Friday, September 7, 2012

Health And Nutrition: The Debate Over Organic vs Conventional Foods Misses The Point.

Eating Fresh Local Seasonal Food Is The Path To Better Nutrition.

The debate over the merits of organic vs conventional foods has received national attention recently with the release of a new study by Stanford University that challenges the generally accepted idea that organic vegetables and meats are nutritionally superior to more conventionally produced foods.

Dr. Dena Bravata, a senior affiliate with Stanford’s Center for Health Policy and the senior author of a paper discussing the study, told The New York Times: “When we began this project, we thought that there would likely be some findings that would support the superiority of organics over conventional food, I think we were definitely surprised.” 

The study, which looked at data from over 200 previous studies came to the conclusion that while organics contain about 31% lower pesticide residue it is not significantly more nutritious than the alternatives.

The study also found that organically grown food contains more phenol which is thought to help prevent diseases such as cancer, strokes and heart disease. Organic meat products were also found to contain less anti-biotic resistant bacteria than conventional meats.

Organic food producers and advocates argue that 31% less pesticides, more phenol and less anti-biotic resistant bacteria do count and are significant in considering the nutritional and health benefits of organic foods.

So what makes a food product "organic" anyway? Well, officially the USDA has a set of rules that govern which products can be legally labelled as organic. They govern fertilizer and pesticide use and processing practices, among other things.Unofficially most people would expect an organic food to be free of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and be grown in a responsible environmentally sound way.

Anyone who has purchased organics knows that they can be significantly more expensive than conventional foods.

And thus the debate rages on about whether it is worth the extra cost to eat an organic diet.

So what's your average consumer who is concerned about health and nutrition to make of all this? Well, cutting back on processed foods and meat products seems to be the first logical step.

As far as fresh produce the debate is not as simple as organic vs conventional. I believe it is better framed as fresh, seasonal and local vs processed and imported. Much of the locally grown produce comes from smaller farms that cannot afford the USDA organic label yet but are still chemical and pesticide free and are grown in an environmentally friendly manner. A local fresh tomato bought in August is better for you than an imported organic one bought in December and they're both better than a processed food packaged in a box.

Most of us understand that the more processed a food is, the less healthy it is likely to be, even if it is labelled organic or claims to be healthy for you. They almost invariably contain too much salt and sugar (or sugar substitutes like high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners) and/or all sorts of other artificial preservatives and flavor "enhancers".

Most of us also eat too much meat and meat products. Cutting back can not only help your health and, since meat is expensive, it will also help to offset any extra expense of buying fresh nutritious produce.

As far as fruits and vegetables...

Your local grocery store has lots of fresh produce. It's shiny and looks great. It may even have an organic section. Americans can, for the most part, buy any vegetable, fruit or produce at any time of the year.

The problem is that, especially in the large chain stores, most of that produce, organic or not, is probably not direct from the farm. It has most likely been shipped from the farm to a distribution center and then shipped hundreds of miles to local stores. Out of season foods come from even farther away, some of it may travel half way around the world before it gets to your kitchen. It can take a week or more for produce to reach your store. In order to look appetizing and to keep it from spoiling, vegetables are picked before they are truly ripe and at their nutritional peak. While they will ripen off the vine, they will not add any more nutrients. Much of the conventional produce is also treated in various methods to maintain a shiny "natural" look. All this combines to give you a product that not only is less nutritional but is often less flavorful.

To get the best nutritional value from your veggies you need to buy local seasonal produce whenever you can. But where do you get it?

Many local grocery stores do have a locally grown produce section and that produce will be seasonal and likely to be fresher than the rest of the produce in the store. Ask to speak to the produce manager of your grocery store and find out where the produce is coming from. Locally owned and run grocery stores and natural food stores are more likely to have the produce your looking for. although it may be at a higher price because they aren't getting it all from a huge agro-business company or regional distributor.

Farmers' Markets are wonderful sources of local, fresh food. You'll typically find a much wider variety of fresh produce that was picked that morning or the day before and again much of it is pesticide and chemical fertilizer free, even though the small farmer has not been certified as organic by.the USDA. The produce is more flavorful and is picked at the peak of ripeness. An added bonus is that your money goes directly to the local farmer and stays in your community.

Another option is to grow your own produce. Either outdoors, in season, or indoors, year round, in a greenhouse or under artificial light. I have started a small indoor hydroponics tomato setup. I was surprised at how easy it is and I'm looking forward to eating fresh tomatoes in the middle of winter.

Michael Polan has written a wonderful book called Food Rules. It's easy reading and he has 64 simple rules to follow for healthy eating. His overall philosophy is summed up in this 7 word mantra: Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants.

Local organics are probably better for you than conventional foods in that they are demonstrably lower in toxins and contain more phenols and less anti-biotic resistant bacteria than conventional food. It does take a little effort to eat more nutritious food and organic isn't necessarily always the most nutritious choice. If you increase your intake of fresh local seasonal foods and eat in moderation you'll be eating more nutritiously and you'll be healthier.

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