Part VI: Buying Locally and Organic
So, given what has been discussed thus far, is it better to buy organic and locally produced foods? Are they really safer?
What exactly does organic mean?
Before newer regulations were instituted it meant nothing more than something that is living, was living, or that is derived from a once living thing — making it possible to label almost anything at all as organic or natural.
Even dirt and rocks are organic since dirt forms from decayed plants and animals (compost) and rock is formed from compressed dirt and then rock wears away becoming dirt again.
We’ve since come a long way in defining the term organic — and it is defined quite differently now — as it relates to our food sources. Yet, we have a long way to go still — particularly when it comes to labeling and processing.
The term now refers to the particular ways in which foods are grown, raised, or processed — and the ways of going about it varies greatly from country to country all around the world. So it pays to know where your food came from and to read those labels carefully!
Regulations are constantly changing for the growing, raising, and processing methods used — as well as the labeling, advertising, and claims allowed or banned.
Even now, often what we are led to believe by product labels is misleading and intended to make us believe something is healthy when it is far from the truth.
There are pros and cons to buying organic but it does greatly reduce (yet still does not eliminate) the exposure to pesticides and weed killers. But how afraid should we be of pesticides?
Do we believe this?
Or do we believe this?
There is sufficient evidence to support (and debunk) claims on both sides of the fence.
For those prone to allergies — who adversely react to even small amounts of various contaminants, pesticides, antibiotics and so on — the choice is definitely in favor of going organic — at least for those particular food items — and presuming the reaction is actually to the contaminates and not an allergy or sensitivity to the food itself.
There are certain genetic make ups, diseases, and other factors that make some more prone to certain cancers, Parkinson’s, and other health issues with even small exposure.
Pregnant women, breast feeding infants, babies and young children, and those with chronic health conditions, and/or allergies are all more susceptible compared to others consuming the same quantities.
For those in relatively good health, with no predisposition to or that have no family history of cancer, that consume a varied and nutritiously balanced diet, and that have a moderately active life style the risks are not as great.
Any exposure great or small carries some risk. How great the risk is to an individual greatly depends upon what it is, how much is used, how great the exposure, that person’s own personal risk factors, and who you ask.
Even the more natural pesticides used in organic farming and used on the fields of grass in organic animal husbandry carry some risk.
Contrary to popular belief — organic does not mean free of pesticides — but simply means that they do not use any “artificial” man-made pesticides. They still use more the naturally derived pesticides which, while supposedly safer, are still not without risks.
Over 2,000 chemicals — both natural and man-made — which are used in a variety of things including pesticides — have been used for so long that they are essentially grandfathered and, therefore, have never been, are not, and may never be subjected to the same safety research as newer products.
Very little, if any, data actually exists on the true nature of their safety or risks.
The pesticide DDT was one such chemical. Discovered in the late 1930s it became popular when it was used successfully to combat malaria during the second half of WWII. It was banned from agricultural use in the U.S. in the early 1970s.
Although controversial, DDT continues to be used (very effectively) to combat malaria — or rather the mosquitoes which transmit malaria.
The agricultural ban on DDT resulted in the comeback of many bird species, including the American Bald eagle, and other peregrines, that were endangered or nearing extinction.
My father, the only known close family member or blood relative with Parkinson’s, tells stories of how as children he and his childhood friends would frequently fill toy water guns with DDT to shoot at bumble bees, hornets, and wasps — until it deteriorated the material and ate through the toy guns in a very short period of time leaking all over their hands and cloths.
Arsenic, which was — only just very recently — banned from use in animal husbandry (last year), is also one such chemical.
It is now known to be a highly carcinogenic chemical, the one most frequently used as rat poison, but it was being purposefully fed to farm animals routinely in their feed — just to make their meat look better and more appealing.
Agent Orange, used in the Vietnam war as an herbicide and exfoliate, was banned in the 1970s but is still causing problems today due to the dioxin contaminant it left behind — including on U.S. soil where it was produced.
Buying organic produce does reduce overall exposure to most pesticides and weed killers, as well as antibiotics, steroids, and growth hormones.
Because it eliminates animal cannibalism — in the form of animal byproducts being put into animal feed — it greatly reduces the risk of BSE (Mad Cow disease). There is another strain that (rarely) occurs naturally — in about one per million beef cattle — particularly the older and elderly animals.
The biggest obstacle to going all organic is that are a limited number organic farms, it is not readily available in all areas, they can only produce a very limited supply which cannot meet the ever growing demands, and it cannot be shipped great distances without reverting to the use of preservatives to prevent botulism. It comes with a great many expenses and takes far more man power to farm organically, so organic produce costs more — although there are many ways to save.
Obviously, buying locally helps support the local farming community. It also eliminates the middle man, shipping, and other associated costs for those farmers.
It also gives you the opportunity to talk directly to those growing and raising your food. You can question them regarding growing methods and any products used for weed and pest control or animal feed, antibiotic use, GMO, etc., you can ask to find out why they chose to go with the route that they did or the products being used, — and in some cases you can get a guided tour or even select and pick your own produce.
Without being shipped great distances there is less or no need for preservatives (but ask because that doesn’t mean they aren’t being used).
They tend not to be coated in wax — a ploy used once fruits and vegetables have left the farm to make them look more shiny and appealing to the eye. However, it also traps in the pesticides, contaminants and germs found on the skin — preventing any chance of reducing the quantity by simply rinsing.
Also, by not being shipped so far, produce does not have to be picked or harvested too soon — so it is often vine or tree ripened, tastes better, is more nutritious, and has a better texture than what you get when it has been picked too soon and is far less mature before ripening off the vine or tree.
They also generally offer more heirloom and vintage (non-GMO) produce not normally found in supermarkets.
The downside to farmer’s markets is that they can be more expensive, usually offer less variety than the supermarket, still sell GMO and pesticide contaminated produce (but may also offer more organic produce) — and frequently offer tempting sugar laden homemade desserts and jellies with none of the required labeling to indicate how much or exactly what ingredients were used or other such nutritional information.
You also have no way of knowing if proper food handling occurred when they were made, how clean the house/kitchen is, if they even washed their hands, or what canning method was used. Some home canning methods are better than others to ensure food safety — the least safe but easiest being inversion canning and the safest being a hot water bath — provided proper techniques and sanitation are used — and if it was done for the correct length of time which is dependent upon the type and quantity of foods being canned as well as the altitude. The larger the quantity (i.e. a pint vs a quart, six jars vs two jars), the type of food (i.e. soft peaches vs firm beets) and the lower or the higher the altitude all determine just how long it needs to be processed. Even the acidity of certain foods changes the amount of time needed.
Those offering sugar free versions may or may not have used sugar substitutes. Most calorie free sugar substitutes such as aspartame are not safe for use in cooking, canning, or other forms of heat exposure. Heat changes their chemical composition turning them into deadly poisons or at the very least can make you extremely ill. The same is true of some low calorie sugar substitutes. You have no way of knowing what was used, how much was used, what temperatures it was exposed to, or for how long.
So, basically, there are pros and cons to consider on all sides.
Recommended “allowances” or limits (which are constantly changing on the basis of new scientific evidence, economic and manufacturing trends, and government legislature) are only basic guidelines intended to prevent illness from consuming too much or too little of required nutrients — in the average, healthy person. They are not perfect and have limitations — and does not take into account chronic health conditions, those who get too little exercise, athletes that get more than average exercise, family history, environmental differences, and many other factors.
There is no perfectly safe food choice. There is no perfect one way to cook and prepare foods. There is no perfect diet.
No matter what your type of diet, variety is key to eliminating repeated over exposure to harmful substances as well as being key to balanced nutrition. A variety of foods as well as a variety of cooking methods are needed.
Too much — or too little — of anything in the diet can be detrimental to your health. It is a matter of properly balancing nutrition no matter what type of diet. Variety is also key to achieving nutritional balance.
Even a small quantity of various types of fats and complex carbohydrates (sugars and starches) are needed to absorb certain vitamins and minerals appropriately, protect the heart, produce hormones, provide energy, elevate mood, etc. We also require salt but in far less quantities than the recommended limits or what is regularly consumed whether added by food manufacturers or at home.
Foods prepared, processed, and cooked at home can be made healthier (or unhealthier) than those purchased — because you have control over what does or doesn’t go into your food.
Eating too many pre-packaged, highly processed products — with an excess of artificial additives, salts, sugars, and requiring mostly artificial supplementation just to replace the natural vitamins and minerals removed by over processing and the use of cheaper, poorer quality foods — greatly increases exposure to harmful substances. They are also now made predominantly with GMO foods — which may or may not be harmful.
Consuming too many processed and cured meats increases exposure to cancerous nitrates/nitrites (curing salts), more saturated fats, and poorer quality meats.
There is still no way to test for Mad Cow disease, although progress is being made to develop such tests, but food source animals in the U.S. are still being fed animal byproducts even though banned in other countries.
There is good science and bad science. Even good science has limitations over the control of variables during research. It takes many, many large scale studies to provide sufficient evidence. You cannot rely on one or even a few test results and must determine if any study is good or bad science.
Ultimately, it is up to each individual to become more soundly educated and do their own research (learn to determine what is good vs bad science and the limitations of even good science), determine their own potential risks, then, decide what is best — based upon their own health issues, lifestyle factors, the environment in which they live, personal activity levels, and overall individual nutritional balance.