Naturally Speaking with Julie Burns, MS, RD – Organic Foods and Nutrition

Julie H. Burns, MS, RD, CCN is a nutrition consultant and founder of SportFuel, Inc. Julie provides nutrition guidance to athletes, coaches and health care professionals. Her clients include the Chicago Bears, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Chicago White Sox, the Chicago Bulls and Northwestern University’s varsity sports teams. As a mother of 11-year-old active triplets, Julie is also often asked to address mothers’ groups, parent associations and other lay audiences. She has a faculty appointment at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center in the Department of Nutrition. Her work has been published by major medical associations, including the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the American Dietetic Association (ADA). Julie served on the Gatorade Sport Science Institute’s Sports Nutrition Advisory Board and was rated “one of the top ten experts to help revamp your diet” by Harper’s BAZAAR magazine. She received the American Dietetic Association’s Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutritionists Achievement Award in 2002 and was honored with the “Recognized Young Dietitian of the Year” award by the Chicago and Illinois Dietetic Associations. We talked with her recently about the health benefits of organic foods.

Q. What is meant by the term “organic”?

A. Organic refers to the way agricultural foods are produced and processed. The organic method commits to agricultural practices that strive for a balance with nature using methods and materials of low impact to the environment. Its primary goal is to maximize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people. Certified organic farmers do not use harmful chemicals that can pollute our air, water and food. Instead, they employ sustainable farming techniques like crop rotation and composting to improve soil fertility. They also use non-toxic materials to control pests. In addition, dairy cows on organic farms make milk according to their natural cycles and are given certified organic feed, clean water, fresh air and access to pasture.

Q. What are the health benefits of organic products?

A. Organic products not only nurture the planet, they nurture us as well. They are produced without the overuse of antibiotics, added growth hormones or dangerous pesticides, which some scientific studies suggest may cause health problems for both children and adults.

Q. What is the concern regarding overuse of antibiotics in farming, and what impact can this have on people?

A. If an organic cow gets sick, she is treated using natural remedies. Should the cow’s condition worsen to the extent that she needs an antibiotic, then she is treated and brought back to health but not returned to the milking herd. Conventional farmers “pre-treat” the entire herd with antibiotics as a preventive measure to avoid illness. Researchers believe this, potentially, can be very harmful as these practices can lead to higher levels of resistance in bacteria that cause human disease and lower the effectiveness of these same antibiotics in our own bodies.

Q. What do consumers need to know about growth hormones?

A. Growth hormones naturally occur in all milk. However, conventional dairy cows may be injected with additional growth hormones to increase milk production. Treatment with additional growth hormones might increase production of the protein insulin growth factor (IGF1), linked to higher instances of certain cancers (i.e., breast, colon, prostate). Additionally, cows that receive these injections have higher incidence of health problems themselves, including inflammation of the udder. Several countries in Europe as well as Canada, Australia and Japan have banned these hormones because of potential effects on both human and animal health.

Q. Who is most vulnerable to the pesticides used on conventionally-farmed produce?

A. Children. Since their bodies are smaller, they consume more food per pound of body weight than adults do. Children also are more sensitive to the effects of pesticides and other chemicals in food, due to their rapidly developing nervous systems. A recent study from the University of Washington showed that children who predominantly eat organic diets have far lower levels of pesticide residues in their bodies than children who eat mostly non-organic foods.

Q. How do consumers know if the products they’re buying are really organic?

A. Since 2002, the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Standards have helped to assure consumers of the quality and integrity of organic products. The USDA recognizes four categories of organic foods. Of these categories, only “100% Organic” and “Organic” may carry the USDA organic seal.

  • 100% Organic: Products labeled “100% Organic” contain 100% organically produced raw or processed agricultural product. This term applies mostly to unprocessed food, such as produce, or where nothing has been added, including vitamins and minerals.
  • Organic: (95-100% organic ingredients) Products labeled “Organic” contain at least 95% organically produced raw or processed agricultural product. These products can contain up to 5% non-organic materials from the “accepted list” of ingredients and additives maintained by the USDA. These non-organic ingredients can only be added if there is no organic option available.
  • Made with Organic Ingredients: (70-94% organic ingredients) Products labeled “Made with Organic Ingredients” contain 70% to 94% organically produced raw or processed agricultural product. These products are not permitted to use the USDA organic seal.
  • Less than 70% Organic Ingredients: Products with less than 70% organic ingredients may not carry any organic labeling on the front panel, but organic ingredients can be listed on the nutrition panel. These products are not permitted to use the USDA organic seal.

Q. When and how should mothers introduce organics into their children’s diets?

A. Simply put, if something has no nutritional value, it’s not needed. So why eat it? Adults and children can benefit greatly from an organic diet, as it offers a “higher-quality fuel.” Going organic is an important option to consider if you’re trying to have a baby since nutrition is so important in preparing your body for pregnancy. During pregnancy, the baby is literally “swimming” in anything and everything you put in your body. Breastfeeding gets baby off to the best nutritional start possible. It’s important to recognize that the foods you eat can affect your milk. During lactation all your baby’s requirements for energy and other nutrients must be supplied by the mother. By taking care of yourself and maintaining a balanced diet, you make sure that what gets passed on to your baby is of the very best quality. As the child gets introduced to solids, organic baby food is a great option. When your child is experiencing new foods, introduce organics to the family slowly, then make meat and dairy the priority. This will eliminate the impact of unnecessary added growth hormones and antibiotics. Next, switch to organic fruits and vegetables. Start with “thin-skinned” varieties, such as strawberries, potatoes, celery and peaches. They can be most susceptible to pesticides because they have a more fragile exterior. Last, are the “waxier-skinned” or “rind-covered” produce because pesticides are easily washed off or removed by peeling them.

Q. What can HMHB members and partners do to be advocates for the benefits of organic products?

A. It is essential for women trying to become pregnant, moms-to-be and parents to understand the potentially harmful effects of added growth hormones, antibiotics and dangerous pesticides in our foods. Educating about organic options is important for the short-term and long-term effects on individuals, families and society. Organic farmers need support of their work just as conventional farmers do. In addition, research is important so we know what is in the food we eat. Nutrition is a building block for healthy bodies. If we want to get and stay healthy, it is important to know what kind of fuel we’re giving ourselves and our children.

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