The short answer? Yes. Yes, it really does matter. To our overall health and to our hormonal health. Which is why I’ve opened this controversial can of worms as part of the ABCs of Healthy Hormones series, and risked the wrath of opponents and deniers.
Look – skeptics of the organic movement figure that pollution – from driving cars, from factories, from farming run-off, and other miscellaneous day-to-day activities that us humans engage in – will inevitably make its way into our produce and waters. So their take on it is, “Why bother paying more for organic labels when we’re going to be exposed to these ‘so-called toxins’ anyway – when it absorbs into our soil or rises into the atmosphere and gets rained back onto us or we just simply breathe it in?” How is eating an organic apple going to offset all that?
Well, that might be a semi-valid argument. However, I believe that there is something to be said about actively trying to minimize our exposure to toxins – for example, limiting exposure whenever possible vs. allowing this blitzkrieg of chemical sh#t to surround us 24/7. Because we’re not just talking about the cars, the factories and everything else I’ve touched on so far. Because this is in addition to:
- Consuming produce laced with pesticides/insecticides//fungicides/herbicides etc
- Eating meat and/or using dairy products that have been injected with growth hormones and/or prophylactic antibiotics and whatnot. (Legally, Canadian farmers are only allowed to use growth hormones for beef production and Health Canada considers it ‘safe’. They’ve also capped the levels of hormones and antibiotics so they ‘shouldn’t’ pose a health concern. Buttttttt, might I mention that prophylactic antibiotics use was commonly practiced until the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria became a concern. As with so many things – the trend here seems to be “safe until proven unsafe” with our regulatory bodies. So take that for what it’s worth).
- The various miscellaneous toxins we slather onto ourselves in the form of body care products. I’m not going to get into it here – but check out the book There’s Lead in your Lipstick as a starting point if you want to learn more.
Think of it this way – if you consider your body as a barrel, all the toxins we are exposed to help to fill our barrel to the brim. When we do good things for ourselves – choose organic foods, limit exposure to toxic chemicals, manage our stress, and get more sleep, for example – this helps to bail out some of those toxins so we don’t overflow. Because when we do – we elevate our risk of sickness and disease.
I could go on for days about toxins-this and toxins-that but the idea here isn’t to bubble-wrap-ourselves-and-never-leave-the-house (LOL, you know, because bubble wrap is plastic and BPA – probably ?). Joking aside, making different choices in our day-to-day can reduce overall toxin-exposure and with that in mind, can keep us healthier for longer. Because it’s not really about being exposed to chemicals. It’s about being exposed to a little or a LOT of it. And choosing organics can be one path where you can reduce exposure.
What does the term ‘organic’ actually mean?
Organic does not mean that the food is necessarily nutritionally superior — or any other healthful musings that come to mind when that word is used to describe a food product.
The simplest definition is to describe the way that agricultural products are grown and produced – using 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.
So, how do organics and toxins affect our hormones?
Pesticides contain ingredients that can throw off your endocrine system – so the disruption can occur anywhere from the time of development of a hormone to when it is excreted from your body. And they can, of course ‘work their magic’ on multiple hormones at the same time.
They can directly damage cells. This study suggests injury at DNA level from using these *ahem* ‘safe’ chemicals. Yes, this research was done on the front-line farmers who actively spray and utilize pesticides – so I get that for the regular civilian like you and me – we’re simply not exposed to such high concentrations. But, well – we’re still the ones eating this produce (so instead of spraying it around us, we’re putting it into our bodies…. that doesn’t sound any better!)
And then there’s the potential link between pesticides and hormone-related cancers. It may all just be correlational, but patients with breast cancer or prostate cancer have been found to have higher blood levels of certain pesticides in their system. Check out the numbers (and other potential contributing factors) here. Here’s another one that suggests that insecticides may also be carcinogenic.
Pesticides can also impede hormonal pathways and communication. For example, they can look similar enough to your natural hormones to bind to your body’s receptors – and, well, surprise – your body just gets a toxic knock-off instead of the real-deal hormone and so it can’t do its job properly. Then you might get regular headaches or experience moodiness or infertility or cancers or general malaise or whatnot – and it could, in part, be due to toxin exposure.
Now, I’m not saying that this is the one and only reason you might be feeling like cr#p (because there could be a whole bunch of reasons!) – but I am suggesting not to rule it out as a possibility.
Chemicals are endocrine disrupters and play an especially lethal role in estrogen balancing. If you need to catch up on that, I covered it in the E blog which discussed estrogen dominance.
Organics and ultra-processed foods
So far, I’ve only touched on organic whole foods – those that have just one ingredient (like a cabbage, or an egg for example). But there’s another entire food category that we also have to address.
Call it packaged. Call it prepared. Call it processed. Call it convenience. This category is one that causes a lot of confusion when it comes to labels and marketing bumph.
I’ll just say it: sometimes we have to go for the time-savers in our life. And that can mean buying packaged ingredients. No shame about this – it’s a modern world and very few people have the luxury (and yes it is a luxury) to make every single thing from scratch. We need to make choices to add some ease to our lives.
When hitting the grocery store, there are some very alluring products out there but beware: 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? How do we dissect all this information and make the best choices for ourselves, our health, our family and budget situation?
Let’s take a look underneath those persuasive labels and find out.
How do packaged foods stack up against real, whole foods?
Sometimes not as badly as you may think – although real, whole foods straight from nature should always be your first choice. Here are some of the foods you can augment your cooking with and feel pretty good about – especially if you are choosing organic products and are selective with the packaging (BPA-free for example).
Jarred pasta sauce, gluten-free dry pasta, canned fish & chickpeas, bean dip, frozen veggies and pre-bagged salad mixes come to mind as options to save time, add nutrition and are alternatives that you can stock in your pantry or freezer for those days when you just need to throw together a decent meal with little fuss and muss.
So yes, good news… when shifting to more of a whole foods diet, you 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. After all – a dinner of gluten-free pasta, tossed with organic tomato sauce, with several handfuls of frozen veggies stirred in is a better alternative to a fast food drive-through.
But, how do you decide which packaged foods are a healthier choice?
Well, reading the labels is one step, but don’t be fooled by just looking at the front of the package where the slick marketing words are!
You need to see past the “healthy halo” words (check out my blog post to demystify those here!) and look directly at the nutritional label for s short ingredients 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. And when in doubt – google it. You’ll soon see there’s a billion different ways to say added sugar, MSG, and bulking agents.
Interestingly, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), there are an estimated 2,000 synthetic chemicals that can be used legally or can develop through food processing techniques in conventional packaged foods. As one example, acrylamides may be found in your bag of frozen French fries or breaded fish sticks. These are ‘naturally’ occurring chemicals that are created when foods – primarily sugars and carbohydrates – are cooked at super high temperatures. Like anything deep fried. Oh and acrylamides are also used in the manufacture of some plastics like those used in food packaging. Health Canada says there is no risk (I’ll just leave that there for you to decide). One study suggests that acrylamides can throw your hormones out of whack – like increasing follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and/or affecting estrogen levels. On top of that, they are said to be carcinogenic. Yum.
There’s some better news when it comes to organic packaged foods. Only around 40 synthetic chemicals are estimated, so you’ll certainly be exposing yourself to less chemical junk when going the organic route.
Unfortunately, there’s also bad news. Those icky acrylamides can also be found in some of these snack foods as well. If anything has been fried or baked or roasted at high temperatures, you’re running the risk. So, those ‘natural, vegan, healthy-sounding, good-for-thyroid, roasted seaweed snacks’ that have become so popular …they might not be as good-for-you as you think. That, and they’re usually dripping with oil (which might not be the healthiest or freshest) and loaded with salt!! Yup, that’s what makes them tasty but have them only as the occasional treat.
But what about budget? Are organic foods worth the bigger price tag?
In terms of cost and your family’s grocery budget, I can’t tell you what you can and can’t afford. What I can say is that for some families, investing in healthy, wholesome, organic foods and nourishing themselves and their kids takes on a higher priority than other budget lines. It is totally up to you to make those decisions. My job is to educate you so you are equipped with the best info possible so you can build the healthiest diet and lifestyle possible.
Do your best to pick wisely. And be discerning when it comes to looking at marketing fluff versus relevant claims.
Here are my tips:
- Choose organic whenever you can. YES – limiting your exposure to chemicals, added hormones and other undesirable by-products from processing and manufacturing is important (remember: your body is a barrel!)
- It should be noted that if you are shopping local and at farmers markets, some smaller producers may not be ‘certified’ organic (because the paperwork and costs for said paperwork is huge). But they may still follow organic and sustainable methods in growing vegetables and producing meat, eggs and dairy. Get to know who to trust. Ask questions. Ethical farmers will be happy to engage with you.
- When choosing produce, use the ‘rule of green thumb’ – if you are planning to eat the skin, then organic is the way to go.
- Organic is an important choice for meat, eggs and dairy because they are fatty foods and therefore chemicals and added hormones embed in them more readily.
- Picking organic options for things you or your family eat in large quantities is also recommended as the cumulative effects of exposure to pesticides could be more harmful to your hormones and health than occasional exposure might be.
- FYI – The EWG’s Dirty Dozen & Clean Fifteen lists are super helpful resources!
- Organic processed and convenience foods should not be your go-to diet staples.
While marketed 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 – and the more educated you are, the better choices you can make.
Recipe: Creamy Broccoli Soup
Onions and broccoli both made the Clean Fifteen list this year (2019), so you could go conventional with these. Avocado also made the cut…but since we’re using avocado oil in this recipe, go for cold-pressed and organic, whenever possible (as the oil extraction process can sometimes involve some questionable chemicals).
Non-organic coconut milk could be an option. Since coconut naturally has a tough outer shell, using the coconut meat to make the milk is usually low in toxic residues – especially if you’re doing it yourself. If you’re going for canned, be sure to read the label for any strange-sounding preservatives.
- 1 tsp Avocado Oil
- 1/2 Yellow Onion (chopped)
- 2 Garlic Cloves (minced)
- 2 Tbsps Arrowroot Powder
- 3 cups Organic Chicken Broth
- 1 cup Coconut Milk (full fat, if using canned)
- 4 cups Broccoli Florets (roughly chopped)
- 1/4 cup Nutritional Yeast
- 1/4 tsp Sea Salt
- In a large pot or dutch oven over medium heat, add the avocado oil and then the onion. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes or until the onion becomes translucent. Add the garlic and cook for one minute. Add the arrowroot powder and chicken broth and whisk until no clumps remain.
- Bring to a boil over medium heat, and then reduce to a simmer. Add the coconut milk, broccoli, nutritional yeast and salt and stir to combine. Cook for 10 minutes or until the broccoli is cooked through.
- Using a handheld blender, blend the soup until smooth or until desired consistency is reached. Serve and enjoy!