- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2007

In my opinion, brown is not the new black, and organic farming is not a fad. It’s here to stay. A small section of the supermarket is dedicated to organic food, but I predict it soon will be the whole store — or at least a very large part of it. Trying to avoid the organic craze would be like trying to ignore reality TV. Both have skyrocketed overnight, and it is as impossible to avoid all-natural, hormone-free poultry as it is to escape “American Idol” gossip. Organic food has hit the big time. In fact, sales of organics have grown by 20 percent each year for the past decade.

From the soil to the plate, we’re concerned about all of it: food quality, food safety, the environment, where our food comes from and animal rights. Despite the rise in obesity (or perhaps because of it), quality over quantity finally seems to be inching its way into the mix.

When I was a teenager, my parents said they needed a special dictionary to comprehend what they called my teen lingo. There seems to be a similar need for translation of at least some of the new labeling terms applied to organics.

Here’s what you need to know to be an informed shopper.

Foods certified as “organic” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are the most comprehensively and closely regulated on the market. Organic farmers apply natural fertilizers, manure or compost to feed soil and plants. They use beneficial insects and birds, mating disruption or traps to reduce pests and disease.

Crops are rotated, and the soil is tilled, hand-weeded or mulched to manage weeds. Animals are fed organic feed and are allowed access to the outdoors. Preventative measures such as rotational grazing, a balanced diet and clean housing are set up to help minimize the risk of disease. Organic meats are raised without chemical herbicides, fertilizers, antibiotics or growth hormones to prevent disease or spur growth.

The term “100 percent organic” refers to products that are completely organic or made of all organic ingredients. They are allowed to carry a small USDA organic seal. This is not mandatory, but most companies use it. Hey, if you’ve got it, flaunt it. Organic products that are at least 95 percent organic also can use the seal.

“Made with organic ingredients” refers to products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients. The organic seal can’t be used, but the organic items can be included in the ingredients list.

“Raised without antibiotics” is a general claim that implies that no antibiotics were used in the production of a food product. The USDA defines it as meaning that the animals used for meat and poultry products were raised entirely without low-level or therapeutic doses of antibiotics. Use of this claim requires sufficient documentation.

“No hormones administered” refers to an animal considered to be free from any added hormones over its lifetime. Use of this claim requires sufficient documentation.

The “grass-fed” label indicates that animals have been raised on natural pasturage. As a bonus, feeding animals in such a way provides benefits to the environment, the animals’ quality of life and even nutritional value. For example, grass-fed hens produce eggs that are higher in omega 3 fatty acids than conventional eggs. Incidentally, we have mad cow disease to thank for the increased demand for grass-fed cattle.

“Free range” invokes images of a large pasture with plenty of room to roam. It’s not necessarily that picturesque. USDA does not stipulate how much time or space the animals must have on the range. By itself, the term doesn’t guarantee much more than that the animal has had access to the outdoors.

The term “natural” implies that meat and poultry must not contain any artificial flavoring, coloring, chemical preservatives, or artificial or synthetic ingredients and that it must be minimally processed in a way that does not fundamentally alter the raw product. However, the USDA allows this label to be applied to meat from animals that were raised using growth hormones or antibiotics.

The label must define the use of the word “natural” for full clarity.

I want to emphasize that making informed choices goes beyond what is described above. You can reap reliable information about your food from the farmers or producers themselves. I encourage you to call or visit your local growers at farmers markets or at the farm. But don’t head out just yet. You’re not quite ready. Do you know which foods are healthier? Are they worth the extra cost? What about the impact on the environment? Do you know which foods to avoid?

The Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization based in Washington, has assembled what it calls a “dirty dozen”; according to USDA, some fruits and vegetables have higher levels of pesticides than others — even after washing. The environmental group recommends, when possible, that we buy organic versions of apples, cherries, grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, raspberries, strawberries, bell peppers, celery, potatoes and spinach. Organic milk, beef and poultry also are recommended, although they are not part of the group’s list. Organic milk, beef and poultry contain no hormones or antibiotics, plus you reduce the admittedly small risk of exposure to what may cause mad cow disease.

Even expert opinions vary, however. The American Dietetic Association says “no scientific evidence shows that organically produced foods are healthier or safer for you than their counterparts; both organic and conventionally grown farming supply nutritionally comparable foods.”

Certainly, there are plenty of claims that organic foods contain more antioxidants and minerals. It’s possible, and it makes sense to me, but we’re still waiting for further studies.

Other concerns about conventional growing methods include the use of hormones and antibiotics.

The first issue is whether and how much of the substances winds up in your body. Moreover, hormones in meat production may be entering our waterways from livestock feedlots and may impact the environment, including, for example, fish.

Giving antibiotics to livestock can lead to antibiotic resistance, and this is a major concern for everyone.

Many experts agree that the pesticides used in conventional farming to protect crops from molds, insects and diseases pose a very small threat.

However, pesticides are tested individually, and most fruits and vegetables are exposed to a variety.

Do you know that more than 400 chemicals are approved for use on foods? It’s virtually impossible to test what effect a combination of these could pose on the human body over time.

So, for the moment, an excellent reason to buy organic is to protect the environment. Organic farming practices are designed to reduce pollution and conserve water and soil.

The taste is personal, and the cost definitely is higher. It’s about $3.50 for a carton of organic eggs versus 80 cents for conventional eggs where I live in Florida. Of course, in my family, we feel safer eating organics, and we certainly prefer the taste. It’s your choice, but make sure you know what you’re buying.

Organic foods are often more economical at local farmers markets, and I believe in supporting local growers. As a general rule, the shorter the distance from the farm to your plate, the less opportunity there is for such things as additional pesticides and waxes. You’re purchasing fresh seasonal products, and you are avoiding all the fuel costs, air pollution and waste associated with shipping food from halfway around the country or the world. It’s a win-win.

My clients always ask what I buy. I tell them, so it’s only fair to tell you. When it comes to produce, I try to buy locally (organic or not) so I can speak to the growers about their methods. I wash everything thoroughly with water and a brush but no cleansing sprays. I also buy organic beef and poultry.

I’m cautious about what I do for the outside of my body. (I always wear sunscreen.) I feel that the inside of my body deserves the same respect.

So there you have it. Consider yourself informed and educated for a lap around the supermarket.

I’m glad we have choices about the foods we put into our bodies. Now if we could just get more say on what airs on the tube. I’m so over the reality craze.

Organic chicken

4½ pounds organic chicken (See note)

½ pound organic Yukon Gold potatoes

½ pound organic yams

½ pound organic carrots

½ pound organic beets

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon rosemary, finely chopped

1 teaspoon oregano, finely chopped

Salt and pepper

Wash and dry chicken and remove the bag of giblets from the cavity of the bird. Place chicken in roasting pan and discard giblets, if desired. Thoroughly scrub potatoes, yams, carrots and beets, and cut in chunks about 1-inch thick. Toss vegetables with olive oil and place in roasting pan with chicken.

Brush chicken with olive oil and sprinkle herbs on chicken. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Roast in preheated 350-degree oven for about 40 minutes, or until golden brown and chicken juices run clear when chicken is pierced with a fork.

Makes 4 servings.

Note: For a really low-fat option, remove the skin before serving.

Per serving: 585 calories, 29 grams fat, 5 grams fiber, 23 grams carbohydrates, 48 grams protein.

Grilled organic corn pudding

2 cups grilled organic corn kernels (about 3 ears)

1 to 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 cup organic nonfat milk

1 cup basic organic vegetable stock

1 clove organic garlic

1/3 cup Cream of Wheat

1/4 cup organic nonfat sour cream

1 organic whole egg

2 organic egg whites

½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Nonstick cooking spray

Water

Brush each ear of corn with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill or broil corn at medium-high heat until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Let corn cool. Cut kernels off cobs.

Bring milk, vegetable stock and garlic to a boil in a heavy saucepan. Whisk in Cream of Wheat in a thin stream and simmer, continuing to stir, for 2 to 3 minutes or until thick. Stir in corn and sour cream. Remove pan from heat and let cool for 2 minutes. Whisk in whole egg, egg whites and Parmesan cheese.

Spoon mixture into 8-inch gratin dish that has been lightly misted with nonstick cooking spray. Place dish in a roasting pan with ½ inch water. Bake pudding in preheated 350-degree oven for 40 to 50 minutes, or until puffed and golden brown. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Per serving: 219 calories, 14 grams protein, 7 grams fat, 27 grams carbohydrates, 374 milligrams sodium, 107 milligrams cholesterol.

Organic broccoli and leek soup

1 bunch organic broccoli (about 5 cups, cut up)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 organic leek, washed and finely chopped

4 cloves organic garlic

4 cups basic organic vegetable stock

1 large organic potato, peeled and diced

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Lemon

Wash and dry broccoli. Trim bottoms and any fibrous parts off stems and discard. Finely chop broccoli.

Heat olive oil in a large saucepan. Cook leek over medium heat for 3 to 4 minutes, or until soft. Add the garlic after 2 minutes. Stir in 4 cups stock, the potato, broccoli (stems and flowering part), salt and pepper, and simmer for 10 minutes.

Puree soup in blender. Return soup to saucepan and heat thoroughly. If soup is too thick, thin with more vegetable stock. Correct seasoning, adding a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Makes 6 servings.

Per serving: 91 calories, 5 grams protein, 3 grams fat, 14 grams carbohydrates, 43 milligrams sodium, 0 milligrams cholesterol

For more information from Betsy Klein, a dietitian and nutritional consultant in Miami, visit www.betsykleinrd.com.

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