What's the point of buying organic?

usdaThe term “organic” get’s a lot of use these days.  “Organic” is a buzz word in the fitness world, among health nuts, and in the media, but sometimes when trendy words get thrown around their meanings gets muddled.  This has been true of the word “organic,” especially since a study (which was sponsored by industrial food companies) claimed that organic foods aren’t any “healthier” than conventionally grown foods.  Hopefully I can clarify exactly what organic is and why it’s important to buy as many organic products as your budget can manage.

To start off with, the term “organic” when used on labels in the United States is tightly regulated by the USDA and a number of third party organic certification companies.  The standards for organic foods established by the USDA are as follows:

  • Organic farming should integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity
  • Genetic engineering (GMOs) is not allowed
  • Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, or irradiation may not be used
  • Hormones and anti-biotics must not be use
  • Prohibited chemical pesticides cannot be used

Secondly, while organic foods don’t always contain  higher densities of nutrients than conventionally grown foods, they often do.  For example, organic milk, which comes from cows that have access to pastureland and grass, contains large amounts of the healthy fat CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) and vitamin K2, which aren’t found in conventional dairy products.  Since organic foods tend to be raised with methods that are closer to what’s found in nature, the result is healthier, more life-giving food.

Also, one of the most important considerations when choosing to buy organic foods isn’t just what organic foods provide but what they don’t provide!  Unlike make of the fruits and vegetables that are sold in grocery stores, organic produce doesn’t contain any toxic pesticide residues!  Some of the most popular foods, such as apples, are the highest in pesticides.  With the rates of cancer increasing every year, it’s important to know and consider what we are feeding our families and putting in our bodies.

Finally, organic food is more sustainable and better for God’s creation, including people, plants, and animals.  I like to say, “What’s good for us is good for the environment.” Why? Because we are part of the creation; we are “creatures” as it were, therefore we are intimately linked to all of the natural biological process in the world.  We can’t continue to pretend like we live in a bubble.  When we put pesticides and chemical fertilizers on plants, not only are we at risk of ingesting their residues, these chemicals also get washed into water systems, destroying ecosystems, and eventually making the earth a less habitable place for all creatures (including us).

Buying organic foods isn’t going to fix all the problems with our food system, that’s for sure, but it is definitely  a great way to contribute.  It’s actually somewhat ridiculous that we even have to call organic foods “organic” or come up with all these standards.  Organic food is basically just normal food, the way it’s found in God’s creation, free of all the chemicals and industrial processes of man. Organic food is good food!*

*As a quick side note, just because something is organic doesn’t mean it’s healthy.  For example, there are all kinds of organic processed foods out there: candy, pastries, and other treats.  So, when you buy organic, just be sure to buy organic whole foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, dairy, and meat! Organic foods can be found at a growing number of grocery stores and farmer’s markets!  There are also foods that are not yet certified organic that meet all the qualifications of real food, so meet your local farmers and find out what they have to offer.

Originally posted 2013-06-11 20:29:04.

How 'bout corn?

corn-smallCorn’s reputation as a food has gone through a rough time lately, and I’d like to redeem it a little bit.  Corn is a grain with a rich history, and while modern uses of it should be frowned upon, history and science indicate that corn can have a valid place in a creation-based diet.

History: Corn was developed by ancient farmers in what is now southern Mexico about 7,000 years ago.  It was domesticated from a grass named teosinte.   After a couple thousand years of use, it became one of the most important crops for civilizations like the Olmecs, Mayans, Incas, and Aztecs in Central and South America.  Through selective breeding for varieties that could withstand the cold, corn slowly made its way north by trade.  Corn was grown in the Southwest as early as 4,000 years ago, but it wasn’t until about 1,000 years ago that North American Indians (Iroquois, Algonquin, and Caddo speakers to name a few) started growing corn further north and east in places like the Mississippi Delta, the Ohio River Valley, and the Northeastern Woodlands.

After European colonization of the Americas, corn was distributed across the globe and is now one of the world’s largest crops.  The United States is currently the world’s largest producer (32% of the global production), and corn is the largest crop in the United States. Unfortunately, this massive mono crop requires vast amounts of petroleum inputs, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, land use, and irrigation. [1]

Statistical Breakdown (for the 630 billion pounds of corn produced in the US in 2012):

  • 39.5% – used for animal feed
  • 8.4% – exported to other countries
  • 30.8% – used to produce ethanol
  • 11.9% -used for human consumption
  • 57% – of the total used for human consumption was in the form of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) or some other sweetener (approximately 43 billion pounds)
  • 0.2% – was certified organic in 2008 (latest data)
  • 88% – of all corn planted was genetically modified (GMO) [2] [3]

Considerations: If the above statistics don’t provide enough reasons to be concerned about corn, I’ll provide a few more.  Even if you’re able to find corn that’s not GMO (which is questionable for human health at best and can be catastrophic for the environment and small famers), the next difficultly will be finding corn meant for human consumption that’s in a heathy form.  Since 57% of corn grown for consumption is used for HFCS or other sweeteners and another 27% is used for starch or alcohol, that leaves only 15% remaining as edible food.  Most of that, however, is going to be found in sugary cereals or chips fried in processed oils. So, when corn is demonized as being horrible for human health, you can see why; most of it is extremely processed and incorporated into unhealthy foods.

For most of corn’s history, however, it’s been used as a nutritious supplement to healthy diets.  Here’s how corn was traditionally processed and enjoyed for maximum benefits: Since corn is high in carbohydrates, some B-vitamins, and a few minerals but lacking in other nutrients, most cultures incorporated it into meals that were high in healthy fats and proteins (not with more sugars or processed oils).  For example the Caddo speaking people and other North American Indians made a stew with corn (in the form of hominy) called sagamite that incorporated animal fat, dried meat, and sometimes fruit or herbs.

Most cultures also nixtamalized (an Aztec word) their corn before eating it, a process that involves boiling whole kernels with lye, ashes, or limestone.  Nixtamalization kills the germ, transforms the protein structure, releases more of the b-vitamins, and makes the corn more palatable.  After corn is nixtamalized it becomes hominy and can be ground into masa, the flour used for tortillas or tamales.

Like other seeds and grains, corn is also high in phytate, which is an anti-nutrient that blocks the absorption of minerals. Since corn is low in phytase (the enzyme that breaks phytate down), merely soaking the corn won’t break the phytate down.  Many cultures, however,  traditionally fermented corn and other grains to make them more palatable.  This process inadvertently breaks down the phytate and makes corn that much more nutritious.

Nutrition Highlights: Properly prepared, corn is gluten-free, high in digestible carbohydrates (mostly glucose, the body’s preferred source of energy), and high in several B-vitamins and a number of minerals.

Key nutrients in a 50 g serving of masa flour:

  • 38 g of carbohydrates and 4.6 g of protein
  • Thiamin – 7% DV
  • Vitamin B6 – 12% DV
  • Calcium – 7% DV
  • Magnesium – 11% DV
  • Manganese – 11% DV
  • Selenium – 10% DV

(Nutrition information is from the USDA National Nutrient Database)

The Take Away: Corn can be included as part of a healthy diet, but ideally it should be nixtamalized, so look for hominy or masa.  The occasional fresh roasted corn on the cob isn’t going to negatively effect your health.  Also, be sure to eat corn with meat or dairy and vegetables.  Corn in the form of masa, tamales, or tortillas, should only occasionally supplement your overall nutritional needs rather than contribute a large portion of daily calories (especially avoid HFCS, corn chips, cereal, etc).

Recipes:

Mexican-style Masa Breakfast Porridge

Ingredients: 2 cups of water, 1/3 cup of masa flour, 2 oz of Mexican-style or cheddar cheese, and fresh salsa

Directions: Bring water to a boil then add the masa flour and stir immediately to prevent lumps.  Reduce heat, then stir occasionally until the masa thickens into porridge.  Once thickened, stir in cheese until melted, serve in two bowls, and top with a generous amount of fresh salsa!

Recommended Products: Bob Red Mill’s Gluten-Free Golden Masa

References: [1] [2] National Corn Growers Association [3] AGmrc Organic Corn

Originally posted 2013-05-08 01:46:11.

What's the point of organic fabrics?

organic-cotton-health-benefitsContrary to the belief of some, purchasing clothes or products made from organic fabrics won’t immediately reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals.  Non-organic fabrics are washed and don’t contain the chemicals that they’re grown with (What you wash your clothes with is more important).  Since that’s the case, you might be wondering, “Then what’s the point of organic fabrics?” Well, even though you don’t need to worry about harmful chemicals remaining in the clothes you buy for yourself or your family, there’re definite reasons to be concerned about all the chemicals used to get non-organic fabrics onto the shelf or hangers.

Non-organic cotton fabrics are the most egregious of all.  In 2003, over 50 million pounds of chemical pesticides were used on cotton crops grown in the United States.  Of these pesticides, several of them are known carcinogens, and many of them are harmful to animal species.  It’s important to remember that when chemicals like pesticides are sprayed into the environment, they don’t just go away.  They permeate the air, ground, and water supply.  On that same token, in the year 2000, over 2 billion pounds of synthetic fertilizers were used to grow cotton.  Synthetic fertilizers like nitrogen are extremely disruptive and damaging to natural plant and animal ecologies.  To put in perspective how much synthetic fertilizer is used to grow non-organic cotton, think about this: the cotton in one non-organic t-shirt takes 1/3 pound of synthetic fertilizer to grow.

So, when it comes to the question, “What’s the point of organic fabrics?” The answer is that by choosing organic fabrics you choose a healthier environment for you, your family, and our non-human animal friends for years to come.

References: Organic Trade Association, Patagonia

Originally posted 2013-05-01 23:16:13.

Simple Switch: Choosing the Right Milk

The “Simple Switches” are a series of posts providing examples of easy ways to make dramatic improvements to the average American diet (read more about the Simple Switches at bottom of this article).

The Switch: Organic Whole Milk for Conventional Skim or Low Fat Milk


Priority: High

Reasoning:

  • Conventionally raised milk often contains hormones and antibiotics that can interfere with normal development and the immune system.  Organic milk is free from all hormones and antibiotics.
  • Low-fat or skim milk is missing the fat! The fat in milk is needed for proper absorption of fat-soluble nutrients, like vitamin D, vitamin k2, and vitamin A.  Additionally, whole-fat milk is more balanced, promoting sustained blood-sugar levels after consumption.  Milk fats (including cholesterol) are also crucial for the body’s health, as they are used as building blocks for the cell walls, nervous system, hormones, and the brain.
  • Organic milk also comes from cows that spend more time eating what they were meant to eat…grass!  Cows that eat grass produce milk that contains much higher amounts of nutrients, especially vitamin K2 and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).  These two nutrients help protect the cardiovascular system, promote bone strength, support proper metabolism, and have anti-carcinogenic properties.  Conventionally raised milk (milk from cows that are mostly fed grains) is almost entirely absent of both vitamin K2 and CLA.  These are vital nutrients for growing children and aging adults alike!

Taking it to the next level: To get even more health benefits from your milk, buy non-homoginized, raw or low-temperature pasteurized milk.  Homogenization, the process of dispersing the fat equally through the milk, is nice for a consistent texture, but it can actually damage the fat molecules in the milk.  When the fat particles are broken up, the surface area of the molecules increases, making them more susceptible to oxidation.  Oxidized fat molecules can eventually damage the arteries and/or cause inflammation.  Also, when milk is pasteurized (heated to kill the bacteria), the heating process destroys most of the enzymes that make milk easier to digest.  Pasteurization also destroys the enzyme (phosphatase) that helps the body more effectively absorb and utilize milk’s calcium content.  

References: Effects of Homogenization, Calcium Absorption and Phosphatase

More on Simple Switches: Every simple switch is categorized into a certain level of priority, either “low,” “medium,” or “high.”  Sometimes there will also be the option to “Take it to the next level,” which is a low level priority switch beyond the basic recommendation.  

  • “Low” — important for optimum health, but if you’re on a budget or time restraints, it’s more important to prioritize the other switches first.  Low priority switches are typically the “super” healthy options, which might not be realistic for everyone at a certain stage in life.
  • “Medium” — this switch is going to add significant health benefits, such as added nutrients, but the food the switch is replacing might not be harmful in moderation.
  • “High” — high priority switches should be made, even if it means you have to make room in your budget.  These switches replace foods that are potentially harmful to your health with foods that add significant health benefits.

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Originally posted 2013-07-12 20:02:08.

The Ten Most Important Foods to Buy Organic

organic shopping guide listIt’s best to purchase as many organic foods as you can afford or have access to.  But going totally organic can break the bank for some, and it’s not always easy to find what your looking for in the organic food section.  The good news is that there are a number of foods that are low in pesticides, even when grown conventionally.  On the other hand, there are certain fruits and vegetables that you’ll want to avoid feeding your family unless you can ensure that they were grown organically.  According to Environmental Working Group’s 2013 pesticide test results, these are the top ten fruits and vegetables with the highest amounts of pesticide residue:

  1. Apples
  2. Celery
  3. Cherry Tomatoes
  4. Cucumbers
  5. Grapes
  6. Hot Peppers
  7. Imported Nectarines
  8. Peaches
  9. Potatoes
  10. Spinach

Yes, sadly, one of the most popular fruits in the United States, the beloved apple, is highest in pesticide residues, so be sure to buy it and the other fruits and vegetables in the list from the organic section!  Most pesticides are known to be carcinogenic and toxic.  While they might not be harmful in small amounts, the cumulative effects of consuming pesticides in the total food supply are unknown.  It’s best to eat clean!

For the full list of foods that should be organic and foods that are OK to eat conventionally grown, visit Environmental Working Group.  They also have a bunch of additional resources on how to avoid household chemicals and toxins.  

Originally posted 2013-07-11 01:27:32.