The Price of Organic

Three myths about organic food make some hesitate to pay extra for it.

People often tell me that the benefits of organic foods don’t justify the cost. But this calculation is usually founded on a misunderstanding of the benefits of organic food -- and the costs of non-organic.

I hear three major reasons for choosing non-organic foods:

1. “I grew up eating non-organic food just like my parents and grandparents. It’s traditional.”

2. “I don’t notice any difference in how I feel after eating organic food.”

3. “I don’t trust organic food to be safe.”

These three justifications for choosing non-organic food over organic are based on false assumptions and misinformation, which I would like to clear up in this column.

“Non-Organic Is Traditional”

Most of the “conventional” foods available today are very different from the foods we ate as children, or the foods our parents and grandparents ate.

Over the last 100 years, food has consistently become less nutritious and more toxic as a result of the industrialization of farms, the rise of non-food ingredients (such as preservatives, artificial color and trans fats) and the application of scientific breakthroughs to the problem of maximizing food production.

Our obsession with cheap food has created a monster. Food production has been all about applying scientific and technical innovation to the goals of producing more food for less money that lasts longer on store shelves -- without much consideration for nutrient content or food quality.

Conventional growers, who don’t have to adhere to the Organic Food Standards, aren't prevented from using any methods available, even if those methods make people sick and pollute the environment.

People say their parents and grandparents ate non-organic food. But the conventional food available today is totally unlike anything that has been available Amira Elganin the past. Animal foods today are something out of a sci-fi nightmare: Cows, chickens and other animals may live their entire lives indoors, on drugs, and seriously ill. Cows are often now fed, for example, genetically modified grain mixed with chicken parts, feathers, feces and beef tallow -- the fat from their own species. They're injected with hormones and antibiotics that have been developed by scientists in the past few years.

Our grandparents ate beef from cows that lived outside and ate grass -- the cow's natural food. As a result, though conventional beef today looks much like the beef our grandparents bought, it's completely different -- and far more unhealthy.

The vegetables, fruits and grains our grandparents ate weren't produced with the same toxic chemicals and environmentally harmful methods to manage crops and livestock. They weren't genetically modified organisms grown with sewage sludge fertilizers.

In fact, if you go back just 100 years, the farming people were doing back then was very close to what we would now consider “organic farming.” Stated another way, organic food is far more "traditional" than conventional. If you want to eat "traditional" foods, eat organic.

"Don't Feel Different"

Many dietary changes -- such as the elimination of red meat, dairy or soda -- can have an immediate impact. People often feel more relaxed, lighter and have more energy after making such changes.

Switching to organic food, however, usually doesn't quickly change how people feel -- so why spend the extra money?

The damage done by conventionally produced foods is long-term and cumulative. The pesticides and other toxins used to produce non-organic foods enter our bodies and take up residence in our cells. These toxins build up over time, and gradually degrade the overall functioning of our cells, organs and major bodily systems.

It’s both an oversimplification and a cliché, but “you are what you eat.” As food has declined in quality, so have our bodies.

When we get sick, our immune systems depend to some extent on the quality of foods we have been eating. Non-organic foods contain fewer antioxidants than organic foods, for example, and so eating non-organic foods increases our susceptibility to disease.

The combination of toxins and lower nutrient quality makes non-organic food harmful over time.

The over-consumption of alcohol, saturated fats and sugar won't kill you after just one week. But after regular excessive consumption, year after year, they can contribute to liver damage, cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancer and diabetes.

Likewise, switching to organic food probably won't make an immediate impact on how you feel. But after months and years of eating foods devoid of toxins and richer in nutrients than conventionally produced foods, you'll be much healthier.

"Don't Trust Organic"

While some argue that organic food may have higher microbiological risk than conventionally produced food crops, some studies show it's a myth.

Although organic food crops can use animal manure fertilizer, conventional farming uses it, too. The main difference is that the organic production standards requires that growers do composting of animal manure under the strictest guidelines to avoid contamination, whereas conventional food production are free to do whatever they want -- they have few standards to adhere to -- and cross contamination is rampant.

The recent cases of contaminated produce, including the recent case of e coli-infected spinach, all happened because of non-organic growing methods.

The same critics contend that organic foods have higher levels of antioxidants as well as naturally occurring toxins as a result of organic farming methods. Given the choice, let me think: do I go for natural compounds that are naturally produced by plants or do I go for conventional plants that have lower antioxidants and are laden with pesticides and herbicides that can cause cancer?

The right choice is clear. Organic is better. But that brings us back to our original question: Is organic worth the extra money?

While organic food is more expensive than conventional food -- up to 50 percent more -- it’s important to consider that buying as much organic food as you can manage is a sound healthy choice -- financially, socially and otherwise. You're investing in your body, which will return "profits" in the form of good health -- and even real financial benefits, such as lower medical and insurance costs.

Organic consumption is a compassionate practice that benefits your own body, your family, all living plant and animal species and, of course, Mother Earth -- the lifeline to our future generations.

That's worth something, isn't it?


I'd love to hear from you. Click here to send e-mail!

Keep getting this newsletter. Place Vegetarian Organic Life on your whitelist. Here's how.

On Fruitcake and Holiday Dinners

Q: While I generally agree with your assessment of the nutritional value of "traditional" holiday fare, I must take issue over your comment about fruitcake. Yes, store bought fruitcakes are nasty and full of empty calories. Real fruitcake is different. The fruitcake was originally used as a means to store nutrition in times before refrigeration and abundance.

A quality fruitcake skips all that nasty green and red "fruit" in favor of honest flavors of dried fruits and nuts. The recipe I personally use contains nearly twice the volume of dried fruit (raisins, cranberries, blueberries, cherries, and apricots) than that of all other ingredients combined. Is it something I should eat everyday? No, but it's nothing like the vile store-bought door stops you think of.

On a related topic, you didn't say anything of your family's holiday dinners. What is the typical Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner menu at the Elgan household? Please enlighten us in your next newsletter.

Cheers and happy Thanksgiving,

Jason A Allen
Owatonna, Minnesota

A: Thank you, I appreciate your comment and question! The fruitcake example of “unhealthy gifts” I was specifically referring to is the “conventional,” cliché store-bought fruitcake.

I agree with you -- there is no comparison between homemade fruitcakes, especially those made with wholesome organic ingredients, and store-bought fruitcake laden with trans-fats, preservatives, artificially colored fruit and other unhealthful ingredients.

You also asked what the typical Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner menu is at the Elgan household. Holidays celebrations usually take place at my mother-in-law's house.

For the first time ever for Christmas in 2005, however, I had the privilege of having a casual Christmas "open house" for my relatives in Santa Barbara. I wanted to make the festivities wholesome, simple and relaxing. I made organic vegan tamales wrapped in banana leaves (more like the Central American tamales as opposed to Mexican style tamales, which are wrapped in corn husks.) With my mother’s help and using her basic tamales recipe, I created my healthier version. I made a variety of tamales with different fillings made with seitan, tofu, tempeh, beans, whole grains and vegetables. I used organic trans-fat free margarine for fat but kept it to a minimum. I relied more on tasty tomato-base sauces and vegetable relishes to use as toppings for added flavor. I also made some fresh salads and other side vegetable and bean dishes. My sister-in-law, a talented baker and cook, made some amazing organic Apples En Croute (whole apples baked in pastry).

This past year, my mother-in-law hosted Thanksgiving, as usual. She's also a great cook, and makes meals using nothing but the freshest organic ingredients. She made corn pudding, baked green beans with nuts, stuffed mushrooms, sweet potato puree, mashed potatoes and cranberry relish. She also baked an organic free-range turkey. My contribution was an organic mixed green salad with a tahini, garlic, flaxseed and lemon juice dressing.

My family and I went on a six mile hike before dinner. I made some fresh squeezed mandarin juice and a fresh fruit salad with persimmons, apples, bananas, mandarins and grapes to enjoy upon returning from our hike and before leaving for Thanksgiving dinner.

This past Christmas was a little different. We still had nice holiday dinner at my mother’s in law, much like Thanksgiving. But at my sister-in-law's suggestion, we also got together at my house to put together care packages for a platoon of Marines in Iraq and write letters addressed to “a soldier.”


Q: I understand the benefits of a vegetarian diet. I also understand how one should be mindfully eating, given the deplorable conditions our animals live under before they are slaughtered. But give me a break; no chocolate, cake, wine or sugar at holiday time? Surely, it's the overindulgence of such things at the holidays that causes us to be sick. I think (as a new and struggling veggie) that too many rules can be as off-putting as the mindless abuse of creatures for consumption. I believe that we should enjoy all of the Creator's gifts in moderation and without guilt. It's hard enough to become veggie in this meat-eating world without being told that soy alternatives are poisonous as well. Give us newbies a break, otherwise meat eating will be the "comfortable pair of shoes" we resort to out of frustration.

Christina Roseman
Stouffville, Ontario Canada

A: Dear Christine,

Thank you for your comments. I appreciate the great feedback.

I don't subscribe to the belief that you have to deprive yourself entirely of the things you enjoy eating. Occasional indulgence of traditional holiday fare treats is reasonable and something I practice myself. What I say is that you need to make healthy choices when possible and try to eat in moderation.

I emphasize that it's important to eat smart by making sure that you first provide your body with the nutrients it needs by eating wholesome foods, as well as exercise to burn off extra calories and keep your metabolism fine tuned. And then, without any guilt, you can mindfully indulge in the sugary, creamy and fatty delights served at traditional holiday fares. But you need to think about what and how much you eat; eating mindlessly -- something you see everywhere during the holidays -- can lead to gorging oneself on empty calorie foods and overeating, which displace nutrient rich foods essential to your health.

I always emphasize that everyone's dietary needs are different. You have to do the best you can within your own circumstances. If you are a "struggling vegetarian," then, by all means, eating processed soy foods may be the better option for you, for now. While processed soy foods are not optimal in providing your body with the best nutrients, I perfectly understand and agree that for some it might be a better alternative -- at least, initially. The long road from eating a conventional diet to a completely healthy, vegetarian organic diet is a very long one, and best taken one step at a time.


Q: Dear Amira,

I really enjoy receiving your newsletters; your site is great. It's my home page. It's very balanced and makes sense, as opposed to some of the health newsletters on the web. Your suggestions on staying smart and healthy during the holidays are appreciated. My wife and I, although Christian, don't observe the holidays, but we do get together with family and friends during this convenient time. I'm a baker for the past 20 years, but I really watch what I eat. I just made a small batch of pumpkin muffins using whole wheat flour, quinoa flour, egg whites, and flax, with a touch of extra virgin olive oil.

Five months ago, I was inspired to eliminate alcohol altogether, and now, at get-togethers; there are a lot of neat alternatives- sparkling waters, fresh-pressed juices, and anything pomegranate-related. Eating this way gives a person a sense of control and tranquility.

Organic is the best, and though not completely vegetarian, I feel I will end up this way. It's smart and humane, and ( I believe ), the way we were designed to operate .

Thanks for your research and good example. Until our Maker does step in, as promised, and restore our planet and ourselves, we need to act intelligently toward our health and the health of our planet. Be well and looking forward to future issues.

Mike Snarski
Long Island, New York

A: Dear Mike,

Thank you for writing. I appreciate your kind words and I’m glad to hear that you’re choosing to lead a healthy life style. Your pumpkin muffins sound fabulous.

I admire the fact that you made a choice to stop drinking alcohol. Congratulations for having the wisdom to take care of your own body and striving to be healthy. When it comes to health, taking a proactive approach rather than reacting to an illness is definitely easier and more gratifying. Keep up the good work!



"Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do."
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The Organic Food Standards

The Organic Food Standards in the U.S. provide guidelines that, although not strict enough, in my opinion, serve a good purpose in the production of organic food. While the guidelines are subject to interpretation and lack some specifics in certain farming practices, they’re a good starting point and ,hopefully, a work in progress. Currently, the USDA is working on some of these guidelines after many complaints from consumers and interest groups about poor practices by certain companies that have unethically taken advantage of unclear guidelines.

Understanding the USDA’s National Organic Standards, including agency accreditation and product labeling, can be confusing. But when it comes to shopping this is what you need to know:

- Products labeled “100% organic” must contain only organically produced ingredients and may display the USDA organic seal.

- Products labeled “organic” must contain at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients and may display the USDA organic seal.

- Products labeled “made with organic ingredients” must contain at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients but are not allowed bearing the USDA organic seal.

- Products displaying labels that read “natural”, “GM free”, “no GMOs”, “free range”, “hormone free”, “cage free”, etc., are not to be confused as organic—they’re simply considered as making “truthful claims” but are not part of the National Organic Standards.

Food Choices and Mood

If you find yourself craving or eating “comfort” foods, maybe all you need is a dose of happiness. According to a recent study conducted by a Cornell University food marketing expert, mood has a direct effect on your food choices. Sad people make choices based on immediate gratification by eating only for indulgence without paying attention to nutritional content. Happy people make more healthful choices and consider the long term effects.

Happy people tend to be healthier, and healthy people tend to be happier.

To keep up with vegetarian, organic and health-related research news on a daily basis, check out my Vegetarian Organic Life Blog.


Out of This World Tofu and Veggie Curry
(vegan) Serves 4 to 6

Click on the picture for a closer look!

Made with a wonderful array of spices and vegetables, this dish makes a delicious and wholesome meal. It’s relatively simple to make and is as full of flavor as it is nutrients. The bell peppers provide lots of antioxidants, vitamins A, vitamin B6, vitamin C and Folic Acid that promote good eyesight, lung and heart health. Serve curry with a side of quinoa for added texture, flavor and nutrients. Quinoa is my favorite grain because is easy and quick to make but is also a power house of nutrients.

To Make Quinoa:
Rinse 1 cup of quinoa well over running water for about 1 minute. In a small pot, combine quinoa with 1 cup of vegetable broth and 1 cup of water. Cover with lid and cook for 14 minutes or until all the liquid is absorbed (low to medium heat). Add salt and pepper to taste and set aside.

Preparation time: 10 minutes Cooking time: 30 minutes

2 tablespoons safflower or canola oil
1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
6 fresh garlic cloves, finely minced or pressed
2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 ½ tablespoons curry
1 tablespoon turmeric
1 teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
16 oz firm tofu, ¼ inch cubes (vacuum-packed)
1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 yellow bell pepper, seeded and chopped
2 large carrots, sliced
3 cups fresh cauliflower florets
1 small jalapeno pepper, seeded and very finely chopped (optional for spiciness)
3 cups broccoli florets
2 cups coconut milk, mixed well
2 cups plain regular soy milk
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated (or ground)
1 tablespoon fresh basil, finely chopped (optional)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. In a large pot over low to medium heat oil and sauté together the first 8 ingredients for 5 minutes, mixing and stirring well.

2. Add tofu and sauté for 10 minutes stirring frequently.

3. Add bell peppers, carrots, cauliflower and jalapeno peppers continuing to sauté for another 5 minutes.

4. Add broccoli, coconut milk, soy milk, ginger, basil, lemon juice and season with fresh pepper and sea salt. Mix well, cover with lid and simmer for at least 10 more minutes stirring occasionally.

Cook’s tip: Add more curry, turmeric and cumin for richer flavor. This dish will taste better even when cooked a day ahead before eating.



If you like Vegetarian Organic Life, why not share the newsletter with a friend? Just forward the newsletter and suggest that they subscribe. 

Comments? Please send e-mail to [email protected]

This newsletter is not intended to provide and replace medical advice. The author and editor expressly disclaim all responsibility for any adverse effects resulting from any information, diet or exercise suggestions. It is imperative that the advice of a physician is sought before any diet or exercise programs are adopted.

We respect your privacy and will never sell or share your information with others except at your request.

Copyright© 2003-2007 Amira Elgan. All Rights Reserved.