What does organic really mean?

Just because it's organic, doesn't meant it's healthy.Photo / Thinkstock
Just because it's organic, doesn't meant it's healthy.Photo / Thinkstock

Organic jelly beans. Organic potato chips. Organic vodka. "Organic" is a term perceived as healthier than conventional products, no matter what they are, according to a recent article by registered dietitian Sharon Palmer in the Environmental Nutrition newsletter.

So what does the term "organic" mean anyway? According to the United States Department of Agriculture - which regulates organic standards (in the US of course) - "organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilisers with synthetic ingredients, bioengineering, or ionising radiation.''

In other words, "organic" refers to how a food is farmed.

Organic does not necessarily mean a food can't be highly processed, however. Processed means it has been changed in some way from its natural form.

Take a chocolate chip cookie, for example. OK, take two. Organic chocolate chip cookies are made with organically cultivated wheat, sugar, butter and chocolate.

The organic flour and sugar can still be refined and white, however. And the nutritional value of these cookies may be no different from regular cookies. Sorry to blow a fantasy, but excess fat and calories from organic treats are no less damaging than those from other foods.

So while organic farming methods help ensure healthy soil and ecosystems, organic standards do not regulate a food product's nutritional attributes, says Palmer.

Take a product made with organic brown rice syrup or evaporated cane juice. It's still sugar. And organic sweetened beverages, candy bars, and chips? If they are stripped of healthful nutrients, they're just organic junk food.

What about organic milk? It comes from cows that were fed organic feed and were not given hormones or certain types of medications for illness. Both organic and regular milk contain the same profile of essential nutrients, say nutrition experts. And both types of milk are enriched with vitamin D - a hormone-like vitamin that helps the body absorb calcium.

Thankfully, all milk - organic or not - is strictly tested for antibiotic or pesticide residues to ensure these do not enter our food supply.

One interesting note: Some organic milk may last longer than regular milk because of how it is processed, according to Craig Baumrucker, professor of animal nutrition and physiology at Pennsylvania State University.

Because organic milk is not produced in all parts of the country, it may have to travel farther to reach stores. To help it stay fresh longer, it may be treated with UHT (Ultra High Temperature) which destroys most all its bacteria content. It may be this UHT process that gives organic milk its slightly sweeter taste than regular milk, says Baumrucker.

This process is different than pasteurisation, which kills most but not all bacteria. (That's why we need to refrigerate milk and drink it within a few days.)

Bottom line? Organic or not, health experts still call us to choose from whole grains, fresh fruit, vegetables, beans and legumes, low-fat dairy foods and lean meats, poultry and fish. And an occasional biscuit.

- MCT

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