Organic food? What the heck does that even mean?

Boy oh boy, do we Americans love our simple and easy labels.

The brilliant comedian, Lewis Black, has an older bit about this. He asks a theater full of people, “Is milk good for you or not?” The response is uncomfortable murmuring, which he basically turns into the punchline and, well, and educational point about how ridiculously confused Americans have become about food and health.

Through the magic of the interwebs, here’s the bit (warning, there’s an abundance of NSFW language here):

Over time, the confusion just builds. Right now the two things that are baffling our nation in the grocery store are organic foods and the debate over GMO crops. I’ll leave the GMO discussion for another time, right now I need to ask you, organic? What the heck does that even mean?

This article does a brilliant job, with wonderful examples, from the perspective of a gardener on how organic does not necessarily mean awesome, or healthy.

My favorite example though, right out the gate, is arsenic. Arsenic is toxic. It is also 100% organic.

I can hear your deep, heavy sighs from here. Food is super important, and you should care about what you eat, where it came from and whether or not it might be something you should keep out of your mouth. And this constant yes it’s good/no it’s not dynamic in the media, from doctors and other authority figures just really does not help.

Don’t give up hope though. Ultimately, it’s not that complicated.

Fresher is better. The less distance your food has to travel before it ends up in your grocery store and on your plate, the better. So if you’re shopping at a farmer’s market don’t sweat the organic label so much. Conventionally farmed produce that was picked locally and was picked when it was actually ripe and ready to come off the tree or vine is the number one priority. And when you’re in the grocery store where the item you’re looking at came from (as in, how far did it have to travel to get there) is much more important than an organic label.

When it comes to packaged foods, what it is is what matters. An organic donut is still a donut. A conventionally farmed carrot is miles better for you than organic macaroni and cheese. Don’t fool yourself into thinking an organic label bestows nutritional value upon something you know is junk food. And labels still matter. Organic cane sugar is still sugar. If the ingredients list on that box or can you’re looking at lists organic cane sugar, or organic beet sugar, or organic agave as one of the top ingredients is just as bad for you as conventional products with high fructose corn syrup in them.

In the end, Michael Pollan is still right – Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

And if you’re not sure of the definition of “food” try to ask yourself, “Would my great grandmother recognize this as food?” If the answer is no? It’s not. Lastly, my personal favorite – if it won’t rot, it’s rotten. Our digestive systems are mostly composed of bacteria that break the stuff we eat down into the nutrients our bodies need. If the bacteria in the air can’t make something decompose, what are the odds the bacteria in our guts will do a better job?

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