Monday Medical: The truth about organic and locally grown foods

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Health-minded consumers have grown more and more aware of the importance of reading labels. Too many products claim to be healthful and "natural," and it takes a little effort to discover the truth. Have you noticed there is very little of this type of reading material to be found in the produce section?

When it comes to choosing produce, organic often is considered the single source for healthy eating. While it is true that organic has a multitude of benefits, it may not be the only healthy choice.

What does it mean to be organic? Foods produced without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or bio-engineering qualify as organic by United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards.

"Certified Organic" is a label created by the USDA's National Organic Standards Board. Its purpose is to regulate food producers who claim their food is organic. These standards require more effort on the part of producers and therefore cost the consumer more than their conventional counterparts. As the cost of food increases, is organic worth the expense?

"We believe organic produce has more nutrition," said Nina Rogers of Healthy Solutions in Steamboat Springs. "Organic produce has 30 to 40 percent more nutrients because it is not picked too early and is handled in a more thoughtful way."

Rogers finds that organic produce tastes better and has more flavor. She adds that food grown on organic farms is able to extract more nutrients from the soil. Healthy Solutions' policy is to buy only USDA-certified organic produce.

Although organic is appraised for its high standards, it's not enough for some local produce buyers.

"Organic was an underground term used by companies like Whole Foods," Jonathan Hieb, owner of Sweet Pea Produce, said. "As the organic industry has grown so big and so profitable, the rules are changing."

But not always for the better, he says. For example, Heib explains that one can purchase a jalapeño pepper from an "organic" farm in Mexico that satisfies all the criteria that the USDA requires. However, that jalapeño potentially could be contaminated by its water source.

The USDA states in its definition of organic, "Organic agriculture practices cannot ensure that products are completely free of residues; however, methods are used to minimize pollution from air, soil and water."

Heib also has traveled to some organic farms and observed produce sitting in the sun for hours before being shipped. "There are so many variables that can ruin a product," Heib said. "I use the word 'clean.'"

"Clean" is a new term some are using to describe produce that is grown with much care and concern for the environment. Heib prefers to buy foods from smaller farms and warehouses in this region, where he can get to know the grower. But, here's the rub: many of these local farms are not officially organic.

It is not cost-effective for some small producers to pay to be certified organic, Heib said. However, their farms - which average seven acres - are small enough that they can manage their crops without pesticides and use other environmentally friendly methods.

Buying locally also means a smaller carbon footprint. Steamboat Springs is a mere 180 miles from Palisade, where much of the local produce comes from.

Local, organic or both, the ultimate benefits are the same. More consumers are turning to organic and locally grown produce for their health, even if it means spending a little more.

"Healthy Solutions customers are committed to buying organic, because it's a way of life," Rogers said. Heib added that the economy's downturn actually has benefited his business, because more people are cooking at home rather than eating out.

"I would always spend a little extra money for my health," said Anne Halloran, owner of Bamboo Market. "Taking responsibility for one's health starts with diet and exercising."

Halloran, who has a master's degree in clinical nutrition, said Bamboo Market also is selling more organic produce. She emphasized that buying healthful food is especially important when it comes to children. Snack foods such as grapes and berries are the most sprayed and therefore they are safer if they are organic or locally grown.

Although labels on produce are very small, they at least tell you one important detail: where they are from. While the organic-certified label is a good thing, consider that not all organic produce is the same. Whenever possible, try to learn more about the grower.

Riley Polumbus is communications specialist at Yampa Valley Medical Center.

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