FOOD FOR THOUGHT.
Let’s talk organics. I will break this up, but I promise they come together. For those of you who don’t know me, I am a medical anthropologist. I look at the intersections between culture, biology, and power, and how they relate to health and the medical system. Within this, I am passionate about food and nutrition… nutritional anthropology.
This post isn’t against organics, nor bashes those who don’t eat them. It is just a few perspectives that I thought I would share. If you know me personally, or have been following my blog– I love my organic food. BUT it’s not always available. I hope you enjoy some of my brief thoughts on organics. Enjoy!
When I started transitioning into more of a paleo (with dairy still so technically ‘primal’), less-processed diet– I was about to turn 19 and heading into my sophomore year of college. I had been trying to make exercise a habit for the 6 months prior, and was making small shifts in my diet.
But when I got back to school, right after my 19th birthday, I was finally situated in my own space—an apartment. The independence was so sweet. I felt like life was turning a new page—I had new friends, was recently single, and could not wait to get back to my studies…. Especially after just finishing up my first internship at the San Diego Museum of Man. It was the few weeks in my apartment before school started that really began my absolute love for cooking. It was my new creative outlet (which had previously been poetry or singing in the car). As my mindset on what a ‘normal’ meal began to change (bye bread!), so did my understanding of the food system. I began understanding labels and paying attention. I was fascinated by it all, and the connection to the human body. Back at home, my brother was doing the GAPs (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) diet, and it was doing wonders for his health. The increase in his health came with greater happiness and weight loss. Seeing this life-changing improvement in health was motivating and along with my studies in human evolution and biology, made me want to learn more. So food became a hobby and a cause for health, all at one time. People had always mentioned ‘organic’ but it didn’t mean too much for me until then. Organic always seemed like the better option, and growing up it seemed obvious that you were doing a good thing by eating organic foods. But it really isn’t that simple.
I know you’re probably thinking, Alexis (yes I call myself that, not Lex. But people call me that too), “I thought this post was about organics?”. It is. We’re getting there!
Organic means that it is grown without pesticides; products that are certified organic have gone through a rigorous (and expensive) process to receive certification, which must be renewed fairly often. This is why you may see small vendors that may have uncertified food claiming to be “organic”. Just talk to the farmer or vendor… usually they just aren’t at the point that they can afford to become certified. I always strive to eat organically. There will always be reactions to what you put in your body—whether that be a super food or spinach or a bowl of mac & cheese. Plants usually have properties to make them somewhat inedible or distasteful to hungry organisms like ourselves…. Hello evolution! (Fruit is different due to their seed spreading agenda). So when you put food that has pesticides (READ: harsh chemicals) in them, they are going into your body. So go organic. BUT organic can be more expensive. If you choose produce wisely, it can be done in a very affordable way—if you are not in a precarious position economically. There are lists called the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen”. I recommend following these lists in your organic purchases—the Dirty Dozen is a list of pesticide-ridden produce that should be purchased organically. Clean Fifteen is a list of produce that is typically grown conventionally with low amounts of pesticides—they are safer to purchase conventionally. I stopped really talking about the ‘organic nature’ of what I post about, but I follow these guidelines. You can find the link to these lists on my Resources page.
Organic is so often used as a buzzword that equates to healthy. HECK NO. There is organic cane sugar. Doesn’t mean it’s a health food. Organic just means, plain and simple, that there are no pesticides. The ingredients could still be iffy (or really bad for you), just not sprayed with chemicals. Also, pesticides haven’t been around for THAT LONG. So the lasting effects, generationally, are still to really be tested (and they’ve already been shown as horrible in the short-term).
Remember, instead of “organic food”, it used to be just food.
Back to when I was an undergrad in college. My school environment, as any micro-culture does, effected this transition. My campus was home to very active, health conscious, beautiful people… it lent itself to striving for perfectionism, which, especially when you are hard on yourself… is not something to strive for. (For perspective, students were more often victims of weight loss, than to weight gain as a result of coming to college).
From this ‘perfect’ (and probably selfish) worldview, it made me upset when I couldn’t be “100% organic”. It made me so mad! I was falling into that dangerous idea that foods carry some innate moral value—good and bad. And that is hard to escape, especially in America—we LOVE to assign moral value to evvverryytthinggg. “80-20” wasn’t enough, I wanted 100% organic because I thought I had to. Now, 5 years later, I laugh at how stressed I was about eating only organic produce. I still find eating organic very important (especially eating good quality meat… which is a whole other blog), but I can now put things into perspective. I once had a professor say something along the lines that conventional greens are always better than organic ‘cheetos’. You may laugh, but she brought up a damn good point. I think we should all try to eat organically if it is WITHIN OUR MEANS. Which for many, it is not. People struggle every day to even find and afford produce, let alone organic produce! Have you heard of a food desert?
Food deserts (areas of a city that have no grocery stores or places to find fresh produce or other non-highly-processed foods) are common in America. People living in these areas often must buy what is at the local liquor store to eat…. Transportation can be expensive, difficult, of even unsafe. Shopping within a food desert is cost effective, timely, but lends itself to worsening health and medical conditions. Even worse, “…food choices that lead to poor health may then decrease the individual’s productivity and therefore purchasing power. As such, individuals must navigate their food choices within their status as workers (Devine et al., 2006, 8)”(Hahn, 2018, 5). (Yes, I am citing my own thesis work… is that weird?). Basically, food deserts are usually in lower-income areas, and the food available can contribute to poor health… which can contribute to lower levels of productivity and therefore an income that remains low. An article by Pollard et al. (2002) describes key factors in how adults make food choices (availability and monetary cost, time constraints, sensory appeal, familiarity, social interactions, personal ideology, media, and health) (Pollard et al., 2002, 376). It isn’t as simple as what someone wants.
Those of us who assign moral value to foods based on “organic”—I challenge you to step out of that mindset. Strive to eat organically if you can (“Vote with your Fork”), but don’t chastise yourself or others who can’t. If you have free time, help out at community gardens, donate to foodbanks, and take time to lear more about & talk about the issues of food deserts and food insecurity. Because why would you worry about what you are eating if you aren’t given any choices?
My final peeps about organics:
-Organic means no pesticides were involved
-Organic does not always mean healthy
-Organic means healthier than the conventional version (because of chemicals)
-Organics and produce in general, are not always affordable
-Food deserts and food insecurity are big issues
-Change your perspective, and try to inspire/make change
Thanks for listening! Feel free to email me any questions, or let me know what your perspective is.
Devine CM, Jastran M, Jabs J, Wethington E, Farrell TJ, Bisogni CA. “A lot of sacrifices”: Work-family spillover and the food choice coping strategies of low-wage employed parents. Social Science and Medicine. 2006;63(10):2591-2603.
Hahn, Alexis M., Work-food Trade-offs: Millennial Workers in Alternative Work Arrangements. Masters Thesis. University of Colorado Denver. Spring 2018.
Pollard, J., SF L. Kirk, and J. E. Cade. “Factors affecting food choice in relation to fruit and vegetable intake: a review.” Nutrition research reviews 15, no. 2 (2002): 373-387.