FoodWhy organic isn’t always better for you

If you’re looking for better nutritional value, it’s natural to gravitate to organic products. But should you? Organic foods are farmed without pesticides and contain none of the array of fungicides and chemical preservatives which get sprayed on to crops in conventional farming. This means organic foods have a shorter shelf life. The rest of the produce you see in the supermarket may contain pesticides and chemical residues that remain in the food even after...
Dr Remy Shanker Dr Remy ShankerMarch 8, 202012 min
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If you’re looking for better nutritional value, it’s natural to gravitate to organic products. But should you? Organic foods are farmed without pesticides and contain none of the array of fungicides and chemical preservatives which get sprayed on to crops in conventional farming. This means organic foods have a shorter shelf life. The rest of the produce you see in the supermarket may contain pesticides and chemical residues that remain in the food even after it is washed. 

But let’s not fool ourselves, organic food is expensive and it’s by no means the only way to a more nutritious diet. The clean farming process takes longer to produce much smaller yields than the traditional method. While this might be prudent, it may not always fit your bill. Also, organic produce imported from other countries may not always have the nutritional value you’re hoping for. The process of transporting and importing the produce takes it toll. 

Locally-grown produce could very well be a safer and cheaper bet. There is often a higher nutritional value, as our gut bacteria naturally adapts to the soil and water in the region. This means that eating produce grown from natural resources, near to us, helps cultivate good bacteria leading to good gut health and stronger nutrition. This is true no matter which country you live in, including the UAE. Eating local also supports local farmers and helps build better practices in the supply and demand chain, encouraging a more positive food culture and climate.

The UAE has some pretty great produce available right now in your regular chain hypermarkets and at fruit and vegetable markets. Most local produce can now be considered safe to consume, with superior nutritional value, due to the recent mandate by the government to improve farming practices. UAE-grown cucumbers, cabbages, cauliflower, broccoli, cucumbers, zucchini, eggplants and more are affordable, price-matched and safer to consume. 

The same logic extends to poultry. The common local brands are getting into the hormone-free, antibiotic-free zone with much more affordable prices, as government-mandated changes allow farms to scale their operations in this direction.

Sheep and goat, being mountain animals, have always been endemic to the region. If we think about red meat from these particular animals, lamb would have absorbability and resonate with your gut given the terrain’s soil and water content. The animal is also nourished with the right kind of fatty acids due to a mountainous diet. Emirati dishes like qoozi, harees, when cooked truly in the traditional sense, are all healthy regionally inspired dishes created keeping seasonal variability in mind.

Lamb is rich in micronutrients including iron, magnesium, B12 and zinc. Look out for the local butchers at the farmer’s market or even the meat section at the fruit and vegetable market. They now have some locally raised sustainable young sheep andgoat meat that may be worth the shift from beef, without burning a hole in your wallet,

That said, no red meat — even lamb — shouldn’t be the centerpiece of the meal. Instead it should be consumed in moderation alongside plant-based foods, but be mindful of the “Dirty Dozen”. These are the fruits and vegetables you should avoid as they generally retain some amount of pesticide residue even after washing., so choose organic for those. “Clean 15” items are known to be low in pesticides, and can be bought from the non-organic aisle at the grocery store making them affordable. 

What about processed organic goods, such as cookies and chips? Our grocery stores are now stuffed full of them. Even though they are not cheap, buying them somehow makes us feel a bit more virtuous. But do they really deserve a place in a clean-eating regime? 

That would depend on whether we believe the marketing hype on the packaging, which is why you really must read labels closely to get the real scoop. Ingredients like edible vegetable fat (simply adding the word “vegetable” does not make this healthy), partly hydrogenated vegetable fat, inverted sugar, glucose syrup, organic malt syrup, E40 and V10 all feature regularly in these organic products. 

So let’s take a closer look at those ingredients for a minute. Edible vegetable fat, as well as anything labelled hydrogenated vegetable oil or fat are all trans fats. What are trans fats? These are regular, refined and inflammatory vegetable oils that have zero nutritional value. They have been converted to a solid state at room temperature in order to mimic ghee and increase shelf life. And yes, even organic-declared products contain these. 

The use of the word organic should ideally mean that the product has been produced in conditions with minimal or no chemical-based insecticides or pesticides and farming techniques that naturally enhance its nutritional quality. So where do organic cookies and chips fit into the equation? Apart from being processed in a plant, they certainly do not contain much in the way of direct plant products. 

Since we tend to associate organic with healthy, we might even be unintentionally consuming more inflammatory fats and sugars. The bottom line is, if you are looking for cleaner versions of your treats, please be sure to read the labels first. It might even better to treat yourself occasionally with ordinary, non-organic products than buying them from the organic aisle and eating them regularly. 

By that, I certainly don’t mean you should get overly paranoid about carbs, protein, fats etc. Simply be mindful of the ingredients. Any product you eat, whether organic or not, should be what you envision it to be. For example, when we see a pack of banana-oat energy balls, we should be able to imagine it containing banana, oats and probably some binding sticky component like dates, raisins or natural honey. If, when you look at the label, you see anything other than these three, especially the aforementioned fats and vegetable oils, sugars, E-series stabilizers and preservatives, you may want to put it back on the shelf.

And remember, ingredients are always listed in descending order so the first three are the most plentiful in the product.  If we are to early keep the consumer informed then every household really needs to get into reading labels, whether you’re shopping in the supermarket or online. 

As consumers we always have a choice so we can and should be teaching ourselves about food processing and ingredients and learning how to spot gimmicks. And as we do this, we will doing a service to our pantries and refrigerators and, of course, our bodies. Let’s be the change we want to see in our food systems.

Dr Remy Shanker is a medical doctor with a masters degree in dietetics and applied nutrition. She is a wellness program specialist at New York University Abu Dhabi and a member of the livehealthy.ae expert panel. 

Dr Remy Shanker

Dr Remy Shanker

Remy is a medical doctor with a masters degree in dietetics and applied nutrition. Born and raised in the region, Remy has worked with various multinational wellness companies across the UAE. She is passionate about providing simple, real and holistic resources to help students champion a fulfilling healthy life at New York University Abu Dhabi, where she is a wellness program specialist. Her life’s philosophy revolves around creating positive environments, starting with herself. “While we’re all a work in progress, be the change you want to see.”

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