Conventional spinach or organic beef? I’ll take the spinach, please. 0

A causal walk around the city center of Bariloche led us to a hole-in-the-wall organic grocery store, Núcelo Orgánico.  After two weeks of seeking out organic products in grocery stores throughout the country, we were ecstatic to find a store where ALL of the products were organic.

So what does organic really mean?

While the definition may differ from country to country, organic foods are generally those foods that are produced through organic farming methods, which means that chemical fertilizers and synthetic pesticides are not used.

Additionally, organic foods do not undergo irradiation, a process by which food is exposed to radiation in order to destroy any living bacteria, microorganisms or viruses. The goal here is to reduce the potential for food borne illnesses and to increase product shelf-life. The process of irradiation unfortunately also has the potential to destroy essential vitamins and nutrients that naturally exist in plant-based foods, quickly making nutrient-rich foods nutrient-deficient.  So while an organic banana and a non-organic, or conventional, banana may look alike from the outside, there is likely a nutrient discrepancy between the two pieces of fruit. Is it harmful to eat that conventional banana?  No, not necessarily, but you might not get your nutrient “bang for your buck” from the conventional one.

This brings me to the next key difference between organic and non-organic.  In the U.S., in order for a product to be organic, it cannot contain genetically modified organisms (GMO). Genetic modification means that food undergoes genetic engineering in order to manipulate the organism’s genome. The genetic modification of crops has allowed for increased commercialization of crops as well as greater control over the quality and quantity of the crop produced.  In addition, such engineering can increase a crop’s resistance to insects, harmful weather, viruses, and other pathogens. There is significant controversy regarding GMOs, specifically as to whether or not they are safe for human consumption. Interestingly, in 1997, European regulations instituted the labeling of GMO and non-GMO foods for consumers, however such labeling is not required in the U.S. at this time.

Approximately 88% of corn in the U.S. is genetically modified and this same genetically modified corn is a primary staple of animal feed.  93% of soy in the U.S. is genetically modified. And by soy, we’re not just talking about straight-up soy beans or soy milk, we’re talking about soy products that don’t contain “soy” in their names, like certain hydrogenated oils, lecithins and emulsifiers.

So, how is one supposed to navigate this rather confusing world of genetically modified and irradiated foods?

Here are my two cents.

  1.  I realize organic foods are often more expensive than conventional foods. That’s the first major barrier.  However, when my budget allows for it, I try to purchase organic foods whenever possible. I usually follow the guidelines of the “Dirty Dozen” or “Dirty Dozen Plus,” as the Environmental Working Group likes to call it.  These guidelines are not perfect, but they at least provide some simple, easy to follow advice.
  2. I’m motivated to spend a few extra dollars on organic foods, because eating organic (at least in the U.S.) guarantees that I’m not eating genetically modified or irradiated foods.  Given the unknowns about GMOs, I’d prefer to stick with non-GMOs for now. As they say, it’s better to be safe than sorry.  And I strongly support the labeling of GMOs and non-GMOs.  Consumers are free to make their own food decisions, so they should at least have the right to know the GMO status of the food they purchase and eat.

In short, for the sake of my long-term health, I choose organic whenever possible, but if forced to choose between some conventional spinach and some organic beef, I’d choose the spinach any day.

Back to that breath-of-fresh-air organic grocery store in Bariloche.  Núcelo Orgánico offers mostly packaged organic goods, but they also offer a daily “hot lunch” special. We couldn’t resist so enjoyed a delicious squash and sweet potato “fainá” topped with a carrot sauce and paired with a raw cabbage salad.

Here is a quick tour of the store.

An overflowing wall of organic bulk spices, herbs, seeds and nuts and grains:

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From the inside:

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From the outside:

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