Category Archives: Organics/Diet

What They Don’t Want You To Know About Organic Food

Buy food with the USDA’s official organic seal, or even organic food at your local farmer’s market. It’s exciting. You think that you are getting healthier and more natural foods, and maybe you are. Your food is grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, and it is not genetically modified, or at least it hasn’t been in a while. If it’s meat, the animals were supposedly raised on a farm with healthy organic crops and ideally without cages, antibiotics, or growth hormones. It’s nice to think that you’re doing something for the animals and the world when you eat organic.

As far as the actual nutritional benefits, they’re debatable. Yes, there are studies that suggest that some have more antioxidants for example, but there are also studies that show that the differences are negligible at best, and organic foods are more likely to be subject to widespread disease that can kill crops, and either way, it’s going to cost you more, but if you’re asking if you can trust the label, you certainly wouldn’t be the first, and that is even more controversial.

Some have found that organic foods are not subject to the same standards across the board. There are some who even suggest that organic foods are not regulated at all. According to journalist Peter Laufer, the organic market needs some serious thought and reform, serious changes. He has written a new book, Organic: A Journalist’s Quest to Discover the Truth Behind Food Labeling. He looks for the origins of organic walnuts purchased at Trader Joe’s and black beans from Whole Foods.

Customers have become overly trusting of organic labels, which Laufer says have become inappropriately seductive. He demands higher requirements for organic labels.

The US government technically got involved in classifying organic foods in the 90’s, and the definition was created by the National Organic Program. Some have long felt that the standards are watered down to say the least. There are 3 basic standards set down:

  • It has to have no herbicides, pesticides, sewage, sludge, etc.
  • 5% of the product can come from a list of about 500 approved substances that are not actually organic
  • You only need 70% organic if you say made with organic ingredients.

Considering the extra money, there are those who will simply blatantly ignore these rules.

There are some areas that do more certifying than others, Denmark for example. Austria also provides a subsidy if farmers are growing organic, meaning they can make even more. However, if they fail inspections by the government and do not meet standards, they will face fines and have to pay back the cash subsidy.

Frankly, the way things are moving, we will see more and more organic labels. We are even seeing them for a cheap price in Walmart stores, which to me does not smell like a good thing. It reeks like an invitation for lower standards. Personally, I have simply chosen not to waste money on organic, and I get most of my vegetables from a local farmer’s market or Bountiful Baskets. They give me options of organic if I care to pay more, but I don’t. Call it what you will.

Is There Actually A Difference Between Organic And Non-Organic Foods?

Could there be a clear and discernible difference between organic and non-organic foods, scientifically speaking that is. An international study being published in the British Journal of Nutrition looks to find out just that. According to this study, there is indeed a difference.

The study was led by Carlo Leifert of New Castle University, finding that organic foods may actually have more antioxidants and lower levels of pesticides and toxic metals like cadmium. Researchers reported that organic foods were 19% to 69% higher.

Of course, the debate is not over. There is still plenty to ask about whether or not organic foods are better. One study is far from conclusive evidence that would tell us that we all need to turn to the organic movement. There will definitely be more exploration though, and this does open up doors.

Professor of nutrition Tom Sanders at King’s College London says that the study obviously shows differences, but the question is are they within natural variation? And are they nutritionally relevant? I am not convinced. Sanders has also suggested that realistically, the study may actually be a bit misleading.

Other members of the nutrition community are equally as skeptical. Professor Richard Mithen of the Institute of Food Research says, The references to ‘antioxidants’ and ‘antioxidant activity’ and various ‘antioxidant’ assays would suggest a poor knowledge of the current understanding within the nutrition community of how fruit and vegetables may maintain and improve health.

The results are based on an analysis of 343 peer-reviewed studies from around the world that look at the differences between organic and non-organic fruits and vegetables. While these studies have never really been examined before, this could actually leave the results more open to criticism. The Guardian says:

The research is certain to be criticized: the inclusion of so many studies in the analysis could mean poor quality work skews the results, although the team did ‘sensitivity analsyes’ and found that excluding weaker work did not significantly change the outcome.

In addition, researchers find that any levels of pesticides and cadmium found in the non-organic foods were well within regulatory limits. Of course, researchers say that these would still accumulate over time. Some also find that the differences may actually come from different climates and soil types rather than organic versus non-organic.

Sanders says, You are not going to be better nourished if you eat organic food. What is most important is what you eat, not whether it’s organic or conventional. It’s whether you eat fruit and vegetables at all. People are buying into a lifestyle system. They get an assurance it is not being grown with chemicals and is not grown by big business.

Truvia Doubles As An Insecticide

I have heard more than once about how the artificial sweeteners cause cancer, obesity, and all matter of other health and other issues. So it’s not all that surprising to me that new research has come out about Truvia, which many like to think of as the ideal sweetener. In recent studies, PLOS ONE has found that Truvia can actually significantly shorten fruit flies’ lifespans as compared to even other artificial sweeteners. Of course, humans are different than fruit flies, which we take some comfort in, but really, by how much? That certainly doesn’t mean it’s harmless to humans.

The information has come from Simon Kashock-Marenda, who is a 9th grader from Philadelphia, who was in 6th grade at the time of the discovery. He found that Truvia had the potential to kill fruit flies during an experiment on fruit flies and the effects of artificial sweeteners in general. His parents had recently switched over to sweeteners from white sugar. So he wanted to see the effects on health. He told his father DSaniel Marenda, who is also a biologist at Drexel University, and they are co-authors of this study.

Drexel lab of course recreated it on a more aggressive level. There was no other sweetener in the trials that had this effect.

Ideally, scientists are saying that this could turn into a safe and effective insecticide, but the bigger question and issue is what does this mean for the rest of us? What does this mean for our health?

Signs You’ve Become A Health Food Nut

There’s a line. Yes, it’s great that you’re healthy, but there’s a point at which you become a freak. You become the person nobody wants at their parties, because you’re no fun, even annoying. There’s the point at which all of your friends have to be health nuts with you, because you are stringent, you have to eat a certain way, you have to be in certain programs, and you lose flexibility. There’s nothing wrong with being healthy, but you can get a little obsessive.

I’ll admit, when I’ve really gotten into healthy living, it can be easy to get drawn in. You feel great, you’re getting more exercise, and you keep telling yourself it’s for the better….until that point where you have to ask, what have I become? Not everybody hits the health nut point in their being, but here are a few signs that you have:

  • You correct people on the names of different health foods like quinoa (keen-wah) and acai. No, they’re not common, and no, you’re not super trendy for eating them or knowing their name.
  • You spend an inordinate amount of time researching the safety of GMOs
  • You thank your lucky stars to live in a state where you can get raw milk or true cage free eggs.
  • You get excited that your local Whole Foods store is selling Kombucha on tap, and you get trendy little brown bottles
  • You go to all of the trendiest Asian fusion restaurant to get what you think is kimchi, but you can’t stand the stuff at Korean restaurants
  • Your kids dream of chicken nuggets, and if their friends’ parents don’t know, they gorge themselves on those types of treats while visiting
  • You have considered selling your house, because good lord, you can’t keep backyard chickens in your neighborhood
  • You are having trouble paying your mortgage because of how much you spend on pastured eggs and organic foods
  • You have 20 different types of flour including 10 gluten free options and a few whole wheat flours
  • You are part of several different groups that go to protest bad farming, you visit farmer’s markets, and you’re part of co-ops to get fresh fruits and vegetables…and you complain every time they include something like chicken. How dare they!

The Dark Truth About Quinoa

Quinoa has become the brain child of the health market, with people talking about all of the nutritional and health benefits for those who want carbs without all of the nasty parts. If you’re low carb or otherwise you want to be a health nut, then quinoa is for you, right? It has even hit the gluten free market as a sort of superfood.

According to Tanya Kerrsen, a Bolivia based researcher for Food First who studies quinoa though, asking about eating it or not is the wrong thing to ask.

She says, The debate has largely been reduced to the invisible hand of the marketplace, in which the only options for shaping our global food system are driven by (affluent) consumers either buying more or buying less…whichever way you press the lever there are bound to be negative consequences, particularly for poor farmers in the Global South.

So forget about your expensive health food store or the grocery store brand that claims to be just as good. Go down to the Bolivian Altiplano. The Quechua (modern day Inca) and Aymara (people who were here before the Inca) still live in this area, where they first domesticated quinoa, potatoes, and other crops such as oca, arracacha, kanawa, isano, and more names that it’s perfectly acceptable not to know.

There are warm days and cold nights in this area, and the altitude ranges from 10,000 feet up. You can find plenty of different crops here from the exotic to the familiar. However, you won’t find many llamas, despite the fact that they were actually domesticated there. When you go further south, it gets colder and drier. You start seeing more llamas and alpacas instead of cows and sheep, and you see more shrubs and grasses.

In this area, there are not many things that will grow. However, they found that Quinoa was particularly well suited to areas with high climatic risk such as the southern Altiplano-able to withstand levels of drought, salinity, wind, hail, and frost in which other crops would perish.

The Spanish invaded this area when they found silver in 1545, and they enslaved much of the local population. Many died in this way. The Spanish set up haciendas to produce food and wealth for the white landowners of course, and even after the Bolivian independence, these stayed in place until the Bolivian revolution in 1952. Quinoa stayed largely outside of this hacienda type market due to it growing largely in areas that did not provide good climates for farming.

In short, for centuries, the white community has either ignored or exploited Bolivians. Since then, there have been developments. They have introduced things like tractors to help with farming, and the US has provided quite a bit of support for Bolivia in recent years. However, tractors actually don’t operate well on hillsides where you typically find quinoa, which is a game changer for the market. In addition, tractors are worse for the soil’s fertility than the primitive alternatives.

Of course, there are good and bad things about tractors, and it’s something to consider, especially in such fragile environments such as those used to grow quinoa. The more quinoa grows in popularity, the more push there is to develop this and use methods that aren’t necessarily good for the environment there.

Quinoa first hit the US in 1984. At that time, quinoa was processed manually, and the end product could be bitter if the bitter coat of saponins wasn’t removed. Finding small rocks in your quinoa was not at all uncommon back then. At this point, there was a cooperative who looked for external support. They wanted to build their own quinoa equipment, and in 1990, the UN stepped in. They tried to build processing plants, and in 2005, the US and Denmark looked to help create new technologies.

Quinoa took off, and Bolivian farmers, who were previously paid $500 per metric ton were suddenly paid $800 in 2008 to over $1300 in 2010.

Those who are worried about quinoa who find that the longer this goes on, the more it will change the crop. Plants will become smaller and stunted with not much grain. The soil will change to look like sand, and then the nutritional benefits will of course lessen.

Those who have moved to the cities in some cases are moving back in order to grow quinoa on their families’ lands, creating social changes. When they come back, they do not go back to the old ways of living. They bring city attitudes and habits back with them.

Of course, in the US, it ultimately comes down to either the quinoa boom is amazing and it’s lifting people out of poverty or the quinoa boom is terrible and it’s destroying people’s lives. In both of those types of conversations, it ignores the native people who actually produce it.

So should we buy quinoa or not? That shouldn’t be the question or the major concern. That’s not the point. It relies on the idea that we just need to blindly depend on marketing forces when really the struggle for food sovereignty and the right of farmers goes so far beyond that. It goes to the regulation of trade and the regulation of the food supply and education in Bolivia, around the native crops.

Farm Raised Vs Wild Caught Fish

Just about everybody who listens to anything health related these days is focused on fish. They talk about all of the omega fatty acids and all of the benefits of fish like salmon. In fact, there is a lot of focus on the idea of wild salmon, because of all of the harmful chemicals found in farm raised fish. There are plenty of complaints about mercury supposedly, especially from celebrities such as Jeremy Piven it would seem. Yes, I heard that he claimed he got mercury poisoning from eating too much fish, just as he claimed to have grown moobs after eating too much tofu.

It’s not a bad idea to eat more fish. Certain fish contain more omega fatty acids as well as other good fats and nutrients without all of the bad fat you might find in some meats. There’s still that decision though. Do you have to have wild caught fish, or can you eat farm raised fish? It’s the growing argument of the organic market.

Many just assume that wild caught must be the way to go, but simplicity breeds stupidity as they say. There are plenty of environmental issues, oil spills, sustainability issues, and of course cost. There are quite a few more things to consider. They say the same thing about certain types of eggs, but then again, we have yet to see a major study on some of these eggs (that wasn’t produced by the company selling them) that shows any extra nutritional value. That’s with chickens who are fed special diets. We don’t know what fish are eating in the wild.

Is wild caught fish more nutritious?

In today’s market, that would be a resounding no. Farmed Atlantic salmon actually has more healthy omega 3 fatty acids than wild caught salmon. Beyond that though, there aren’t that many nutritional differences between the two. They are identical for rainbow trout in calories, protein, and in general other nutrients. There are negligible differences that you may see, such as wild trout having more calcium and iron. On the other hand, farmed trout have more vitamin A and selenium.

So are farm raised fish more poisonous and full of chemicals?

You would think supporters would have some kind of evidence to support this idea. There was a study that was published across the market in 2004 that found that farm raised fish had higher levels of PCBs, which are a potentially carcinogenic chemical. It was 10X higher in farmed fish! However, there have been other studies since that have shown that wild and farmed fish pretty much have the same levels of PCB.

Let’s not forget about mercury though. That is the big one that we are always talking about when it comes to salmon. Those fish that have the highest levels of mercury (swordfish, king mackarel, tilefish, shark, and tuna) are wild caught. On the other hand, those that are commonly farm raised such as catfish, tilapia, and salmon, have measurably low mercury levels.

Should we think about antibiotics in fish?

Again, you would think this would be a given. After all, we could give farm raised fish antibiotics to avoid outbreaks of disease versus how would that really happen with wild fish? US regulations actually prohibit the use of hormones or antibiotics in farm raised fish. They cannot use those to increase size or for that matter reproduction. Could fish farmers still get those chemicals in the water? You would think. However, according to Linda O’Dierno, an Outreach Specialist for the National Aquaculture Association, US regulations actually keep this under control in the US. This may be different in other countries.

Finally, are farm raised fish genetically modified?

We have gone down the list so far, and the things that you would think would be obvious really aren’t. There are some fish that have been rumored to be genetically modified. For example, striped bass with a zig zag in their stripes (which do exist). However, they are not actually genetically modified, unless you consider evolution to be genetic modification. They are a cross between striped bass and white bass created the old fashioned way.

In the US, there are no genetically modified fish for sale. If you want genetically modified fish in your fish tank (to glow), you can get them with genes from iridescent coral. These are not for food though.

Lastly, some think about the environmental impact of farmed fish.

Frankly, I’m more concerned about oil spills and the impact of the environment there. Apparently, I might be alone on that one, at least when it comes to people who are concerned over farmed fish. These issues come up just as much with wild fish as farmed fish. The boats and other tools used to catch wild fish do just as much (if not more) damage to the environment as fish farms. It does collateral damage across the board. On the other hand, fish farming can also be polluting and harm local flora and fauna, in part by introducing fish where they may not necessarily be natural. It depends partly on the farmer.

There are regulations in the US that require that water going out of fish farms be cleaner than it came in. It would depend on the area that you’re farming though in regards to those regulations.

Should you buy farm fish or wild fish?

It’s a toss up. For me, wild caught fish cost more, and there’s a lot of hype surrounding them. For those who believe the wild caught hype though, it may be worth it to pay more as something as a feel good function. Personally, I choose not to pay to feel like I’m getting healthier. I like proof, but again, that may just be me.

Easy Ways To Be Green

The focus of most health movements has been on healthy body tips, but what about the environment? In the long term, the environment is going to have a big impact on your health and the health of your children and their children, etc. If you want to be green, yes, you could do all of the things that you see on TV, but here are a few basic ways that are easier than you might think:

  • Get Better Insulation – This has multiple green benefits for you. Not only do you use less energy to be green, you also end up saving money as you are using less energy. Everybody’s house experiences some energy loss, but you can decrease this by making sure that you have effective insulation to keep the heat in during the winter and the cool in during the summer.
  • Eat Vegetarian – You don’t have to do it all the time. If you just do it once a week, you are making a difference. A change for a family of 4 could be as significant as driving a hybrid, and you could also save money if you’re used to eating meat every day. If you eat vegetarian every once in a while, you could also be healthier if done right.
  • Go With Sustainably Raised Meat – When you do eat meat, try eating organic or sustainable meat. This will help you to get rid of the hormones and antibiotics that you generally find in your meat, and this can be good for your overall health and the environment.
  • Don’t Use Bug Sprays or Pesticides – These sprays can release serious chemicals into the environment in case you haven’t heard. You don’t want to breathe in these chemicals. If you are worried about bugs in your home, think about preventative measures. Keep a clean home, clean up crumbs, seal holes, and you can even use natural (vinegar based for example) repellents).
  • Go Fragrance Free – Products that have fragrances such as soaps and cosmetics generally use undisclosed fragrances. So you really don’t know what you’re getting, and a lot of these may be harsh on the environment and your skin. After you wash or moisturize, a lot of these products go down the drain, going into the ecosystem and even water supply to a certain degree. Man made chemicals in general aren’t so good for the environment, and you can go with unscented items as a small part of this.
  • Donate, Don’t Dump – Before you throw anything away, think about if you can donate it or otherwise recycle it. Can you still use it? Can you donate it to your local Goodwill for someone else to use? If it’s not going to the local trash dump, or even if it’s going to the recycling facilities, you can keep it away from the growing mounds of trash.
  • Remove Your Shoes – In some houses, shoes automatically come off before you really walk in. They may have slippers, or it may just be barefoot to keep the house clean. As it turns out, it does more than just keep your house clean. When you bring your shoes inside, you can bring in exhaust fumes, chemicals, pesticides, poop, and plenty of other nasty (and potentially harmful) stuff. If you track these all over your home, you will have to clean more. This takes electricity, cleaning supplies, and other thing that have to be manufactured using energy. If you have to clean less, you use less of these, and you go a little more green.