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We all want to buy the food that is best for us, but is organic food actually better for us? Is it worth the extra cost? In this post we’ll take a look at what the term “organic” means, how this impacts us, and strategies for shopping organic.


What Does Organic Mean?

What the organic label means is slightly different for animal products versus produce and other food products.

Organic animal products, such as meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy, comes from animals that have not been treated with antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic produce and packaged food (such as cereal or tomato sauce) is grown and produced without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or ionizing radiation. Organic foods are also generally free of fortifying agents such as preservatives, artificial sweeteners, colors, or flavors, and MSG. In addition, the farmers who produce organic food are focused on using renewable resources and conserving soil and water for future generations.

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So all the above sounds good. Does that mean organic better for you?

Organic farming practices are certainly better for the environment, but whether or not organic food is better for you is an issue of ongoing debate and research. To get a better understanding of the complexity involved, let’s take a snapshot look at how conventional farming practices such as pesticides, antibiotics, and growth hormones affect food and whether the nutritional composition of organic foods is different from conventional.

What Does Organic Mean for Me?

When it comes to organic vs non-organic, there are several high-level concepts to consider: pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones, and nutrition.

Pesticides

In conventional farming, farmers treat their crops with synthetic pesticides to prevent disease and make them more resilient. Unfortunately, this usually means that some of the pesticide contaminants stay on the crops. Pesticides are toxic to human health, but the amount of pesticides found on foods is very small–the EPA regulates how much pesticide residue is allowed on any food. However, the more pesticides you are exposed to, the greater your risk of harm from them. Those at greatest risk are the workers who grow and handle the food.

Children and unborn babies may also be more sensitive to certain pesticides.

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The amount of pesticides found in fruit and veggies varies depending on the type. For example, certain produce, including peaches, nectarines, and grapes, tend to contain a lot of pesticide residue, while others, such as avocados and pineapples, contain hardly any. In general, fruits and veggies with thick shells contain less pesticide residue because it’s harder for the pesticides to permeate through the skin. To find out what produce is most contaminated refer to the dirty dozen list. You should also look at the “clean 15” list of the least contaminated fruits and veggies.

Antibiotics

As for animal products such as meat and dairy, carrying the organic label means that the animal has never been treated with antibiotics or growth hormones and has been fed a diet that adheres to strict organic standards. Antibiotics are a hot topic these days, as the overuse of antibiotics has caused more people and animals to develop antibiotic resistance. Most experts agree that minimizing the use of antibiotics in the food system is vital to our current and future health.

Growth Hormones

Some conventional dairy cows are treated with growth hormones to stimulate milk production. While the growth hormone itself is unlikely to survive pasteurization or human digestion, the milk from hormone-treated cows contains higher levels of Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF-I) than the milk from non-treated cows. IGF-I is found to some extent in all animal products, and some studies have linked it to cancer. However, other studies, along with the American Cancer Society, say the evidence is inconclusive.

Nutrition

What about the nutritional makeup of organic versus nonorganic food? Results here are mixed. A widely cited 2012 study by Stanford University looked at more than 200 studies and concluded there was little health benefit to eating organic food. But then in 2014, another major study out of Europe, looked at over 300 studies and concluded that organic fruits and vegetables contain higher concentrations of antioxidants than their conventional counterparts.

Research also shows that grass-fed organic cows produce milk with more omega-3 fatty acids, a healthy anti-inflammatory fat. In contrast, conventional dairy cows fed a mainly corn-based diet produce milk with higher levels of omega-6 fatty acids, a pro-inflammatory fat. Both conventional and organic farms raise grass-fed cows, so only purchasing milk labelled as grass-fed assures a healthy balance of fatty acids in your milk. But while more omega-3’s is a great thing, ounce for ounce, you get much more omega-3 from eating fatty fish such as wild salmon than you do from a glass of milk.

Bottom Line

We know that organic farming practices are better for the environment and the workers handling the food. Whether choosing organic food over conventional will affect your health significantly is unclear, but it’s a hot topic and therefore likely that new research will continue to come out in this area.

In the meantime, if you can afford to buy mostly organic, do it. It’s better for the environment, it’s better for the workers handling and growing the food, and it may be better for you. Choosing organic will also help drive up demand, eventually bringing down costs and increasing farming standards for all foods.

But, if you are on a stricter food budget, just choose strategically. Some produce is more likely to be contaminated with pesticides than others and some meat is more likely to come from cows treated with artificial growth hormones and antibiotics.

One thing that experts do seem to agree on: when it comes to fruits and vegetables, more is better–so when faced with the choice of eating conventional produce or eating no produce, eat the produce. The benefits of adding any fruits and vegetables to our diet still outweighs the risk of not eating them.

Money is Tight, but I’m Willing to Invest in Organic Where I can… What Should I Focus On?

To help you sort through all this information, here is some helpful advice on deciding what organic foods are worth spending your hard-earned dollars on.

Also, pregnant women and young children may be better off choosing organic when possible, since we still don’t know the amount of risk posed by exposure to factors such as pesticides and IGF-I.

Produce: Buy organic for the produce on the dirty dozen list; non-organic is okay for the others, especially those on the clean 15 list.

Regardless of whether you choose organic produce or not, be sure to wash your fruits and veggies thoroughly with water. This step alone can help remove pesticide residue, along with any dirt or bacteria.

Breads, cereals, and other packaged food: Conventional is probably fine, but if you feel passionately about advocating organic farming practices, choose organic when you can. Also read labels carefully to minimize added ingredients such as preservatives and food colorings that are often found in conventional foods. Likewise, just because a packaged food is organic doesn’t mean it’s healthier. For example, organic cookies are usually just as high in sugar and fat than non-organic cookies.

Dairy: Choose organic dairy products if your budget allows, especially for children and pregnant women. Organic milk reduces the worry about the unknown effects added growth hormones, but otherwise it’s known health advantages are minimal. Any grass-fed milk offers a more favorable omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, but make sure the milk is pasteurized to kill harmful bacteria.

Meat, Poultry & Eggs: If you support organic farming practices, choose organic meat, poultry, and eggs if your budget allows. Grass-fed beef may offer some nutritional advantages, but otherwise research does not yet show a significant nutritional difference between organic versus conventional. (Note: both conventional and organic eggs can be high in omega-3’s; it depends on the diet of the hen.) Buying from a local farmer is also a good way to know what is in your food and where it’s coming from.


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When I was expecting my first child, I wanted to know everything that could possibly be in store for his first year.

I quizzed my own mom and the friends who ventured into motherhood before I did. I absorbed parenting books and articles like a sponge. I signed up for classes on childbirth, breastfeeding and even baby-led weaning. My philosophy? The more I knew, the better.

Yet, despite my best efforts, I didn't know it all. Not by a long shot. Instead, my firstborn, my husband and I had to figure it out together—day by day, challenge by challenge, triumph by triumph.

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The funny thing is that although I wanted to know it all, the surprises—those moments that were unique to us—were what made that first year so beautiful.

Of course, my research provided a helpful outline as I graduated from never having changed a diaper to conquering the newborn haze, my return to work, the milestones and the challenges. But while I did need much of that tactical knowledge, I also learned the value of following my baby's lead and trusting my gut.

I realized the importance of advice from fellow mamas, too. I vividly remember a conversation with a friend who had her first child shortly before I welcomed mine. My friend, who had already returned to work after maternity leave, encouraged me to be patient when introducing a bottle and to help my son get comfortable with taking that bottle from someone else.

Yes, from a logistical standpoint, that's great advice for any working mama. But I also took an incredibly important point from this conversation: This was less about the act of bottle-feeding itself, and more about what it represented for my peace of mind when I was away from my son.

This fellow mama encouraged me to honor my emotions and give myself permission to do what was best for my family—and that really set the tone for my whole approach to parenting. Because honestly, that was just the first of many big transitions during that first year, and each of them came with their own set of mixed emotions.

I felt proud and also strangely nostalgic as my baby seamlessly graduated to a sippy bottle.

I felt my baby's teething pain along with him and also felt confident that we could get through it with the right tools.

I felt relieved as my baby learned to self-soothe by finding his own pacifier and also sad to realize how quickly he was becoming his own person.



As I look back on everything now, some four years and two more kids later, I can't remember the exact day my son crawled, the project I tackled on my first day back at work, or even what his first word was. (It's written somewhere in a baby book!)

But I do remember how I felt with each milestone: the joy, the overwhelming love, the anxiety, the exhaustion and the sense of wonder. That truly was the greatest gift of the first year… and nothing could have prepared me for all those feelings.

This article was sponsored by Dr. Brown's. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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My husband and I always talked about starting a family a few years after we were married so we could truly enjoy the “newlywed” phase. But that was over before it started. I was pregnant on our wedding day. Surprise!

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