Buying organic can be confusing. With the multitude of options out there today, it can be difficult to know what we’re really putting into our bodies. Simply because a product is labeled organic or non-GMO, doesn’t mean that it’s completely free of potentially harmful ingredients.
Thus, my general rule of thumb is: if you don’t understand or recognize an ingredient, then don’t buy it. Or, if you’re really curious, take a look at the Environmental Working Group’s Food Scores, where foods are rated across 3 categories: ingredient concern, nutrition concern, and processing concern. I use their Healthy Living App while shopping to make this process quicker. Simply scan a product's barcode to view its ratings. The app also suggests similar food items with better scores. Doesn't get much easier than that!
Sneaky Ingredients to Look For
Many prepackaged foods contain unnecessary ingredients to improve their shelf life and/or product consistency. Aside from the well-known high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, TBHQ/BHT and caramel color, here are a few other ingredients to watch out for:
- Soy Lecithin: An emulsifier used in processed foods and supplements. Mostly genetically modified unless listed otherwise. Look for labels that read “fermented, non-GMO soy lecithin.” The reason to avoid unfermented soy lecithin is that unfermented soy includes toxins that can have several negative side effects. Unfermented soy is generally found in tofu and soy milk products.
- Carrageenan: Typically obtained from seaweed. Used as a thickening agent in many dairy and organic products, but adds no nutritional value. Has been shown to cause inflammation and linked to GI issues and diabetes. Also a possible carcinogen, though more research is needed to confirm this correlation. Here's an excellent shopping guide to organic brands without carrageenan.
- Sodium Benzoate/Benzene/Benzoic/Benzoate: Preservative found in breads, pickles, condiments and carbonated drinks. Shown to cause rashes and asthma in some individuals, but typically only harmful when combined with citric acid or ascorbic acid (aka, Vitamin C). When these ingredients come together, they form a carcinogen called benzene, which has been linked to leukemia and other blood-related cancers.
- Organic Brown Rice Syrup: A sweetener derived from brown rice, often used as a sugar substitute in many energy bars, cereals, and breads. May contain significant amounts of arsenic and has a high glycemic index of 98, which is higher than refined table sugar!
- Cultured Corn Syrup Solids: Sweetening agent typically processed from GMO corn. Some experts say this is an alternative to high fructose corn syrup, though it’s just as bad as it turns into sugar once digested by the body.
- Evaporated Cane Juice: Basically another term for processed sugar. Though less processed than white refined sugar, at the end of the day, sugar is sugar! When we eat any type of sugar that has been refined, our bodies pull stored nutrients from our bones, teeth, and tissues to help our stomachs digest it; this robs us of calcium and other essential minerals.
- Cane Syrup: Nutritionally not much different than refined sugar and does not contain any vitamins or minerals, as raw cane sugar does. Can be derived from organic and nonorganic sources. Watch out for those derived from sugar beets, which are highly genetically modified!
- Sodium Carboxymethyl Cellulose: An emulsifier and food stabilizer. Keeps products from separating. Also found in toothpastes, laundry detergents, artificial teardrops, and lotions. Not enough data on this additive so use with caution. May cause flatulence due to poor absorption in the body. In excess, may lead to abdominal cramps and diarrhea.
- Maltodextrin: A thickener and preservative found in processed foods. Can be derived from organic and nonorganic corn, rice, potato starch or wheat. Often used by athletes as a carb supplement to boost energy levels. Shown to cause spikes in blood sugar, suppress the growth of probiotics and can cause allergic reactions, especially in those with gluten intolerance or Celiac's disease. Natural alternatives include dates or honey.
As the demand for organic, less processed foods increases, so does the need for natural preservatives. The most common one I have come across are tocopherols or mixed tocopherols, which are various forms of Vitamin E. Although these are naturally occurring in vegetable oils, nuts, fish and leafy greens, they are typically derived from genetically modified sources, such as soybean oil (more than 94% of soy in the US is genetically modified, often to withstand toxic herbicides like Monsanto’s Roundup).
Here are a few others you may come across in popular organic brands but that are generally harmless:
- Tapioca Starch or Flour: Comes from the cassava plant. Adds texture to gluten-free foods. Here's a great article by Dr. Axe for more nutritional information.
- Resistant Corn Starch: Resistant starches, unlike regular starches, pass largely undigested into the large intestine, rather than breaking down into sugar and entering the bloodstream. Benefits such as calorie reduction, blood sugar regulation, and improved bowel function have been reported, though some contraindications exist for those with GI issues.
- Guar Gum/Gellan Gum: Emulsifier found in yogurts, soups, supplements and almond milk. Generally safe when consumed in small amounts. For more information on guar gum and how to use safely click here.
- Xanthan Gum: Thickening agent found in sauces, puddings, yogurts and baked goods. Generally safe when consumed under 15 grams per day. Not recommended for people with gut sensitivities, as can be a laxative and may cause bloating.
- Agar Agar (Kanten): Vegetarian gelatin substitute derived from seaweed. Used as a thickener for soups, jams, ice creams and desserts. Used in Japan for weight-loss and as a mild laxative.
When to Buy Organic (and when it’s safe to cheat ;)
Another common issue I find with the organic craze today is that many companies and grocers are trying to sell and overcharge for foods that don’t necessarily need to be organic. To help combat the challenge of knowing which items to buy organic, I typically refer to a great reference guide launched yearly by the Environmental Working Group, known as the Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15.
The dirty dozen are the items you want to try to buy organic, due to high pesticide exposure, while the clean fifteen are those with low pesticide exposure and/or a thick skin that chemicals will not permeate (just make sure to give these a good wash and wipe dry firmly with a paper towel or cloth ;) Aside from these, try to buy organic meat, eggs, and dairy if you can afford to.
Although this is a great guide to buying organic produce, keep in mind that it's just that: a guide. It’s important to remember that just because something is organic doesn't ensure that it healthy so always read the labels! And, on the same note, just because something is on the dirty list, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t eat it at all, especially if you can’t always afford to buy organic. Eating fresh fruits and veggies is better than eating none at all, and properly washing and cooking your produce can help lower exposure to harmful pesticides or chemicals.
At the end of the day, it can be nearly impossible to always avoid harmful substances in our foods (unless you grow everything you eat), so moderation is key, as it's easy to become obsessive-compulsive and lose your mind while shopping!
Love + Light,
~ Smita :)