Friday, June 15, 2012

Organic and "clean label" food choices made simple

One question I've often been asked, and something I myself have been figuring out over the past few years, is how big a role organic foods should play in our diets. Because I try to avoid black and white thinking ("this is good for you, this is bad for you"), I try not to let myself be overly concerned or obsessive about eating only organic foods. In fact, this obsession with organic foods or so-called "healthy" foods is considered by some to be an eating disorder in and of itself, called orthorexia (here's an interesting article about orthorexia from the Huffington Post). 

First of all, I should start with a little introduction about what organic means.  When something is stamped "Certified Organic," it means that the USDA has inspected the farm or facility where the food item was produced, and confirmed that it complies with the guidelines necessary for organic certification.  This means a whole list of things, including the fact that synthetic fertilizers, irradiation, genetic engineering, and sewage sludge (umm...eww!) may not be used in the production of the food item.  It's important to note that "organic" and "natural" are not synonymous, so don't be fooled by this tricky labeling tactic!  "Natural", according to the USDA (explained here) means that the product is minimally processed and does not contain artificial ingredients.  However, this only applies to the processing of meat and egg products, so there are no standards or regulations in place for any other type of product that makes this label claim. In other words, a product labeled "natural" may or may not actually mean that it's minimally processed, because there's no regulation of this whatsoever! Those tricky bastards!

When it comes to making food choices, I try to do my best without getting too obsessed with it.  While I feel that it's definitely important to be aware of what you're putting in your body, I also understand that eating small amounts of processed or not-so-organic foods will not kill me, and that stressing about it will probably do more harm than eating them.  One thing I've been trying to do lately is look for foods with "clean labels."  This means checking out the ingredients label and avoiding ones that are excessively long and contain ingredients that are hard to pronounce, sound "chemical-y", or say things like "hydrogenated."  Instead, I look for foods with a short list of ingredients that I can actually recognize as real food items.

Wow! That's a lot of ingredients! And what the heck is sodium stearoyl lactylate?!

This is more like it! Any of these items could potentially be found in your pantry.

Again, I try not to get too obsessed with the whole organic thing, because I realize that eating a few highly-processed, long-ingredient-labelled foods won't immediately make me unhealthy.  Basing your diet heavily on these items (as many Americans seem to be doing these days), however, can certainly be detrimental to your health, as our bodies are much more adept at processing real, whole foods, than they are at breaking down foods with chemicals or ingredients that are modified in a lab.

So, where do you go from here?  I would recommend starting by taking a critical look at the ingredient labels of the foods you buy, avoiding those with crazy long lists of hard-to-pronounce ingredients, and opting for those with ingredients you can actually recognize.  Next, I would start buying the organic versions of foods that are known to be heavily processed or that contain higher amounts of pesticides, including meat and poultry, as well as certain fruits and vegetables.  Buying organic meat and poultry assures that the animals are fed what they should be, aren't given hormones or unnecessary antibiotics, and are treated more humanely.  These products also contain higher amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids and are just generally healthier for you, as well as for the environment.  As for fruits and vegetables, beware of the "Dirty Dozen", which are those known to contain higher amounts of pesticides (and not ones you can wash off!).  Below you'll see the Dirty Dozen list, which are items that you should try to always buy organic, as well as the Clean 15, which are fruits and vegetables that are lowest in pesticides, and therefore not necessary to buy organic.

Making these simple changes-- buying "clean label" foods, opting for organic meat and poultry, and choosing the organic versions of foods on the "Dirty Dozen" list-- can have a real impact on your health.  I also like to think of my organic purchases as a "vote" for retailers to carry more of these types of items-- the more people "vote" for these kinds of foods, the higher the demand will be, and the lower the prices.  Also, buying at local farmer's markets is a great way to get quality produce (sometimes not "certified organic" because it's rather expensive for some small farms to get this certification, but you can ask the farmer directly about the use of pesticides) at reasonable prices, while supporting your local economy at the same time.

The take home message is this: "Healthy" eating, whether you're talking about fat and sugar content, "clean labels", or organic foods, doesn't have to be all or nothing.  Making small changes and trying to make the bulk of your diet come from whole, minimally-processed foods should be the goal, and small amounts of packaged, processed foods can have a place in a well-balanced diet without adversely affecting your health.


  1. Love this article Lisa! Good job:) you should write a book! Love, cousin jen

  2. I read it! You bring up pretty good points here, since people get annoying when they talk about their "all-organic" diet :)