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Is Organic Actually Better?

Is Organic Actually Better?


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Although the organic food craze has been booming over the last few years, more and more people are beginning to question whether eating organic is really worth it, due to the high price tag that comes with it. According to Redbook Magazine, organic food can cost as much as 50 percent more than conventional food, and the question continues to rise if the price is actually worth it.

This March, a Harris Poll found that more than half of Americans do not think organic foods are worth their high prices. The survey showed that 63 percent of men and 54 percent of women believe organic labels are a marketing ploy designed to defend high prices. The survey also suggested that only three out of 10 people are willing to pay more for green products and that 49 percent found it "difficult to be green."

While Americans are skeptical, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN asserts that there’s good reason for the higher price tags. On their website, they state that "prices of organic foods include not only the cost of food production itself, but also a range of other factors that are not captured in conventional food," such as environment enhancement and protection, higher standards of animal welfare, avoidance of health risks to farmers, and rural development by generating additional farm employment.

Although it is better for the environment, the question continues to rise if organic food is actually a healthier option. Unfortunately, the question is still left unanswered. Last September, Stanford researchers found in a review that organic food has generally the same bacterial contamination and nutritional value as non-organic products. They made their conclusion after reviewing 223 studies of nutrients and contamination levels and 17 studies of humans, but many people found flaws in their review.

Another theory is that organic food is given a "health halo," meaning that people automatically assume organic products are healthier. According to a Cornell study, people who ate unhealthy foods such as chips or cookies believed that the organic versions were lower in fat and tasted healthier just because they were labeled "organic."

At the end of the day, it appears as if the quality of the organic product is just about the same of the non-organic product. But the reason behind buying organic shouldn’t be just for better-tasting produce. It should be because it’s grown more ethically and naturally, and that simply costs more.

Skyler Bouchard is a junior writer at the Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter at @skylerbouchard


How Organic Milk Differs From Regular Milk

Organic milk often costs more than ordinary milk in most stores. Some consumers believe that, for health reasons alone, it's worth paying extra for organic milk. There are certainly some advantages to organic milk, but they may or may not be enough to pay a premium.


Walk through any grocery store today, and you'll likely see more shelf space devoted to organics—foods that are grown without most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and animal products that are free of antibiotics and hormones. Demand for organic food is up, with sales reaching $35.9 billion in 2014. "I think people believe these foods are better for them, but we really don't know that they are," says registered dietitian Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital.

What's the buzz about?

Organic agriculture aims to preserve natural resources, support animal health and welfare, and avoid most synthetic materials. It's not just a philosophy the USDA regulates the organic industry with strict standards. The soil where crops are grown must be inspected and shown to be free of most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and the crops cannot have been genetically modified. Animals raised on organic farms receive no antibiotics or growth hormones, are given feed that has been grown organically, and are able to roam around outside. Processed organic foods must not contain synthetic additives.

The USDA then certifies organic crops, animal products, and processed foods. Only foods that are 95% organic can carry a "USDA Organic" seal.

Is there a benefit?

While organic foods have fewer synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and are free of hormones and antibiotics, they don't appear to have a nutritional advantage over their conventional counterparts. "There've been a number of studies examining the macro- and micronutrient content, but whether organically or conventionally grown, the foods are really similar for vitamins, minerals, and carbohydrates," says McManus.

According to USDA data, organic foods have fewer pesticide residues than conventionally grown produce. But the amounts for both types of produce are within the level for safe consumption. And it's unclear if the pesticides used in organic farming are safer than nonsynthetic pesticides used in conventional farming. "The verdict is still out about pesticides and fertilizers as far as the long-term impact on health. There are so many other variables in the environment. It's hard to say it's the pesticide on the peach that was the primary cause of a health-related issue," says McManus.

Similarly, we don't have enough information yet to know if the lack of hormones and antibiotics in organic animal products makes them healthier than conventional animal products.

Should you buy it?

McManus says she doesn't recommend organic food to people, but will talk with them about it if they are concerned about pesticides. "At this time, after examining the data, I don't see any nutritional reasons to choose organic foods over conventional," she says.

If you do want to go organic, you'll likely notice a higher price tag on many items, as much as 10% to 50% more than conventional foods.

How do you make the decision about going organic? "It's usually people who are concerned about what's going into food production and who can afford to make the choice for organic," says McManus. Some people intuitively feel that foods with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and trace amounts of hormones and antibiotics, likely have adverse health effects, even if that has not been proved. And some people choose organic foods not for health reasons, but because they think they taste better.

Making the switch to organic food

Where would you start if you wanted to go organic? "Produce," says registered dietitian Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital. Try buying organic versions of foods on the Dirty Dozen list, published each year by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The list shows USDA findings of conventionally grown foods most likely to contain pesticide residues. This year's list includes apples, celery, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, nectarines, peaches, potatoes, snap peas, spinach, strawberries, and sweet bell peppers.

Produce items with thicker skins tend to have fewer pesticide residues, because the thick skin or peel protects the inner fruit or vegetable. Remove the skin or peel, and you're removing much of the residue. The EWG puts out a list of those foods, too, called the Clean 15. On the list this year: asparagus, avocados, cabbage, cantaloupe, cauliflower, eggplant, grapefruit, kiwi, mangoes, onions, papayas, pineapples, sweet corn, sweet peas, and sweet potatoes.


Pure Spirulina vs a superfood mix

The unusual Spirulina taste doesn’t mean you should give up the idea of benefitting your body by having it daily in its purest form (100% Spirulina powder or tablets) - and instead going for superfood smoothie mixes and protein powders that contain some Spirulina in them.

Why not?

. Because when having Spirulina as a part of a mix you might not be getting the benefits and nutrients you’re after (whilst paying a high price). But you might be getting a cocktail of sweeteners and cheaper ingredients (used to bulk out and save money on the pure and expensive superfoods, such as Spirulina).

The truth is. because Spirulina is one of the most expensive superfoods there are - many such mixes usually have very little Spirulina in them (bulked out by added cheaper ingredients).

And here’s some of our insider knowledge - because very few health food companies in the world engage in direct trade (most buy from mass resellers without actually knowing their farms) - the Spirulina is likely to come from a large commercial farm, looking to maximize its yield and minimize its costs (meaning you may be ingesting chemical fertilizers and other questionable inputs).

So, by having our Spirulina pure – you’re going to be:

  • Feeling much better as you’re getting more benefits of Spirulina.
  • Avoiding any potential nasties.
  • Saving money.
  • Having fun creating yummy recipes.

USDA labels are sometimes useful

Organic: This means that hens received organic feed and were not raised in cages. When you eat organic eggs, you know the hens’ feed did not contain animal byproducts, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, most pesticides, and other unsavory ingredients. Although antibiotics are rarely used in the egg industry, due to a regulatory loophole, it’s possible that organic eggs could come from hens given antibiotics. It’s worth checking into although growth hormones are banned in poultry, antibiotics are not.

Also, an organic label says nothing about humane treatment. Hens’ outdoor access may be very limited, for example.

Omega-3 enriched: Egg yolks contain a small amount of omega-3, a heart-healthy fat. However, providing hens a diet high in omega-3, such as flaxseed or fish oil, can boost the omega-3 content in their eggs. However, according to the FDA, claims that omega-3 enriched eggs lower the risk of heart disease are unfounded, because eggs also contain cholesterol and saturated fat.

Free-range or free-roaming: This means that the hens producing the eggs were raised outdoors or given outdoor access. In addition to eating grains, these hens may forage for wild plants and insects. But the quality of the outdoor area, and how often the hens can access it, is not addressed. Hens living in crowded quarters may not budge when a farmer opens the doors once a day.

Cage-free: “Cage-free” is not analogous to “free-range.” It means that hens are not bound by cages and have unlimited access to food and water. Conditions on cage-free farms can be miserable. Overcrowded barns and poultry houses don’t give hens enough room to forage for plants and insects or dust-bathe. A new egg label, “barn-roaming,” may better describe those from hens confined to barns.

Pasture-raised: This means that the chickens can hunt on their own for larvae and grubs to eat. Since they hunt for this type of food, their eggs contain more healthy omega-3 fat compared to other chickens. Plus, the egg yolks are a dark yellow-orange color because they contain lutein, an antioxidant nutrient that’s also found in sweet potatoes and carrots.


LOOK FOR THE SEAL

Products labeled “100% Organic” and carrying the “USDA Organic” seal adhere to a strict legal standard: national organic standards require that organic growers and handlers be certified by third-party state or private agencies or other organizations that are accredited by USDA. Anyone who knowingly sells or mislabels as organic a product that was not produced and handled in accordance with the regulations can be subject to a civil penalty of up to $10,000 per violation.


'True' cinnamon is pricey, but is there an honest difference?

Eating tree bark is often the punchline of some bad joke about a healthful diet. But we do it - collectively, to the tune of tens of millions of pounds a year. Odds are, you have some right in your pantry.

It is cinnamon, of course - the best thing to come from tree bark since aspirin, and the best-selling component of the pumpkin-spice axis of fall flavors, dwarfing nutmeg and cloves by at least a factor of 10.

There are several species of trees with the cinnamon-yielding bark, but they're all from the genus Cinnamonum. If you start looking into cinnamon's provenance, you'll find a school of thought that insists there is only one kind of "true" cinnamon - from the bark of C. verum, which is native to Sri Lanka. To hear that school of thought tell it, that cinnamon has a more sophisticated, subtle flavor than other kinds.

Should you encounter someone from that school, you could reasonably say, "I bet you couldn't pick it out of a lineup." It's a pretty safe bet. We did a blind tasting, and none of us could. The reality is that we are a planet endowed with many tree species that have fragrant, cinnamony bark, and that's a good reason to find joy in the world.

You can often figure out which species of cinnamon you have by the name on the label. If it's Ceylon cinnamon, it's the "true" stuff, Ceylon being the British colonial name for the nation known since 1972 as Sri Lanka.

Pretty much everything else is cassia cinnamon, sometimes (particularly in Europe) labeled simply as "cassia." Chinese cinnamon is from the tree species bearing that name, but Indonesian (or Korintje) and Vietnamese (or Saigon) come from closely related species. When there's no mention of its origin on the label, it's probably cassia. Although there are differences among the various kinds, they're small enough that you probably won't notice them in whatever you're cooking.

No matter the provenance, your cinnamon's flavor is derived from a group of essential oils. And, where essential oils go, health claims will not be far behind. Depending on whom you ask, you might find that cinnamon can help fight acne, colitis or bad breath. Its antimicrobial qualities might make it a good wash for carrots or contact lenses. It might even make you learn faster, at least if you're a mouse. On the animal front, it has been studied for its ability to reduce methane produced by cattle (it can't) or help control salmonella in chickens (it might).

One of its best-studied properties is the ability to help diabetics with blood sugar control. According to Rebecca Costello, a scientific consultant formerly with the Office of Dietary Supplements (part of the National Institutes of Health) and co-author of a recent review of the evidence, there is a compound in the spice that appears to act like insulin, shuttling blood sugar out of the bloodstream and into cells.

Although some studies have shown that cinnamon does seem to lower blood sugar, "the weight of the evidence regarding the efficacy for cinnamon for lowering blood glucose remains equivocal," Costello wrote in an email. "It would be premature," she said, to conclude that cinnamon can help control diabetes.

But how about all those other things - the acne, the colitis, the bad breath? "Traditional use of cinnamon purports to treat many conditions and disorders for which there is insufficient evidence to support its use," Costello said.

It is clear, though, that compounds in cinnamon can affect us. And not always in a good way. The spice contains a compound called coumarin, which can cause liver damage. In the normal course of events, you are unlikely to eat so much cinnamon that this becomes an issue, but it's a serious enough concern that Denmark considered limiting the amount bakers could use in an iconic Danish cinnamon-swirl pastry called kanelsnegle. (The bakers wheedled their way out on a technicality.)

Which brings us back to the distinction between "true" cinnamon and other cinnamons. Turns out, the "true" version is relatively low in coumarin. If you eat a truly epic amount of cinnamon and you are concerned about liver damage, you might want to take that into account.

The rest of us are left to choose our cinnamon by taste and price. And if you expect the expensive stuff to taste better than the cheap stuff, you are going to be disappointed. In our Washington Post Food tasting, both the dollar-store cinnamon and the fancy-pants cinnamon had their share of fans and detractors. The overall favorite, though not by much, was a supermarket standard.

What our survey established, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that cinnamon cannot be the stuff that food snobbery is made of. And that's a good thing. Break out the butter and sugar, and let it be the stuff that kanelsnegle is made of.

Once we decided to do a cinnamon tasting, an important question left us scratching our heads: How?

Tasting it straight up does not work all that well. (No cinnamon challenge for us.) It is gritty and strong, and the nuances are hard to detect. But when you taste it in a way that reflects how real, live cinnamon consumers enjoy it - say, cinnamon toast - the nuances are also hard to detect, with things such as bread and butter mucking up your palate's works.

One of us had the idea of suspending the samples in simple syrup (equal parts cooked water and sugar). Cooking the cinnamon briefly in the syrup brought out flavors and differences in aromas we could not detect in the plain old powders.

But, of course, when you use cinnamon at home, it's not always cooked or in baked goods, and it is most likely not suspended in syrup, so we added a round of cinnamon toast, as well. Six Washington Post Food staffers and I smelled each sample, tasted both the syrups and the toasts, and rated preferences for each on a 1-to-5 scale.

The results for seven brands were all over the map. Once we tallied up the rankings, the averages were in a fairly small range: All our samples were perfectly respectable, and they all racked up some good scores and some bad.

Nothing about the samples predicted what tasters thought of them. A couple of the cheaper samples did very well, while one of the most expensive was at the bottom. Of the top two, one was a supermarket brand (McCormick), and the other was a spice purveyor brand (Penzeys). The two Ceylon samples - known in some quarters as "true" cinnamon - didn't stand out as either better or worse one was second from the top, the other was dead last. They did, however, stand out as the most expensive they were both more than twice the price of the most expensive cassia sample (Simply Organic, at $32.59 per pound). It's worth noting that, although none of our tasters could identify the Ceylon samples, a couple of us did describe them in similar terms. (I thought both of them had a clovelike flavor.)

What was most notable, though, was that most tasters remarked on how different the simple syrup samples tasted, but how similar the cinnamon toasts were.

Yes, there are differences in cinnamon, and it is worth buying a few brands to see which one you prefer. But once you bake it in a cookie, stew it in a tagine or sprinkle it on toast, you will be unlikely to notice the difference.


No Actually, Organic Chicken Isn't More Nutritious

It gives us a good feeling when we buy it, but organic chicken isn't any healthier for humans than conventionally raised chicken. We know what you're thinking to yourself right now. "There's no way that's right!" It actually is, and we'll explain why.

Organic chickens were raised according to comprehensive USDA specifications, which include eating organic feed. There may be environmental benefits, as organic farming minimizes pollution, but organic chickens do not have a nutritional advantage, though we did find them to be more robust in flavor.

Struggling to cook healthy? We'll help you prep.

Nate Lewis is senior crops and livestock specialist with the Organic Trade Association, and he stresses what he calls the “upstream effects” of organic poultry. Organic chickens eat organic feed (and get organic bedding), and organic feed is grown to standards that prohibit synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and are non-GMO. The crops are grown with practices designed to improve soil health, like cover cropping and crop rotation. The environmental impact of organic vs. conventional crops is, like so many issues in food, hotly debated, but if the soil-centric approach and prohibition of synthetics is why you buy organic produce, buying organic chicken makes perfect sense. (Organic birds are also raised without any antibiotics.)

Why the higher cost? Organic chickens are more expensive primarily because of the feed, most of which has to come from overseas because we don&apost produce enough in the U.S. Prices vary, but you can expect it to cost about twice as much as conventional.

The organic label tells you less about the life of the chicken than it does about those upstream effects. Living conditions for organic chickens are often better than those for conventional birds, but not always. The USDA has proposed new standards for farmers that focus on better living environments and animal welfare. Stay tuned for developments.

An organic bird is required to have access to the outdoors and an environment allowing it to express natural behaviors but, according to animal scientist Kirk Klasing, a professor at the University of California, Davis, those are very vague standards. “Organic rules are written in general terms. You can do very little and meet the standard,” he says. Lewis concurs. The outdoor access rule is no more strict than the USDA’s requirement for 𠇏ree-range.” And as for expressing natural behaviors, “what the heck does that mean?” Lewis asks.

Because the rules are vague, Klasing says that the welfare standards on organic farms vary much more than the standards on conventional farms, which are more tightly controlled. “I see some organic farms that are really excellent, and some that are way worse than conventional systems,” he says.

But change is in the offing, says Lewis. There has been pressure within the organic community to tighten those rules, 𠇊 reaction to the fact that most organic poultry producers need to get additional certifications to meet their customers’ expectations.”


I’m glad you finally asked. The term “Organic” indicates that the product comes from at least 95% organic ingredients. “100% organic” means that all of the ingredients are organic. The USDA regulates the use of the terms “organic” and “100% organic” through third-party certification organizations. For meat to be certified organic, the animal and his or her parents must have been raised organically, live on organic land, and fed organic crops. In order for land to be considered organic, it must not have been sprayed with pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or synthetic fertilizers for at least three years prior to certification. The animal’s diet may not include any byproducts or genetically modified organisms. The meat is not considered organic if it is exposed to antibiotics or growth hormones. Furthermore, in order to be certified, the product must be traceably and verifiably documented from birth to purchase.

You know those rules and regulations you just read about? They sounded pretty expensive, didn’t they? Like, extensively expensive. Not only do you have to change your entire farming method, and then establish it for years, but you also have to worry about an application fee, site inspection fee, and an annual certification fee. Farmers opt out of the switch to organic, as it turns out, because money doesn’t grow on trees. Especially organic trees. (This is an OK joke.)


COCONUT SUGAR: Is It Actually Better Than Regular Sugar?

Being a chocolate maker (someone who makes chocolate from scratch), I am always on the lookout for great sweeteners to use in Sacred Chocolate. Several years ago, a vendor approached me trying to sell me coconut sugar (aka coconut palm sugar as opposed to palm sugar which is not from a coconut tree) as a healthy sweetener because of its relatively low glycemic index of 35.

I was excited about the possibility of a good tasting, inexpensive sweetener that was also healthier than refined cane sugar. Could this be the ultimate sweetener redemption? It seemed too good to be true to my sometimes skeptical engineering mind. I asked for proof, and was directed to this published paper:

My concerns with this study were twofold. The study was conducted on only ten people. And, the study was done by a government who is one of the largest producers of coconut sugar in the world. Personally, I was hesitant to make an informed decision until more independent studies were conducted. Unfortunately, the only other study I have seen since shows a glycemic index for coconut sugar to be 54 as shown here:

A whole raw chocolate industry has popped up over the last few years touting coconut sugar as a low glycemic sweetener citing the first study above. However, as can be seen from the second study, further studies need to be conducted since there is such a difference between the two: 35 vs. 54.

I am not the only one with concern regarding the ambiguity associated with what is known about the glycemic index of coconut palm sugar as evidenced by these links:

Through my experience as a chocolate maker for almost ten years, I have learned that sugar is a necessary evil when it comes to making delectable chocolate. So in general, I advise people to eat chocolate at the highest percentage cacao content possible, that is still enjoyable for them, and to choose a chocolate with a “healthier” sweetener than refined cane sugar.

The idea that a sweetener is healthy if it is low on the glycemic index can be misleading. Certainly, a low glycemic index value is a desirable characteristic of a healthy sweetener for reasons I will not go into in this article (for more information, see http://nutritiondata.self.com/topics/glycemic-index ), but other factors also come into play that can still make a low glycemic sweetener problematic to health. For instance, coconut sugar happens to be approximately 70% sucrose (http://www.cabdirect.org/abstracts/19930319960.htmljsessionid=A8E24A6DE6707839BE2AEAF2F624358F ), which equates to about 35% fructose (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sucrose ). Fructose has been implicated in health issues such as metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and obesity. (http://authoritynutrition.com/why-is-fructose-bad-for-you/)

What makes coconut palm sugar healthier than refined cane sugar besides its supposed low glycemic index is the fact that it is higher in minerals than refined cane sugar and also contains some inulin, a starchy prebiotic fiber. (http://www.pca.da.gov.ph/coconutrde/images/cfs16.pdf and http://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/5/Suppl_1/bmjopen-2015-forum2015abstracts.79.abstract ).

Here is a typical nutrition facts panel of a popular brand of coconut sugar:

As I experimented with coconut sugar in my chocolate making, I noticed that the flavor profiles of the coconut sugar I obtained from various vendors differed significantly. I wondered why. I considered it was due to variations in crops and processing methods since coconut sugar is not a highly refined sugar—think Turbinado, Demerara, Muscovado, Rapadura, and Molasses, all of which are less refined forms of regular refined cane sugar. However, the information I obtained from a colleague, Frederick Schilling, founder of Dagoba Chocolate, Amma Chocolate, and Big Tree Farms (a producer of coconut sugar), cast doubt on my reasoning behind the vast difference in flavor profiles I experienced. At a chocolate conference, he told me that the Indonesian government had cracked down on a 40 or so container export shipment of coconut palm sugar that was cut with cane sugar. In other words, it was not pure coconut sugar, but a blend of coconut and cane sugar. (Note: I have not been able to find evidence of this event online.) I started thinking about what would motivate someone to do this. The only reasons I could think of were cost and/or flavor. As I researched further, I found out that coconut sugar is not a desirable sweetener in Southeast Asia due to its bitter aftertaste. I came to the conclusion that a possible motivation was to improve the flavor to sell more effectively at a higher price. Also, since coconut sugar is an unrefined sugar, it retains many of the minerals inherent in it (as seen above) and, therefore, can be sold as a more nutrient rich sweetener, warranting a higher price. So, the key would be to make sure it tastes good, so it is not rejected in the marketplace based on taste.

Are these factors that make the coconut sugar hype more of a racket than redemption? Regarding the health claim of a low glycemic index, it is a hard call at this point until further research and lab studies are conducted regarding whether or not your coconut sugar is pure, could be a tougher call.

In my opinion, it is safe to follow the advice of the American Diabetes Association which says to treat coconut sugar the same as you would treat regular sugar:

Diabetes woman patient makes an abdomen subcutaneous syringe insulin injection with a needle on a sofa at home.


Pesticide Residue

Just because organic oats are not grown with direct pesticide application doesn't mean they are completely free of pesticide or chemical residue. According to the results of a study published in "Food Control" in 2013, the number of organic oat samples testing positive for toxin residue was actually higher than the number for conventional samples. However, the conventional samples that did contain toxin residue had higher concentrations of those toxins (see Ref 2).