Recently my friend Beth in Long Island started adding more organic foods to her family’s diet. Her primary concern was the amount of sugar and artificial sweeteners her almost three- and one and a half-year-old sons were consuming. She decided to restrict sweets from their diets and found that their increasingly rambunctious behavior -- demonstrated particularly by the three-year-old and largely fueled by holiday goodies -- improved.
“After our older son started having many tantrums each day we evaluated his diet and decided to cut processed sugars,” Beth said. “That led us to choosing more organic and natural foods.“
Her approach to introducing organics is one I like because it is based on a moderate, slow and steady approach. Beth said she changed much of what she gives her oldest son for snacks, but keeps his three main meals the same since they were healthy to start with. “We did a 180 turn around with snacks. Gummy fruit snacks are completely out of this house, as are cookies, cupcakes, cakes, etc,” she said, adding the caveat “he is allowed to have them at parties and we will let him indulge occasionally.”
She switched her sons' juice to Wadda Juice which claims to be "just pure juice and purified water" with "no added sweeteners, sugars or preservatives,? absolutely nothing artificial" and "half the sugar, calories and carbohydrates of 100% juice.” Beth also changed the kids’ drinkable yogurts to an organic brand and now gives them 100% whole wheat bread instead of white bread.
I’ve seen the direct correlation between high sugar intake and “bad” behavior for myself with our kids. Sugar, especially processed sugars like high fructose corn syrup, is a beast. It’s insidious and omnipresent. Added sugars and sweeteners are in bread, organic frozen lasagna dinners, and even fruit juice just to name a couple of food sources you might think are “safe.”
Modified and added sugars hide behind names like maltodextrin, dextrose, concentrated fruit juices and high fructose corn syrup, just to scratch the tip of the iceberg. (For a quick read with more info on Hidden Sugars and their impact, especially in glycemic responses, read this article by Moss Greene from BellaOnline.com). So if you’re going to be strict about limiting or omitting sugars, you really have to be on your toes as a label reader, and you’ll probably do a lot more cooking.
Beth and I are lucky. Our kids don’t have food allergies. People living with food allergies and sensitivities have no choice in whether or not they carefully screen all of the ingredients that make up their food. Most of us take this for granted, and most of us would benefit from a little more awareness and knowledge about the stuff we consume that fuel our lives.
When you have food-related conditions, (and just considering the four diseases diabetes, hypertension, cancer and obesity and the millions of Americans diagnosed with them, don’t we all have an interest in food-related conditions?), as diligent as you would like to be, sometimes life happens, and healthy eating easily falls by the wayside.
This is where buying organic might help simplify choosing what to eat, which quickly becomes complicated when you have food allergies or food-sensitive conditions such as diabetes. "Certified Organic" is a government certification precariously positioned slippery slope of arguable pros and cons that involve legislature, big business, small farmers, guileless consumers and the All Might Greenback. I'll save that complicated dance for another day, and clarify for the sake of this post, "organic" is derived from the USDA's 2002 definition which states:
Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; petroleum-based fertilizers or sewage sludge-based fertilizers; bio-engineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled "organic," a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.
Equally helpful in simplifying healthy food choices are the principles of groups like Slow Food International of supporting/buying/eating locally, regionally and seasonally because knowing where and who your food comes from takes a lot of the guess work out of what was added and what’s been processed. Also a diet solidly anchored in whole foods, as opposed to processed foods that make up the bulk of our heat-and-eat, nuke-and-chew, add-water-and-stir convenience foods saturated diet, can help you control the content of your diet and whether or not additives, sweeteners, preservatives, pesticides and all kinds of other laboratory engineered, tested and approved ingredients get in your body.
Eating food that is close to its source and mostly unmodified can take some of the research and guesswork out of daily eating for people with food-related conditions who don’t often get a chance to just relax and enjoy food for food’s sake. My mother – who is diabetic – said it best when she said, “Food is no fun when you have to think about everything you put in your mouth.” That certainly takes the spontaneity out of eating and enjoying food with reckless indulgence and abandon, which is what the holiday season is all about, right?
With the holidays just behind us many of us, whether or not we are parents or have food-related conditions, have dropped our vigilance over the things we eat. Gluttony, which some consider to be a sin and others a privilege or even a seasonal luxury, has been the theme of the last few weeks. And as we start a new year, I certainly don’t want to burden your conscience by suggesting a heavy resolution like “I will eat better in 2008.”
Instead, I want to help you eat more healthfully by giving you two cheat sheets from The Daily Green. Both written by Karen Berner, the first article lists 12 foods that you should buy organic, and the other lists 10 foods you don’t necessarily need to buy organic should you choose.
The Dirty Dozen: Top 12 Foods to Eat Organic lists 12 foods that are considered especially “dirty” in their conventional form, and it also says why you should buy them “organic” whenever you can. I’d like to even encourage you to go out of your way to purchase items you deem appropriate from sustainable producers, local growers and farmer’s markets because it’s a great way to get familiar with the faces behind your food. It makes it that much easier to follow the trail and answer the question “What exactly am I eating?” back to the source of production.
In The Dirty Dozen, Berner writes:
Not all of us can afford to go 100% organic. The solution? Focus on just those foods that are laden with the highest amounts of pesticides, chemicals, additives and hormones and deploy your organic spending power on buying organic versions of these whenever possible. Can't find organic versions of these foods? We've listed safer alternatives that contain the same valuable vitamins and minerals.
These 12 items were selected because of their susceptibility to pesticides, hormones and antibiotics due to things like where they are grown (different countries have different standards of the word “organic” and “natural”), having a thin skin or growing and harvesting techniques. Choose organic on these items, and you just might significantly decrease your exposure to environmental toxins. This article also lists food alternatives, which is nice when you can’t find the specific items listed.
For the sake of balance I’ve also included The Daily Green link to Berner’s 10 Foods You Don’t Have to Buy Organic which might help you save cash to purchase those things that matter most in organic form.
If the cost of buying all organics isn't within your budget, fear not. Check out The Daily Green's top ten list of fruit and vegetables you don't need to buy organic, with tips for buying and how to clean, store and use them in delicious recipes.
These 10 foods were chosen for their tendency to retain the least amount of pesticide residue due to the nature of the food itself, and growing and handling practices.
Personally I like Beth’s approach to increasing organic foods in her family’s diet. She’s made carefully selected choices that are likely to stick for the long haul as opposed to radically throwing out all the conventional food on January 1st and buying a house full of “new and improved” organic food that she knew nothing about. She’s made educated choices and said she’s still learning. “I haven't switched to organic milk and eggs, but it is very tempting the more I read about it.”
As for her son’s behavior, Beth said these small food substitutions have made a difference. “I have seen his behavior go from erratic and unpredictable to him listening better and being more in control of his behavior and body,” she said. “He still has tantrums, of course, but he is only three and I find the number of [tantrums that he has] acceptable at this point.” Beth said his concentration and attention have also improved. “He actually sits and watches a movie now -- not that I am condoning that, but he would never sit still for more than 5 minutes at a time before.”
Perhaps the best news to any parent’s ears is Beth’s observations at bedtime. “Bedtime is not a complete disaster anymore because he is not running around the house,” she said. Now that's all I need to hear to make some minor modifications to my own son’s diet which I admit has more than its fair share of soda and fast food cheeseburgers. Two years ago, as a new mother with crunchy-granola dreams and organic fantasies, I never would’ve dreamed my kid’s diet would be as full of processed and adulterated food as it is. Fortunately, it is an easy enough fix and thanks Beth, for giving me inspiration to join the campaign of Moderate Organics at the start of 2008.