By Hannah Alderfer, BA, CPT, FMSC
It’s a struggle to eat a healthy diet today. More than some people even recognize. I think we can all agree on the fact that fast food, sweets, and junk food are not good for our bodies; we need more vegetables, fruits, good sources of protein, and healthy fats in our diet and less of the empty, fattening, disease-causing calories. But when someone asks me why it’s important to choose to eat organic food over conventional (or non-organic) food, they might hear more than they bargained for.
Eating an organic diet is increasing in popularity, but many people may not realize why choosing organic is critical to creating a healthier lifestyle. There are many reasons to choose organic foods, but one reason in particular is to avoid Genetically Modified Organisms, also known as GMOs, which is a term you may have heard within the trendy “health food” realm. It is recognized that a GMO “is the result of a laboratory process where genes from the DNA of one species are extracted and artificially forced into the genes of an unrelated plant or animal. The foreign genes may be from bacteria, viruses, insects, animals, or even humans.” All USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) certified organic food never contains GMOs. However, if you pick up a box of cereal, for example, that has the non-GMO label but does not have the USDA certified organic seal, it is not guaranteed to be organic. Just because it says non-GMO does not mean that it’s organic. I think this confuses a lot of people. So why is this important you may ask? One reason is that, “Organic regulations prohibit certain toxic pesticides from being used on crops, though non-GMO only may still have been grown with pesticides.” That statement in itself might not sway you to choose certified organic foods, but it should. According to the National Institutes of Health, pesticide exposure has been linked to diseases such as asthma, autism, learning disabilities, birth defects, reproductive dysfunction, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and several kinds of cancer. To clarify where we are getting the majority of our pesticide exposure, the Environmental Health Perspectives journal records that exposure to organophosphate pesticide was predominately through eating non-organic food, even if it’s non-GMO. Those who eat more organic food not only have less exposure to pesticides, therefore reducing their risk of certain diseases, furthermore they avoid the risks that come with ingesting GMOs.
Certified organic foods do not allow any GMOs, but why is that? Let’s find out. GMOs may seem fascinating when genetic modification includes scientific advances such as cloning, chemical and insect resistant plants, and hypoallergenic pets, but there are more than a few concerns. First introduced in the mid 1990s, GMOs have become routine in numerous crops that are used in many of the foods Americans buy, especially processed foods. Genetically modified crops found in the US include corn, soy, cotton, canola, and sugar beets. These crops are made into products such as oils, soy protein, soy lecithin, cornstarch, corn syrup, and high fructose corn syrup, just to name a few. Take a moment and grab a few packages from your kitchen pantry. See any of those ingredients listed on the nutrition label? You’re eating GMOs. That may not cause you too much anxiety, but what is startling is that many countries, including all of Europe, have banned products made with GMOs, and for good reason. According to the Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT), the most comprehensive source for GMO health information on the Internet, “Crops that are GMOs are created with herbicide tolerance, so farmers can spray directly on the crops without killing them. GMOs increase the use of herbicides because they are tolerant so that the crops survive while the weeds die off.” In addition, Monsanto, the world’s largest producer of GMO seeds and creator of the herbicide Roundup, sells Roundup Ready crops that withstand applications of Roundup. Because weeds are becoming tolerant of the Roundup as well, more and more is being used on crops and now crops contain higher residues of these toxic chemicals. The realization that we’re ingesting higher and higher amounts of these toxic chemicals without knowing their effects on our health and the environment over time is alarming.
Chemicals aside, unfortunately we still don’t fully know the long-term effects of consuming GMOs on our personal health or their effect on the environment. Several governmental studies conducted across the world—including the governments of France, New Zealand, Argentina, Austria, and Italy—are linking GMOs to various health issues. Since 1996 when GMOs were introduced, the following health issues have been on the rise: chronic diseases, food allergies, autism, reproductive disorders, and digestive problems. This interesting correlation has not been confirmed, but it is obvious that these health issues are more and more prominent, especially in the US. And considering that GMOs are highly prevalent in processed foods and that the American diet, in general, consists of mostly processed foods, it’s easy to see that there could be a link. The IRT reports that, “genetically modified foods have been linked to toxic and allergic reactions, sick, sterile and dead livestock, and damage to virtually every organ studied in lab animals.” Yet the US Food & Drug Administration has never required any safety studies or labeling of products that contain GMOs. Companies can use GMOs in their products without notifying anyone of their use. Why choose to eat organic? I think the question has been answered. It’s more than the trending thing to do. It’s a way to not only avoid the chemicals and highly processed, toxic preservatives and additives used in conventional foods, but also a way to avoid consuming Genetically Modified Organisms and the risks that come with that.
After reading this some may find they are a little discouraged and possibly disturbed by what is in their pantry and fridge right now. My purpose in answering the “Why organic?” question is not to frighten consumers into purchasing organic food. (Because, let’s be honest, putting a box of organic cookies into your cart isn’t much healthier, but I’ll save that discussion for another time.) It is to make people aware of what’s happening within the food industries that fill our grocery shelves. With all of the information we are learning about the way our food is made, it’s easy to become overwhelmed, scared, obsessed, and discouraged by the food options available to us and the difficulty of navigating through the maze of what’s healthy and what’s not. Don’t ever minimize your efforts to work toward a healthier diet. We often tell our clients to make the healthiest choice possible. We would rather they grab an apple over a bag of chips or candy bar any day, even if it isn’t organic, because it’s the healthiest choice they can make at that moment. You have to start somewhere, and in the mess that our food industry has created, becoming more educated about your food choices is the best strategy you can use to live a healthier life. Choosing to incorporate organic foods into your diet is one way to do just that.