pesticide contamination by 30%, although all levels were below safety limits. There have been a couple of studies showing that children who eat organic diets have lower pesticide residues in their urine. Because their brains and bodies are still developing, this is an important consideration.

But the truth is, we don’t know (and may never) if low levels of pesticides do harm over the long run. And reasons for organic purchases often go beyond nutrition and health, including environmental concerns and animal welfare.

The key is to know why you are buying organic, and to remember that it is just one piece of the “health” puzzle.

Do you buy organic? And if so, why?

Photo: Digital Vision

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