What does the term “organic” really mean? Is it better to buy cage-free eggs or commercial? When it comes to nutrition, new terms and trends are always popping up. That can make it hard to figure out which matter to your health.
In this WellTuned series, The Truth About Food Trends, we’ll check in with registered dietitians and nutritionists for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee to learn more.
In volume 1, we spoke to Leslie Cornett, RDN, about organic or frozen produce, eggs, buying local and plant-based eating.
What does the term organic really mean?
Cornett: Organic foods have to follow certain USDA guidelines, and those vary from produce to dairy to meat. In general, organic foods are grown or raised without the use of antibiotics, pesticides or hormones.
To be certified organic, farmers have to meet strict guidelines. Certification can be a long, costly process, so many farmers practice sustainable, healthy farming without certification. That’s why it’s important to investigate the farms you support.
Organic foods can be more expensive than conventional foods. If you’re choosing between buying organic produce or not buying produce at all, buy conventional. The benefits of eating fruits and vegetables far outweigh any potential risks.
If you want to increase your intake of organic foods but keep costs down, consider how you’ll prepare them. Choose organic for foods you’ll eat whole or raw (berries, tomatoes, greens) and buy conventional foods if you plan to peel or cook them (potatoes, onions).
What are cage-free or free-range eggs?
Cornett: When it comes to eggs, cage-free and free-range designations refer to the housing of the hens and, subsequently, their quality of life. In some conventional egg operations, hens are crowded into cages so small they can’t fully open their wings, and they may never see grass or daylight.
While there is some nuance between cage-free, free-range and pastured eggs, there’s little nutritional difference between those and eggs that are conventionally produced. Some people believe cage-free eggs taste better, but it’s mostly an issue of how humane the egg production is, and what kinds of farmers you want to support.
Are there nutritional benefits of buying local?
Cornett: In general, buying local is really about two things:
- You support local businesses in your community, and
- You help the environment because products don’t have to travel as far to get to you.
While there may be health benefits of eating fresher meat, produce or dairy, there isn’t always a nutritional difference in local products. But there’s absolutely no drawback to buying local! Again, it’s important to talk to or research your producers to learn more about the farms you’re supporting.
Are fresh vegetables more nutritious than frozen?
Cornett: Not really! This surprises people, but there’s no big difference nutritionally. Since produce is flash-frozen when it’s at peak freshness, it still contains excellent nutrients.
I recommend everyone keep some frozen fruits and vegetables on hand, but especially if you:
- Are trying to cut costs (frozen or canned produce is often less expensive)
- Don’t have time to wash and prep your own produce day-to-day, or
- Can’t always use what you buy before it spoils.
What are the benefits and drawbacks of plant-based eating?
Cornett: Overall, plant-based eating is very nutritious because you’re naturally following a whole-food diet that’s rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber and nutrients. It’s especially good for someone with cholesterol challenges because you’re omitting animal-based products that have high levels of saturated fats. While vegan and vegetarian diets are both plant-based, some vegetarians eat fish, eggs or cheese, for example, where vegans may omit those cholesterol-rich foods.
If you do adopt a plant-based diet, make sure you’re getting enough:
- Vitamin D and B12
- Essential fatty acids
A good multivitamin can meet most of these needs, with the exception of a complete protein source. One reason protein is important is because our bodies break it down into amino acids, which are key to certain bodily functions (muscle building, immunity). Of all the amino acids that exist, 9 are essential, meaning your body can’t create them on its own. Animal-based products contain all 9 of these, which is why people who eat meat or dairy don’t have to worry about this.
If, however, you get all your protein from starch, one of the few proteins that contains all 9 essential amino acids is quinoa. The good news, though, is that you can combine a plant- and starch-based protein to create a complete protein. For example, beans (plant-based) and rice (starch-based) are a popular way to get all the amino acids you need in one meal.
More from Cornett on WellTuned:
- The superfood guide
- 7 flu facts: prevention, treatment & nutrition
- Post-workout nutrition: what to eat after exercising
BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also use tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the in the Member Wellness Center under the Managing Your Health tab.