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Dear Diabetes: What Does “Organic” Mean?

Understanding organic food in life with diabetes

Dear Diabetes: What does “organic” mean?

We hear the term “organic” a lot these days, with regard to food – not just a college chemistry class. But what does it mean? Does it matter when living with diabetes? To keep it simple, organic refers to food that is produced using organic farming, which means growing crops without the use of synthetic pesticides and herbicides. It is important to note, however, that organic farmers still use pesticides; they just come from natural sources.

Whether you are living with type 1 or type 2 diabetes, eating organic foods is not a specific part of any diabetes management plan I’m familiar with. While eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables is part of almost any diabetes meal plan,  whether or not that produce is organic is a matter of personal preference. People who eat organic foods may do so because they feel it’s a healthier choice and/or they may feel that organic farming is better for the environment. There is an ongoing debate about organic foods and organic farming with very convincing arguments on both sides.

For some people, the biggest challenge to buying organic food is price – organic food is typically more expensive than conventionally grown foods. If cost is not an issue for you, and if you feel the urge to buy organic, then by all means go for it. If organic food is breaking the bank, however, there are a few options.

Every year the Environmental Working Group puts together and updates two lists: the Dirty Dozen™, which lists the fruits and vegetables that are the most “contaminated,” and the Clean Fifteen ™, which are the ones you don’t need to worry about as much. If you are able to buy some organic food, stick with the items at the top of the list. For vegetables, celery is usually at the top of the list, and for fruit you’ll typically see strawberries. These are “thin-skinned” foods. Strawberries and grapes also have more surface area and are harder to clean (do you find yourself running water over the whole bunch, or actually washing each grape?).

You also might want to consider spending your money on naturally raised meat – animals that are not given antibiotics and are raised in a free-range environment. Organic milk might be a priority as well. The Mayo Clinic website gives a nice comparison of organic and conventional foods. They also report that so far there does not appear to be a difference in nutrition value between the two.

Another option is to buy locally grown, fresh produce. You can also buy fruit that you can peel the skin off, such as melon and bananas. And always ­– whether you buy organic or not – wash fruits and vegetables very well before cooking or eating.

The pros and cons for organic foods can be confusing! I believe in an ideal world, we would grow our own food in our own backyards, but for a variety of reasons, this is often not realistic. So that leaves us with deciding whether or not to buy organic. Whatever you decide, remember to check with your diabetes care team before making any changes to your meal plan.

Jane K. Dickinson, RN, PhD, CDE* (@janekdickinson) is a nurse and diabetes educator in Northwestern Colorado. She is the program coordinator and on the faculty for the online Master of Science in Diabetes Education and Management Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Dickinson is also the author of People With Diabetes Can Eat Anything: It’s All About Balance. Dickinson is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.

*“Certified Diabetes Educator” and “CDE” are certification marks owned and registered by the National Certification Board for Diabetes Educators (NCBDE). NCBDE is not affiliated in any way with Sanofi US. NCBDE does not sponsor or endorse any diabetes-related products or services.

© 2014 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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