Some Common Questions About Organic Foods

Our concierge primary care doctors in Jupiter of course want our patients to eat healthy foods as much as possible.

This typically means a diet low in processed foods and high in fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, along with lean meats and fish.

Does it also mean eating organic foods as well? Many people hear the word “organic” and automatically think it equals “healthy,” but that may not always be the case. So let’s try to clear up the confusion around this widely available—and usually much more expensive—food.

What does the term “organic” mean?

The word “organic” refers to the way the food is grown and processed. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has created a set of standards that describe the specific requirements that must be verified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent before products can be labeled organic.

The National Organic Program (NOP), an advisory committee that includes members of the public, develops these rules and regulations for the USDA.

They include several restrictions on farming practices and raising livestock and poultry, as well as on handling and labeling.

In general, the regulations restrict the types of pesticides, fertilizers, and seeds that can be used, and ensure healthy farming practices to protect the environment.

To receive the USDA Organic seal, a product must:

Improve soil and water quality.
Enable farm animals’ natural behaviors.
Cut pollution.
Promote a self-sustaining cycle of resources on a farm.

Certified organic products cannot use:

artificial fertilizers or sewage sludge as fertilizer
radiation to preserve food or get rid of pests or diseases
genetically modified or engineered materials to improve crop harvests or improve pest or disease resistance
antibiotics or growth hormones for livestock
most synthetic pesticides (except in special, USDA-approved circumstances)

Is organic food healthier?

You can find all kinds of persuasive arguments and testimonials online about how organic food is so much healthier for you to eat.

It’s certainly healthier for the environment, because of the sustainable practices organic farmers use.

It’s also undeniably better to avoid products from animals that have been fed antibiotics throughout their lifecycle to promote unnatural growth and suppress diseases that occur from overcrowded conditions. This is one of the things that contribute to antibiotic resistance in humans.

Other than that, though, science has so far not been able to prove that organic foods contain more substantial nutrients than conventionally grown foods.

As reported by Harvard Health, one meta-study by Stanford researchers, for example, found little difference in nutritional content, except for slightly higher phosphorus levels and a higher omega-3 fatty acid content in organic milk and chicken. And the bacteria that can cause food poisoning were equally present in both organic and non-organic foods.

And according to the Mayo Clinic, studies have shown much lower cadmium levels in organically grown grains, but not fruits and vegetables. Cadmium is a toxic chemical found naturally in the soil and absorbed by plants as they grow.

Is the label ‘organic’ a guarantee?

If the food contains the USDA Certified Organic label, that means it was grown and processed according to federal guidelines.

According to the USDA, “Produce can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest. Prohibited substances include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

“As for organic meat, regulations require that animals are raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behavior (like the ability to graze on pasture), fed 100 percent organic feed and forage, and not administered antibiotics or hormones.”

The agency performs more than 45,000 onsite inspections per year to ensure compliance with regulations. If foods are labeled “100 percent organic,” that means all ingredients are certified organic. Foods labeled “organic” contain at least 95 percent certified organic ingredients.

On the other hand, labels that say “made with organic” or “organic ingredients” can’t carry a USDA seal, because they contain less than 95 percent organic ingredients.

More confusion in labels

In addition, there is a difference between “organic” and “natural” on a product’s label. The term “natural” may simply refer to products or animals that have been minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients, but that doesn’t mean they’re organic.

Another confusing term is “grass-fed,” which means animals receive a majority of their nutrients from grass throughout their entire life and have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. It does not mean they have been raised without the use of antibiotics, hormones, or pesticides on their feed.

Likewise, “cage-free” birds are able to freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle. “Free-range” birds are provided shelter in a building, room, or area with unlimited access to food and fresh water, as well as continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle. But neither of these terms reveals whether they have been raised without antibiotics or hormones.

So is organic better for you? In some of the ways we’ve listed above, yes. But only you can decide whether the extra expense is worth the small gains in nutritional value, as well as the larger impact on the environment and the animal’s welfare.

pfas

How to Combat the Lingering Danger of ‘Forever Chemicals’

They’re called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down fully in the environment, and this summer the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warned that they are more dangerous to human health than regulators knew.

Within weeks, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) weighed in with its own 300-page report on these chemicals, known as perfluoroalkyl and poly-fluoroalkyl (PFAS) substances, urging doctors to test high-risk patients for PFAS contamination.

Because of the heightened attention on these chemicals, our primary care concierge doctors in Jupiter want to summarize for you what we’ve learned about them, and offer tips on how to reduce your exposure.

The Problems with PFAS

In 1946, DuPont introduced its revolutionary non-stick product, Teflon. By 1950, studies by DuPont and 3M showed that PFAS could build up in the blood, but chose to keep these results secret, according to the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG).

Since 1998, when a class-action lawsuit against a West Virginia DuPont factory revealed the extent of the pollution from the factory, researchers have found probable links to such diseases as:

  • thyroid disease
  • high blood pressure
  • kidney cancer
  • testicular cancer
  • breast cancer
  • higher cholesterol levels
  • ulcerative colitis
  • weakened immune system 
  • vaccine interference
  • weight gain
  • changes in liver enzymes
  • decreased fertility
  • growth and learning delays in infants and children

The NAS report encourages doctors to conduct blood tests for these chemicals on patients who are worried about exposure or who are at high risk for exposure or who are in “vulnerable life stages”: during pregnancy, early childhood, and old age. 

They’re Everywhere

As we’ve seen with microplastics, PFAS can begin innocently enough and end up in unexpected places, including our water.

Recently, for example, Consumer Reports (CR) tested more than 100 food-packaging products from U.S. restaurants and supermarkets. They found dangerous PFAS chemicals in many of the products, including paper bags for french fries, hamburger wrappers, pizza boxes, molded fiber salad bowls, and single-use paper plates.

These chemicals are used in a wide variety of products, including waterproof and sweatproof makeup, nonstick cookware, cellphones, waterproof clothing, carpets, and—especially—fast-food containers, where their ability to make products grease-proof has led to their widespread use.

They are also used to make products water-repellent and resistant to high temperatures, as well as in fire-fighting foams used at military installations, floor wax, upholstery, and clothing. The qualities that make items containing PFAS so desirable, however, also make them long-lasting in the environment.

Lingering Threat

“These chemicals are ubiquitous in the American environment,” Ned Calonge, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health and chair of the NAS committee that wrote the report, told CNN.

“More than 2,800 communities in the U.S., including all 50 states and two territories, have documented PFAS contamination,” he said.

Researchers have even detected them in the snows of Mt. Everest, apparently shed from climbers’ waterproof tents and parkas. 

“You are not just exposed in one place or one source,” toxicologist Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program, told The Washington Post. “They are everywhere.”

The problem is that these chemicals build up (or “bioaccumulate”) in the body over time. 

And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has been conducting studies of the U.S. population, PFAS has been found in the blood of nearly all people they’ve tested. Since the risk appears to rise with the amount of exposure, it’s important to try to limit the amount we come in contact with.

What You Can Do

Because PFAS chemicals are found in so many consumer products, they’re next to impossible to avoid. But there are ways to reduce the amount you’re exposed to.

“The most dangerous way that people are exposed to PFAS is through drinking water,” says Don Huber, director of product safety at CR.

That’s why the NAS report recommended filtering tap water as a major step consumers could take to protect themselves.

“The water filters that are most effective for PFAS are reverse osmosis filters,” David Andrews, a senior scientist for the EWG, told CNN, adding that some carbon-based filters can also reduce some levels.

“The important part is that you have to keep changing those filters,” he said. “If you don’t change that filter, and it becomes saturated, the levels of PFAS in the filtered water can actually be above levels in the tap water.”

The NAS committee also offered these tips:

  • Stay away from stain-resistant carpets and upholstery, and don’t use waterproofing sprays.
  • Look for the ingredient PTFE or other “floro” ingredients on product labels.
  • Avoid nonstick cookware. Instead, use cast-iron, stainless steel, glass, or enamel products.
  • Boycott takeout containers and other food packaging. Instead, cook at home and eat more fresh foods.
  • Don’t eat microwave popcorn or greasy foods wrapped in paper.
  • Choose uncoated nylon or silk dental floss or one that is coated in natural wax.
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