Healthy Choices with Liza Baker: Whether or not to buy organic is a thorny issue

As you find your way on your health journey, getting your food choices sorted can be what Charles Duhigg calls a keystone habit in his book The Power of Habit: a keystone habit is one that not only creates a desired change—it also has a cascade of other good habits that follow in its wake.

This month, we’re taking a look at the question of organic, the “O” in SOLE food. You can read the first post in this series, “Seasonal,” here.

Whether or not to buy organic is a thorny issue: there are studies that support the claim that organic is better for you and studies that will support the opposite point of view. There are studies that show that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are harmful to your health and that of the environment, and there are just as many that claim the opposite.

Why does the field of food and nutrition have so many conflicting studies?

Instead of answering that question, I’m going to point you back to that still, small voice inside you: do your own research by experimenting on yourself, then journal about how you feel. We are all bio-individual, so it’s time to stop looking outside ourselves for the answers.

That said, you’ll probably pick up on my opinion/inclinations below … and that doesn’t mean you have to agree!

As you to do your own research and reach your own conclusions, be very, very careful about which studies you consider in the process: try to find out who paid for a given study because very often the company that benefits from showing that a product is extremely beneficial or at least totally harmless is the one backing the scientists performing the test.

A case in point is a UCLA study that found a positive influence on brain chemistry in subjects who ate probiotics in fermented milk products. Sounds great—and let me emphasize I don’t discount the findings—but since it was funded by a company that makes a well-known yogurt, I’d look for a little third-party confirmation of the results.

And then there are interesting twists to the questions, such as, whether GMOs are or are not damaging to our health, are they actually doing what they were meant to do, which is to increase yields and feed the world?

Buying direct from the farmer

Personally, I choose to buy organic (and for now that means non-GMO as well) when I can, but in certain instances—usually when I know and trust the farmer selling the produce—I will choose local over organic—more on buying local in a future column.

There are many small farmers who cannot afford or have no faith in the expensive organic certification process, yet they produce “ecological” food in a sustainable, synthetic pesticide- and synthetic herbicide-free manner and pay attention to the greater ecology of their farm, which includes everyone from the bees to the workers—more on that issue in a future column as well.

If you buy directly from a farmer at the market or through a CSA, ask some questions about the growing methods. If a direct explanation is not forthcoming or is not to your liking, you can move on—try to do so with grace. It’s not our place to lecture others on the choices they make.

If you get an invitation to visit the farm, particularly without making an appointment ahead of time, you’ll know this grower is all about transparency.

Animal products

There are a few food items on which I personally will not compromise in the sustainable/organic versus conventional debate, and those are animal products.

If you are vegetarian or vegan, particularly if you live that lifestyle because of animal rights issues, please feel free to skip the next few paragraphs—but I hope you won’t!

I firmly believe that you have the right to adhere to a vegan diet; however, many people feel better on a diet that includes a small amount of animal protein. In my own (entirely unscientific) research, this seems particularly true for women who are struggling with thyroid issues and/or symptoms of perimenopause.

I believe that there are plenty of reasons not to shun animal products, provided you know exactly where they come from, how they are raised, and how they are harvested. (I choose that word intentionally—not because it’s prettier than “slaughtered” but because it implies an intentionality and mindfulness that “slaughtered” does not.)

And I feel that if you choose to nourish your own body in this way, you should make a commitment to honor the animals who give their lives to feed you: I encourage you to learn how to cook and eat all parts of the animal, nose (or beak) to tail.

The price of organic, the cost of cheap food

There’s a quote going around Facebook that says something like this: “If you think organic food is expensive, you should try paying for cancer!” It’s a bit heavy-handed, and yet….

Somewhere along the line, Americans became convinced that food should be cheap.

It’s interesting that as a culture, we want the best house, the flashiest car, the highest fashion, the newest technology—and we’re willing to go deeply into debt for these things—but we cringe at spending money on something as important as food.

We are delighted when we can coupon ourselves into (perceived) savings, only to discover that the highly-processed and fast foods these coupons afford us have wreaked havoc on our health. (Check out my opinion on the “health halo” in this article on

Rather than being overly obsessed with the price of organic, perhaps it’s time to reconsider the true cost of cheap food: what expense has it incurred in terms of our health, our environment, and our economy?

I think about spending money on quality food as an investment in the future—ours and the planet’s.

There are numerous books on the market that deal with this subject in much greater depth:  Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Oran Hesterman’s Fair Food, Nina Planck’s Real Food, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, and Samuel Fromartz’s Organic, Inc. immediately come to mind if you’re looking for recommendations.

Again, my strong advice on the subject is this: do your research, read all sides of the issues, and draw your own conclusions.

If you are trying to save money on food while trying to buy organic as much as possible, check out the Environmental Working Group’s guidelines (updated annually!) called Dirty Dozen and Clean 15, which show which plant foods absorb the most and least synthetic chemicals used in the growing process.

I personally choose to buy organic, sustainably-raised food whenever I can—and I don’t expect my clients to do so: in my opinion, the advantages of eating conventionally-farmed broccoli far outweigh the disadvantages of not eat broccoli at all!

Ann Arbor’s Liza Baker, a WLAA health columnist, is a health coach, cookbook author, nonprofit consultant, and woefully underpaid COO of a busy family of four. Liza lives in a half-empty nest in Ann Arbor and is passionate about health and happiness, education and empowerment, SOLE/SOUL food and social justice. You can get a taste of her work on her website and/or join the (Sorta) Secret Sisterhood, her membership site for women over 40.


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