The other day I was teaching a class on what to eat to lower blood cholesterol to a group of 52 very motivated people who had some form of heart disease. A recurring theme during the question and answer session was organic foods. People wanted to know how important are organic foods for management of their heart disease. Particularly interesting was the fact that eating organic foods was not a part of my talk. However, a number of the participants had been to see a ‘Certified Holistic Health Counselor and Food Expert’ and they were told to throw away all foods in their kitchen that were not organic. Most disturbing was they were told that the non-organic foods they were consuming were contributing to their condition.
The primary concern among participants was that they could not afford to eat an exclusively organic diet. They were feeling overwhelmed, confused, and angry. Ironically, some would suggest brewing stress of this caliber is not healthy for heart disease management.
If the motivation is to limit exposure to pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics and hormones then there are some foods you may want to select organic. If it is to help prevent or manage a chronic disease such as heart disease then limited food dollars may be better spent on improving the overall quality of the diet by eating more fruits and vegetables, fish, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
There are two lists, the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15, that can help guide consumers when selecting fruits and vegetables. Dirty Dozen lists fruits and vegetables with the highest chemical residues and includes: Peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, kale, lettuce, grapes (imported), carrots, and pears. The Clean 15 lists produce with some of the lowest chemical exposures and includes: Onions, avocados, sweet corn, pineapple, mangos, asparagus, sweet peas, kiwi, cabbage, eggplant, papaya, watermelon, broccoli, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes.
As to be expected much discussion in the class centered on meats and dairy. Organic milk, beef and poultry contain no hormones and antibiotics, but often cost 100% more than conventional products. When talking about heart disease the bottom line is to choose nonfat, lean animal products in order to limit total and saturated fat. More important than eating organic is first, making the switch to nonfat dairy and lean meats and second, making sure the meat portion size is appropriate.
Most often organic beef is also grass-fed. It is true that pasture-raised, grass-fed beef contains less total fat than meat from grain-fed animals. In addition, meat and milk from pasture-raised, grass-fed animals contains greater levels of heart beneficial fatty acids such as omega-3, alpha-linolenic acid and conjugated linoleic acid.
As for processed foods choosing those made with whole grains, the least amount of added sugars, and the lowest in saturated fat and trans-fat free, trumps organic. I think it’s wiser to spend limited food dollars on the organic versions of the Dirty Dozen than it is on organic processed foods.
Consumers facing the daunting challenges of living with a chronic disease should not be stressing themselves about the organic factor, especially given all there may be to learn about management of their medical condition. A practical solution that can fall into most food budgets is to focus on foods that come with the heaviest burden of pesticides, additives, and hormones. Buy organic for the Dirty Dozen, conventionally grown for the Clean 15, and if the budget allows feel good about eating grass-fed beef once in a while, but watch the portion size.