Ask the RD: How Healthy Are Organic Processed Foods?

Sidney Fry, MS, RD
by Sidney Fry, MS, RD
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Ask the RD: How Healthy Are Organic Processed Foods?

Sure, we can’t always make things from-scratch. The packaged food aisle can be a total time-saver in the hustle and bustle of today’s work-life balance. But are we really doing ourselves a favor when we buy the organic fried potato chips?

Organic doesn’t mean it is wholly nutrient-dense and doesn’t contain added sugar, salt or even refined flour. It simply means fewer chemicals were used in its production. If it’s a numbers game you are playing, the word organic on a box of crackers, bran flakes, potato chips or even mac and cheese doesn’t necessarily mean lower calories, lower fat, less sodium, more protein or even that it’s 100% whole-grain and unrefined. But what it does mean is there are certain regulations about the quality of the ingredients found on the nutrition label.  

ORGANIC IN UNEXPECTED PLACES

The wheat, rye, rice and other grains used to make processed foods are typically stored in dark mills — a haven for things like bugs and insects. Much like what they do for produce, most farmers use a variety of pesticides to keep the bugs at bay and away from their hard-earned harvested grains. The same is true for the safflower, canola and soybean plants needed to make the oils necessary to fry many of the potato and tortilla chips located on the snack aisle shelves. If they aren’t certified organic, those plants have likely been sprayed.

In addition to containing fewer pesticides, any food labeled as organic — even processed ones like boxed crackers and mac and cheese — contains fewer preservatives, thickeners, artificial colors and flavors, artificial sweeteners and refined flours than non-organic counterparts.  Even those frozen organic chicken nuggets you’re wondering whether or not to purchase cannot be raised with the help of growth hormones or antibiotics if they are labeled organic. This is especially important for younger children, who have a greater chance of being affected by even low levels of pesticides.  

Additionally, the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is prohibited in organic foods. GMOs are bred to withstand heavy sprayings of pesticides. Buy organic, and you avoid them entirely. As an added bonus, organic farmers  are better than conventional ones about replenishing soil and protecting important resources like water.


READ MORE > LABEL LINGO: DECIPHERING ALL-NATURAL, GMO-FREE, ORGANIC AND MORE


STUDIES AND REGULATIONS

Both the FDA and Environmental Working Group regularly test and detect various levels of pesticides in breads, crackers and other grain-based products like tortillas, cereal and cookies. Every five years, the FDA conducts a Total Diet Study that monitors levels of contaminants and pesticide residues in processed foods, making sure they meet federal standards.  

The Environmental Working Group has a consumer tool called Food Scores that grades and evaluates many of the products you’ll see on supermarket shelves. You can download its app to help cut though some of the noise on labels (natural, gluten-free, non-GMO), making smarter shopping quick and easy. EWG is most notable for its annual Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, which lists the Dirty Dozen fruits and vegetables with the most pesticide residues (Hello: strawberries, tomatoes and even apples), and the Clean Fifteen, for which few, if any, residues are detected, and if you have to eat, say a conventional avocado, cauliflower or broccoli, it might not be the end of the world.

THE VERDICT

Boxed, processed food that’s organic is still processed and a whole sweet potato will always win over fried sweet potato chips. But when it comes to all food, even processed, organic is better. Read your labels. Choose organic whenever possible, but look at the ingredient list, too.

About the Author

Sidney Fry, MS, RD
Sidney Fry, MS, RD

Sidney is a two-time James Beard Award-winning food and nutrition writer, editor and mom based out of Birmingham, Alabama. A registered dietitian with a passion for research and being proactive about health, she loves to eat, write, run and create simple, tasty meals with whole-food-based approach. Find out more from her website, Instagram or Twitter.

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