Processed foods have become a staple in the U.S., making up as much as 90 percent of American diets. Pre-prepared meals are often less expensive, and save working, busy people time at the end of a long day.
However, research from the Organic Trade Association shows that trends are beginning to change. Sales of organic products grew by about 5 percent in 2009, reaching a total of $26.6 billion. And fruits and vegetables, the most popular corner of the organic market, increased sales by 11 percent, or $9.5 billion.
Stacy Kennedy, MPH, RD, senior clinical nutritionist at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center, points out some important truths about organic foods.
Myth 1: Organic foods are better for your health.
Reality: There is no scientific evidence that specifically ties eating organic foods to a decreased risk of cancer, Kennedy says. All of the studies that point to the cancer preventative benefits of a produce-rich diet are based on conventionally grown fruits and vegetables found at the typical grocery store. The American Institute for Cancer Research says that while organic might be the preference for some individuals, eating more fruits and vegetables – regardless of how they are grown – outweighs any potential risks of pesticides used on non-organic fruits and vegetables. Kennedy recommends washing produce thoroughly with water, and even using a very small amount of vinegar – (1 part white vinegar : 3 parts water then rinsing in fresh water). Never use dish soap.
“It makes sense that we pay attention to where our food comes from and how it’s produced,” Kennedy says. “But the conversation should be around local foods. The sooner you eat a fruit or vegetable after it’s picked, the more nutrients it has. If the organic apples at the market are from New Zealand, then the locally grown apple may be the better choice.”
Kennedy recommends www.massfarmersmarkets.org or www.localharvest.org for a list of Massachusetts farmers who sell locally grown produce throughout the year, even during the winter months.
Myth 2: Chemicals used to make foods must be okay to digest because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows them.
Reality: Processed foods may be convenient, but many of the chemicals and synthetic products found on the label have been linked to cancer, obesity, and heart disease. Some of the worst ingredients are trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, white (bleached) grains, and anything with a high sodium content.
“Trans fats are like barbed wire in your body,” says Kennedy. “Trans fat is made to extend the shelf life of products so when ingested, it becomes rigid and jagged in the body and causes inflammation and irritation that can be disruptive to cells.” Even a product labeled as having 0 grams trans fats per serving may contain some because the labeling law states that less than half gram per serving can be listed as zero. If a product has 3 servings and 0.4 grams trans fat per serving, you could be ingesting 1.2 grams, not zero. Look at the ingredient list and avoid anything that has partially hydrogenated oils, which is another way of saying trans fats.
Kennedy recommends eating fresh foods whenever possible and swapping salt for spices like oregano or thyme. Make your holiday chocolate chip cookies healthier by using half whole-wheat flour and add wheat germ. Also, skip the shortening and instead use a mixture of olive or canola oil and apple sauce.
Limiting sugar-infused, empty-calorie, and highly processed foods will leave more room in your diet for healthy options and also help with weight management and cancer prevention, Kennedy says. For a list of healthy recipes, visit www.dana-farber.org/nutrition; and visit Fighting Cancer With Your Fork for a full presentation from Dana-Farber nutritionist Hillary Wright.
Do you buy organic foods more than you used to? Which organic foods are always in your kitchen?