Are “Organic” Packaged Foods Better For You?

by Liat  - January 25, 2024

Who doesn’t love the convenience and the taste of many packaged foods? Heck, the packaging is often alluring enough for us to make a purchase alone!

But, even though many packaged foods now have persuasive sounding labels on them like ‘healthy’, ‘natural’ and ‘organic’, and may even contain some organic ingredients, can we trust that they’re a healthier choice than their non-organic counterparts?

And, should they have a place in our everyday diets?

Let’s take a look underneath those persuasive labels and find out.

How Do Packaged Foods Stack Up Against Real, Whole Foods?

Well, I am pretty sure you already know the answer to that, but just to hit it home for you — real, whole foods straight from nature should always be your first choice. But, we also get that life’s busy and it may be necessary to top up with some pre-packaged foods here and there.

Jarred pasta sauce, gluten-free dry pasta, canned fish & chickpeas, bean dip, frozen veggies and pre-bagged salad mixes come to mind.

But first, let’s get the terminology out of the way. The term ORGANIC does not mean that the food is necessarily healthy or nutritionally superior — or any other healthful musings that come to mind when that word is used to describe a food product.

The simplest definition of ORGANIC is to describe the way that agricultural products are grown and produced = no harmful chemicals and more sustainable farming practices.

While the regulations vary from country to country, organic crops must be grown without using GMOs (bioengineered genes), synthetic pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers and/or sewage sludge-based fertilizers.

Also, organic livestock raised for human consumption, like meat, eggs, and dairy products must be antibiotic and growth hormone-free, have access to the outdoors, and eat organic feed that doesn’t contain animal by-products.

But, those are all still WHOLE FOODS with one ingredient.

Can Packaged Foods Still Be Part Of A Healthy Diet?

Good news… when shifting to more of a whole foods diet, we don’t need to completely avoid packaged foods. In fact, they can actually be good for people who are still transitioning to a more health-promoting way of eating. It just means that package foods shouldn’t be relied on to make up the bulk of your meals.

But, how do you decide which packaged foods are a healthier choice? And if still including them in our everyday diet, wouldn’t it be better if they were labeled “organic”?

Well, you can probably identify which packaged foods are healthier just from reading the label – and not just going by the front of the package where the slick marketing words are!

You need to see past the “health halo” words and look directly at the nutritional label for a shorter ingredient list, minimal additives and no funky-sounding ingredients. Go by the rule that if it doesn’t sound like food, then it probably isn’t!

Interestingly, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), there are an estimated 2,000 synthetic chemicals that can be used in conventional packaged foods. But, for organic packaged foods – it’s only around 40, so you’ll certainly be exposing yourself to less chemical junk in your junk food.

But, what about budget? Are organic packaged foods worth the bigger price tag?
In terms of cost and your family’s grocery budget, it really comes down to prioritizing your food purchases. So, when you’re choosing to purchase organic foods, packaged foods may not make the cut!

It’s generally recommended to prioritize organic purchases this way:
1. Choose some produce using the rule of green thumb – buy organic if you’re planning to eat the skin of the fruit or vegetable.
2. Next are animal products, including meat, eggs & dairy – buy these as often as possible, and as your budget permits.
It should also be noted that some food producers aren’t certified “organic”, but still pledge to not use hormones or unnecessary antibiotics. This would be a good second choice for meat, eggs & dairy.
3. Choosing organic options for things that you and your family eat in large quantities is also recommended as the cumulative effect of pesticides could be more harmful to your health than just occasional exposure.
(FYI – The EWG’s Dirty Dozen & Clean Fifteen lists are super helpful resources!)
So, that means, in terms of budgeting, packaged organic foods should be at the bottom of your priority list for making organic food purchases overall.
While marketed to us as a healthier choice than their conventional counterparts, organic packaged foods will still be lacking in critical vitamins, minerals and enzymes as they simply aren’t fresh, whole foods.

They’re still pre-packaged, commercially prepared foods BUT they may help you to avoid consuming an excessive amount of chemical additives that you would normally find in conventionally-made packaged food products.

The absolute bottom line is that you always have a choice! I feel pretty confident that I might be able to sway you to choose our easy, comforting Shepherd’s Pie recipe over boxed mac ‘n cheese any day… organic or not!

RECIPE
This yummy Shepherd’s Pie offers comfort without sacrificing nutritional value, making it a satisfying and healthy option!

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb ground lean beef, turkey or chicken
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • 2 celery stalks, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cup mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 cup green peas
  • 1 cup beef or vegetable broth
  • 1 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 tsp dried thyme
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Mashed cauliflower or sweet potatoes for topping

Instructions:

  1. Preheat your oven to 375°F (190°C).
  2. In a skillet over medium heat, cook the ground meat until browned. Remove from the skillet and set aside.
  3. In the same skillet, add a little oil if needed and sauté the onion, carrots, celery, and garlic until softened.
  4. Add the mushrooms and cook until they release their moisture.
  5. Return the cooked meat to the skillet and add the broth, tomato paste, thyme, salt, and pepper. Stir well to combine.
  6. Allow the mixture to simmer for about 10 minutes, allowing the flavors to meld together.
  7. Stir in the green peas (if using).
  8. Transfer the mixture to a baking dish and spread the mashed cauliflower or sweet potatoes evenly over the top.
  9. Place the dish in the preheated oven and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the topping is lightly golden.
  10. Serve hot and enjoy your comforting Shepherd’s Pie!

NOTE:  Leftovers can be stored in the refrigerator for 3-4 days and are ideal for meal prep!

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Liat

Passionate about the science of nutrition and its practical applications, Liat brings a wealth of expertise to unravel the complexities of wellness, providing insightful guidance for your journey to a healthier lifestyle.

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  1. 3 comments:
    1. Do you consider copper oxide, elemental sulfur, boric acid, petroleum oil, tetracycline, or streptomycin sulfate to be “no harmful chemicals”? Every one is approved by USDA for organic produce.
    2. The EWG considers strawberries as the “worst fruit” because they could count the highest number of pesticides on them. But the EWG has no concern for the AMOUNT of a pesticide; anything detectable is counted. Strawberry growers use the smallest possible amount of a variety of pesticides because they are such an attractive target for so many pests.
    3. When I was a food safety inspector, I was shown (proudly!) certified organic fields completely surrounded by traditionally farmed fields. So if some traditional pesticide were to accidentally blow on to the organic crop, oh my. After all, “we can’t control which way the wind blows.” The organic rules only concern deliberate application.
    Summary – organic meat, dairy, eggs – yes. Greenhouse strawberries. All other organic produce – not worth it.

    1. 1. When these are consumed in large amounts and over time – yes I consider them to be toxic even if they are approved by USDA for organic produce.
      2. Are you saying that non organic strawberries as just like organic and they are ok to consume?
      3. Not even apples?

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