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We all know by now that what we eat is a foundational determinant of our health. How to optimally nourish ourselves is undoubtedly confusing territory for many because there is so much contradictory information at hand. Nutrition is a rapidly evolving scientific field, with ongoing research that aims to improve our understanding of how food impacts our well-being. There is an increasing interest in and regard for the value of ‘food as medicine’. Food is, in essence, biological information that regulates and influences our physiology. It either contributes to health or detracts from it. While there is much debate about what dietary guideline is best to follow for optimal benefit, there is a consensus that the quality of what we eat is of utmost importance. 

Regarding quality, we need to understand how our food is produced and why it affects not only human health but has far-reaching consequences for the ecosystems that support life on our planet. Large scale farming practices are driven by demands for higher yields with better profits. This in turn has given rise to the increased use of chemicals such as pesticides and the engineering of genetically modified (GMO-genetically modified organisms) crops.

Chemicals such as those sprayed onto crops and GMOs in the plant foods that should supposedly be good for us can contribute to health problems when there is cumulative exposure. Scientists are conducting ongoing investigations into how chemicals that are used in the production of food affect our health, and some of the results are alarming. Research suggests a complex correlation between the development of some serious health conditions and environmental toxin exposure, leading us to the question, how do we choose foods that are good for us? 

What’s the deal with ‘Organic’ food?  

‘Organic’ is not just a trendy buzzword. In South Africa and the rest of the world, foods produced according to organic principles can be considered the gold standard of quality when it comes to naturally cultivated food. It is a reassurance that no harmful chemicals or hormones are used in the production of foodstuffs. Organic farmers take into consideration the environmental impact and sustainability of their farming practices while also cultivating biodiversity and ecological balance. 

In South Africa, certified organic produce is still somewhat difficult to find. To refer to a product as ‘organic’, producers require certifications that are often costly. Small scale farmers may use the principles of organic farming but cannot legally label their products ‘organic’, so often refer to them as ‘naturally or organically grown. In recent years there has been an increasing percentage of producers that offer organically grown and biodynamically farmed foods because conscious consumers demand it. The success of farmers’ markets offering local, seasonal and organically cultivated produce is a testament to the growing awareness that consumers have. 

So Is Organic Food Really Better For Us? 

According to a journal review article investigating the effects of organic food vs conventional foods on human health, an increased intake of organic food was associated with a reduced incidence of infertility, birth defects, allergic sensitisation, middle ear infection, pregnancy-induced high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, obesity, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. 

According to several studies, organically grown vegetables and fruit are superior when it comes to vitamin, mineral and phytonutrient content. Phytonutrients are the biologically active compounds that can influence how our body functions. But more impactful than containing a better nutrient profile, is the fact that organic produce does not contain the chemicals used in conventional agriculture.

Is There A Connection Between Organic Food, Gut Health & Our Happiness? 

The gastrointestinal tract (GIT) and gut microbiota (the community of commensal organisms that live in the gastrointestinal tract) are exposed to foodborne chemicals such as pesticides through diet. This leads to alterations in the composition and functioning of the microbiota, which can influence biological balance and have a downstream effect on your mental health. 

Our digestive tract is sometimes referred to as the ‘second brain’ due to the location of the enteric nervous system in the GIT. Important communication between the enteric nervous system of the GIT and the brain impacts mood, behaviour and cognition. Understanding this interrelation should substantially motivate us to pay attention to the quality of what we eat. After all, both our physical and mental health depends on it. 

How To ‘Organic’?

While certified organic food may still be more difficult to find, the availability of naturally grown produce has expanded beyond speciality health food shops and into more mainstream grocery stores. Savvy local producers offer the convenience of organic, seasonal fruit and vegetable boxes delivered to your door, and popular farmers’ markets showcase incredible organically grown local produce. If you’re budget-conscious, consider visiting your community farmers’ market to buy seasonal produce. Not only will the fruit and vegetables taste better, but they will save you money too. Creating your own herb and vegetable garden is another way of making sure what you’re eating is good for you.

If you are unable to find organic produce, here are a few pointers that will help you make better consumer choices:

  • Wash non-organic produce well. Make a vegetable and fruit wash by combining 1 cup vinegar, 4 cups water and 1 tablespoon of lemon juice in a spray bottle. Shake well to mix. Use the spray on fresh produce and allow it to sit in a colander for 5 minutes before scrubbing and rinsing with water.   
  • The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is an organisation that provides information about environmental toxicity exposures. While this is a US-based organisation, the directives in the form of the Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen are helpful when making grocery purchases. Visit their website for more information https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/
  • Speak to your local grocery store manager about offering organic options. Consumers influence what stores choose to sell. 

As conscious, well-informed consumers, we must initiate positive change. By supporting food producers who offer organically grown and ethically produced food, we help them thrive and expand availability. Choosing organic is not only better for our health and happiness, but also for a future that needs to be cognizant of environmental sustainability.