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Are “Organic” Packaged Foods Better For You?

Who doesn’t love the convenience and the taste of many packaged foods? Heck, the packaging is often alluring enough for us to make a purchase alone! (possibly influenced by your kids pleading for it!)

But, 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?

And, should they have a place in our everyday diets?

Let’s take a look underneath those persuasive labels and find out.

How Do Packaged Foods Stack Up Against Real, Whole Foods?

Well, we’re pretty sure you already know the answer to that, but just to hit it home for you — real, whole foods straight from nature should always be your first choice. But, we also get that life’s busy and it may be necessary to top up with some pre-packaged foods here and there.

Jarred pasta sauce, gluten-free dry pasta, canned fish & chickpeas, bean dip, frozen veggies and pre-bagged salad mixes come to mind. 

But first, let’s get the terminology out of the way. The term ORGANIC does not mean that the food is necessarily healthy or nutritionally superior — or any other healthful musings that come to mind when that word is used to describe a food product.  

The simplest definition of ORGANIC is to describe the way that agricultural products are grown and produced = 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. [1] 

But, those are all still WHOLE FOODS with one ingredient.

Can Packaged Foods Still Be Part Of A Healthy Diet?

Good news… when shifting to more of a whole foods diet, we 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. It just means that package foods shouldn’t be relied on to make up the bulk of your meals. 

But, how do you decide which packaged foods are a healthier choice? And if still including them in our everyday diet, wouldn’t it be better if they were labeled “organic”?

Well, you can probably identify which packaged foods are healthier just from reading the label – and not just going by the front of the package where the slick marketing words are!  

You need to see past the “health halo” words and look directly at the nutritional label for a shorter ingredient 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!  

Interestingly, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), there are an estimated 2,000 synthetic chemicals that can be used in conventional packaged foods. But, for organic packaged foods – it’s only around 40, so you’ll certainly be exposing yourself to less chemical junk in your junk food. [2]

But, what about budget? Are organic packaged foods worth the bigger price tag?

In terms of cost and your family’s grocery budget, it really comes down to prioritizing your food purchases. So, when you’re choosing to purchase organic foods, packaged foods may not make the cut!

It’s generally recommended to prioritize organic purchases this way:

  1. Choose some produce using the rule of green thumb – buy organic if you’re planning to eat the skin of the fruit or vegetable.
  2. Next are animal products, including meat, eggs & dairy – buy these as often as possible, and as your budget permits.

It should also be noted that some food producers aren’t certified “organic”, but still pledge to not use hormones or unnecessary antibiotics. This would be a good second choice for meat, eggs & dairy.

  1. Choosing organic options for things that you and your family eat in large quantities is also recommended as the cumulative effect of pesticides could be more harmful to your health than just occasional exposure.

(FYI – The EWG’s Dirty Dozen & Clean Fifteen lists are super helpful resources!)

So, that means, in terms of budgeting, packaged organic foods should be at the bottom of your priority list for making organic food purchases overall.

While marketed to us 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! We feel pretty confident that we might be able to sway you to choose our easy, comforting cheesy pasta recipe over boxed mac ‘n cheese any day… organic or not!

Because neon orange cheese powder packets, right?

RECIPE

Whether your kids are fussy eaters or it’s your spouse – here’s a family-pleasing cheesy pasta recipe that’s sure to satisfy that comfort food craving. No neon orange powder packets either!

Fussy Eater Mac ‘n Cheese

Ingredients

1 box (8 oz) chickpea pasta (or other gluten-free pasta – look for corn-free)

4 cups broccoli florets, rinsed

1 Tbsp butter (organic, grass fed suggested)*

1 cup milk alternative (unsweetened almond or cashew milk works well)

1 heaping Tbsp cream cheese*

1 ½ cup (6 oz) cheddar cheese*

2 big handfuls baby spinach leaves, roughly chopped
(organic suggested; can use frozen chopped spinach too = 1 cup)

Sea salt and pepper, to taste 

*For dairy-free – can use vegan dairy alternatives in place of butter, cream cheese and cheddar cheese. However, this will change the taste and texture. 

Preparation

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add gluten-free pasta, return to a boil and cook according to package directions, adding in the broccoli for the last 4 minutes. Drain pasta & broccoli.

In the same pot, over low/medium heat, add butter, milk, salt & pepper.

Once butter has melted, add cheeses, and allow to melt for about 30 seconds, stirring gently. (Does not need to be completely melted.) 

Add drained pasta & broccoli to pot, and stir everything together until pasta is well coated with cheese mixture, adding more cheese if desired.

Add in chopped baby spinach and toss gently until just wilted. 

Serve immediately with additional salt and pepper, if desired.

NOTE: leftovers do not keep that well as the cheese clumps and hardens – although still yummy!

REFERENCES

[1] Healthline (May 2016) – What is Organic Food – and is it Better Than Non-Organic?

[2] Treehugger (March 2019) – The Shocking Truth About Organic vs. Conventional Packaged Foods

Other resources:

Environmental Working Group (2019) – EWG’s 2019 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce

Wise Bread (February 2015) – The Only 15 Foods That Are Worth Buying Organic

Naughty Nutrition (March 2018) – 10 Healthy Packaged Foods Nutrition Experts Swear By

Heart & Stroke: What is Ultra-processed Food and How to Eat Less of It