Ask a nutrition student: Organic panic

AddThis

Photo Credit: Gaby Breiter | Daily Texan Staff

My foodie friend started to solely buy organic and natural food organic and natural foods — she insists that they are healthier for her. How important is shopping in the organic section of the grocery store? I can’t really afford it as a broke college kid.

—Sour Grapes

You’re not alone, Sour Grapes! Walking into a grocery store can be an overwhelming experience — especially for a college student who habitually Favors meals or walks circles around H-E-B to gorge on food samples. Besides the lines, the coupons and the uncooperative shopping carts, the most mystifying aspect of grocery shopping is the dozens of labels that adorn your study snacks.  

The words natural, organic, hormone-free and antibiotic-free raise confusion. But consumers shouldn’t worry -— many of these food labels carry little weight.

“I would prefer more nutrition education and less dependence on these claims that could be outrageous or not well understood by the consumer,” said Drew Hays, a registered dietician and lecturer in the nutritional sciences department.

Take the word “natural,” for instance. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees the regulation and labeling of all meat and poultry products. The USDA defines natural as containing no artificial ingredients, added colors or intense processing.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates all other non-meat and non-poultry products. Unlike the USDA, it lacks a formal definition of the word “natural.” This means that the natural peanut butter you spread on your sandwich may not have the same au naturel qualities of a natural grilled chicken breast. Currently, the FDA is asking for public opinion on how the term “natural” should be defined and used on food products. You can submit your thoughts to the FDA electronically or through mail up until May 10, 2016. Visit the FDA website for more information. 

The word “organic” also sparks uncertainty in many consumers. You may wonder why grocery stores separate their organic and conventionally grown produce like children separate their peas and carrots.

The USDA regulates the term “organic” — the FDA takes a more hands-off attitude. Organic farming produces food in ways that preserve the environment and avoids most synthetic materials, such as pesticides and antibiotics, according to the USDA. Genetic engineering, ionizing radiation and sewage sludge, a byproduct of sewage treatment used as fertilizer — gross! — are also forbidden under the organic label.

An organic sticker does not mean that the entire product is organic — only 95 percent of the ingredients are required for that label. If 100 percent organic is something you’re after, the food label will blatantly state “100 percent organic.”

“I would encourage people to ignore label claims because sometimes the guidelines aren’t well understood by the population,” Hays said. She explained further that if you have a disease or health issue associated with a label claim, then you should look at them more closely. 

Complex claims aside, don’t think you’ll gain superior health by consuming organics. 

“We don’t really see that there is a benefit or that those foods are more healthy,” Hays said. “Though I do think there’s one study that has recently come out that says that organics may have some marginal or be marginally more nutritious than others.”

To investigate, researchers collectively examined the results of 12 different studies on health outcomes after exposure to organic and conventionally produced food. They did not find evidence of health benefits or harm from consuming organic foods, according to a review published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. However, the largest study examined in the review reported a reduced risk of skin inflammation in infants who consumed strictly organic dairy products.

Another review also found that the literature lacked strong evidence that organic foods had more nutritional value than conventional foods, according to Annals of Internal Medicine. The review did suggest that consuming organic produce may reduce exposure to pesticides, and organic chicken and pork may lower your contact with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

If pesticides are a concern — they are chemicals meant to kill bugs — the Environmental Protection Agency recommends removing the outer skin and leaves from fruits and vegetables when possible, as well as thoroughly washing and scrubbing fruits and veggies under running water. Because some pesticides accumulate in the fat of meat and poultry products, trimming the fat on these foods can also limit pesticide exposure.

Environmentally, organic farming reduces the use of non-renewable resources, builds soil fertility and limits drinking water contamination, according to Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. Smaller farms may follow organic guidelines but may not be able to afford certification like wealthier food companies can. 

“Oftentimes local, small-scale processors can’t afford to be USDA certified organic, even though they might be using organic processes,” Hays added. 

Foods flaunting natural and organic stickers may appear enticing and make you feel more knowledgeable about your dietary habits — but be wary, Sour Grapes. The grass is always greener, and has less sewage sludge, on the other side of the fence.