Episode 110 - Is Organic Food Better For You? With Dr Hayley Dickinson

Is Organic Food Better For You? With Dr Hayley Dickinson

Back on the podcast is Dr Hayley Dickinson, founder of Eat for You.

As a fellow food science nerd, she shares her knowledge on all things organic food. We cover:

  • What does organic mean?
  • Why is organic food so much more expensive?
  • Is the term organic regulated?
  • Is organic nutritionally better for us?
  • What to look out for if you want to choose organic food

To get the dirty dozen and clean 15 lists of fruits and vegetables to be mindful of when it comes to contamination with herbicides and pesticides, head to: dietitianapproved.com/organic 

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Episode Transcription

Episode 110: Is Organic Food Better For You? With Dr Hayley Dickinson

Taryn Richardson  00:00

I've asked Dr. Haley Dickinson back on the podcast to share her knowledge on all things organic food. She is somebody that definitely rivals me in the science and food nerd arena. She's a founder of a company called Eat for You here in Australia, which is the only nutrient, batch tested food product in the entire country. She has a huge wealth of knowledge in understanding about what organic actually means, how the term is regulated on foods and really helps us to answer the question of whether or not you should be choosing to eat organic food or not. So enjoy!

Taryn Richardson  00:41

Welcome to the Triathlon Nutrition Academy podcast. The show designed to serve you up evidence-based sports nutrition advice from the experts. Hi, I'm your host Taryn, Accredited Practicing Dietitian, Advanced Sports Dietitian and founder of Dietitian Approved. Listen as I break down the latest evidence to give you practical, easy-to-digest strategies to train hard, recover faster and perform at your best. You have so much potential, and I want to help you unlock that with the power of nutrition. Let's get into it.

Taryn Richardson  01:18

I'm so excited to welcome back to the podcast my fellow food science nerd, Dr Hayley. And today, I get to pick her brain, hopefully we don't get her all hot and sweaty again like last time, pick her brain on what on earth organic mean. She's a great resource to understand that better. And so welcome back, Doc!

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  01:38

Thanks mate. it's good to be back.

Taryn Richardson  01:39

So let's dive straight into it. What on earth does organic actually mean?

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  01:45

It's a really good question because the reality is it doesn't have like a universal definition. In this country though, there are a set of principles that organic producers are supposed to align with. So the idea is that the production of food have high nutritional value, that sounds pretty sweet, to enhance the biological cycles within the farming system, so not just keep taking but to get you know, water systems flowing well and you know, grasses growing and bringing the insects and all that kind of stuff, enhance the environment rather than deplete it. And then with that, there is the need to maintain and improve the soil and so to and they use the word the fertility of the soil.

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  02:22

And then they want producers to work sort of within as close to system as possible. So relying on as many renewable sources as possible, so as fewer inputs into the farm as possible. Avoiding pollution, so from sort of their practices and processing, they don't want us contaminating, you know, waterways and things like that, again, honourable important. And then sort of similar to the biological cycles but to coexist with and protect the environment. So they're essentially the principles that organic farming is intended to align with. 

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  02:22

The reality is that there's like a 68 page document that the Australian Government has put out, which is the National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Produce. And within that, it talks about the sorts of inputs they are allowed to use, how they should manage the land, all of those sorts of things. And then you know, you kind of have to get approved, right? You have to be certified that you are following enough of those principles to get a ticket for approval. 

Taryn Richardson  03:16

I love that there's a 68 page document. And I know that you've read it front to back multiple times, and there's sections that are highlighted and underlined, and you know of by heart.

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  03:25

Yep. I know bits of it. It's not too dry actually. Of the 68 page documents I've read , it's a hopeful one. I actually read it and go man, if this was happening across all of our farms, man, things would be magic!

Taryn Richardson  03:39

Yeah. And so it does sound really good. All those things are like tick, tick, tick, yep, that sounds amazing. But what is the reality of how that's actually regulated? 

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  03:51

People and money are involved. So one of the things that I find most challenging about organic and the certification process is that it costs a lot of money and it costs money at multiple stages across the cycle. So you know, there's the farmer pays a lot of money to, you know, put his farm into conversion first. So, you know, if he was a conventional farmer and he wants to become organic, there's a lead time or has to kind of clean things up and you know, try and get some of those long lasting pesticides and whatnot out of your soil.

Taryn Richardson  04:19

Yeah, that sounds expensive.

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  04:21

It's expensive, time consuming, and one of the things that a lot of organic farmers report is a drop in yield when they shift from their standard practice to that conversion. And that makes sense, right? It's true for all of us in anything that if we haven't change, there's going to be a, whoa, what's going on here? It takes time. You know, I've watched some really cute little videos. I don't know if you've ever watched the Biggest Little Farm - gorgeous film, a nice, family friendly movie. But it's basically a seven year process from the moment that you decide, right, this is what we're going to do before the rest of the environment catches on. You know, things will be out of whack for a long time but then eventually, you find this really beautiful balance. 

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  04:59

But can you imagine asking a farmer to transition, pay money to transition, but for seven years, you're probably not going to get much of a yield.

Taryn Richardson  05:07

Yeah, that'd be a really tough decision.

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  05:09

That's a massive decision. The farmer, brave, very, very brave actually makes these transitions. And then though the person who takes on those ingredients and wants to make a food product, they also have to be certified organic, too. So, we work with another company who makes our food. So there are recipes, we source the ingredients and everything that they actually make and package our food for us. He and his facility are certified organic, so they go through the process of being checked, and, you know, audited and all of those sorts of things. He doesn't just make organic produce, so theirs important for him to make organic foods. So he's got to separate you know, the conventional ingredients from the organic ones, and all that kind of stuff.

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  05:49

And then I'm supposed to certify as well. So I've sourced certified organic ingredients from numerous places. My manufacturer is certified organic but then I too, am supposed to get my end product certified organic to be able to put the logo on my food. I haven't done that because in my mind that he's just someone else sucking money. That is going to mean that my product is more expensive for the consumer and that's that's not the game I want to play. So I think that's the biggest problem with organic is that it's so expensive. It's asking a lot of people to buy into it.

Taryn Richardson  06:20

And anyone can chuck the word organic on a label, is that right? But there's certain sorts of certifications and companies or brands that you need to look out for to make sure it is legitimately certified organic.

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  06:33

Yes, the word organic is not regulated. We use the word organic on the front because in Australia, I'm allowed to even though I have not certified my product and on our ingredients list, we say certified organic ingredients. But in a different country, I would not be allowed to do that. So there are some markets where the word organic is regulated and you just can't use it at all. So you know, you're looking for the Australian Certified Organic (ACO) logo is a great one. That's the, you know that really nice green bud. There are others, there are quite a few. I look at that and go, that's because there's money to be made in putting producers and food manufacturers and farmers through their paces to actually meet the requirements.

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  07:10

From my perspective, it's upside down. Imagine if instead we were asking people who want to use chemicals that we know have a negative impact on human health to be certified and to pay to be able to use those and that we should just be growing our food in the way that nature intends without all of these additional synthetic inputs. I think that that makes way more sense to my brain. I know that's the complete opposite of where we're at. That's where I want to see us go.

Taryn Richardson  07:37

It would be amazing. It's like, why do people smoke? We know for sure that it's linked to cancer yet people still do it. I don't know what the answer to that problem is either. So if the term organic is not regulated whatsoever, anyone could chuck organic on their label. There are some particular companies that are legitimately certified organic, so we want to look for those sorts of things. Is organic food nutritionally better for us? Should we be choosing those products that are certified organic or does it not really matter?

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  08:08

The reality is, we don't really know. If you think back to those principles that we talked about, theoretically, absolutely, should be much more nutritious. You know, we're looking after the soil, we're looking after the environment, we're bringing in, you know, natural things to enhance our food, right? But then, you know, you and I, we both like data, we like the science. And so when you go to the science and ask that question, there is very little, there is very little out there. Not very little evidence for one or the other, just very little science, period. I did a little dive and it's really not very good science. But in 2018, there was a study in the US and they looked at kind of the top five veggies that people in the States eat. Do you want to guess what they are?

Taryn Richardson  08:48

Potato, corn, carrot?

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  08:51

Yep. 

Taryn Richardson  08:52

How am I going?

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  08:53

You're doing really well.

Taryn Richardson  08:54

Three out of three. Yes! Are you counting leaves as veggies?

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  08:57

There is one green vegetable in here. One green leaf.

Taryn Richardson  09:01

Like a spinach? 

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  09:02

Lettuce.

Taryn Richardson  09:03

Lettuce? Do people eat iceberg lettuce these days? 

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  09:06

Think about burgers.

Taryn Richardson  09:08

Yeah, that's true. That's true. And one more, whoo... Capsicum but they call it peppers.

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  09:13

No, it's tomato and onion. And there was not corn on their list. You did really well there. I'm impressed because I did not prep you for that at all. But, so they tested those. So they tested the mineral content of those five veggies in 2018 and just kind of compare them between conventionally grown and organic grown veggies. And the organic grown veggies did have slightly more trace minerals than the conventional but it was so negligible that if you were relying on conventional versus organic, you're not really going to notice a difference in whether you achieve your daily requirement of minerals.

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  09:44

So there have been a few other studies but similar you know, may be a little bit more of certain things in legumes and stuff like that. But it's not enough that you will go, this is a straight shoot that if you want to be reaching nutritional targets, you're going to hit organic. From my perspective, I think the thing that we do like from organic though is, it's what you're not getting. There are sort of maximum residual levels of pesticides and things that are measured fairly routinely across the global food system that we are meant to stay below. One of the challenges I find with those data is that sometimes the minimum level of detection of some of these things is lower than the safe level. So we can't even measure down low enough to know that it's okay. So you can kind of get these not detected but the assay doesn't go low enough, right? 

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  10:34

So it's a complicated game. But we certainly know that glyphosate is not a healthful herbicide and sits in that pseudo science game. And it's because we're just not asking the questions. We can't do the definitive science anymore because it would be considered 100% unethical to put a population of humans on a glyphosate enriched diet because we know enough, right? We know enough that it's probably not great. And so you're never though gonna get that causative result, which says, yes, when you eat glyphosate loaded food, this is what happens to you versus if you don't. So we just kind of have to accept this association kind of stuff that we've got in this space, which is very complicated and hard for people to understand because it's easy for people to go, well, yeah, there's some evidence but there's also some evidence against. Science is kind of rife with that, though. It doesn't really matter what topic you're looking at, you can kind of find something either way.

Taryn Richardson  11:27

Yep. Yep. Always.

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  11:29

Always. 

Taryn Richardson  11:30

Always. So if you wanted to buy organic foods or that's a path that you chose, what sort of things do you need to look out for to make sure you're actually getting something that's organic?

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  11:42

Yep. You want to see those icons, those logos. So maybe I'll share those ones with you and we can put them in the show notes, the ones to really look out for. But you know, I'm a brand owner who doesn't use them because, you know, it adds another $2,000 or $3,000 to every one of my products to get that certified. But you know, we're a tiny brand so I have to hand that on to the consumer. I don't have that pool of money just sitting there to spend. And I would rather, like I could show you the certificates of all of my raw ingredients that they've already been certified and my manufacturer is certified.

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  12:11

So at some point we've got to go, enough is enough. But you're right, there are punters out there who are using crappy ingredients. And I'm like you, I don't like to name names and I don't even like to really blame countries for things. But there are some countries where we absolutely will not source organic ingredients because they border other countries that allow some sort of maybe shady movement of ingredients, right? It's perhaps not grown in an organic area but it's close enough to there where there is one. And so, you know, there's a whole heap of interesting brokerage that kind of happens around some of our raw ingredients around the world. So there are places where you just know to not go.

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  12:54

But you know, there's not a lot of organic agriculture. I did a quick look before and I couldn't find the Aussie numbers. But in the EU, only 6% of their agricultural land is organic.

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  13:06

It's crazy, right? It's crazy small. That doesn't mean that of those 94% of other farms, that they're not aligning with a lot of those principles. But they've just not gone down that certification process which means you'll never get the logo on those ingredients. So one of the things I really like to encourage people to do is kind of get their food from someone they know. So you know, farmers markets and stuff are an incredible way to get your produce because you're looking in the eye of the person who grows the food so you can have that conversation. And a lot of people who are doing good things want to show you and want to talk about it. So no doubt, you'd go and check out the farm. You know, I think that's the key thing about organic - it's about each of us getting back to interacting with where our food comes from instead of just relying on people who sit in the middle and may or may not really care that much about the integrity of the ingredients that are going into your food.

Taryn Richardson  13:06

That's crazy. 

Taryn Richardson  13:55

It's sad, isn't it? If your time poor, then a great way to do that is just to automate a fruit and vegetable box from your local farmers. You know, there's low air miles, there's no packaging. Those fruit stickers drive me up the wall like, can we please stop putting stickers on our food and increasing our waste? And it's a great way to eat seasonally too, so that we know that nutrients in food in season is probably higher and better than things that are forced to grow out of season. Do you have any hot tips on that actually? Or is that a can of worms?

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  14:27

No, I love it. I agree with you entirely. And I think there's the nutrient. Yes, they're going to be fresher, they're going to have a higher nutrient content because they've not been in storage, but your body is going to need what they're delivering too, right? Because we are seasonal, too. So you know, like it's winter now, right, so. 

Taryn Richardson  14:42

In Australia? 

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  14:43

In Australia, thank you. And you know, our citrus is booming, right? And that's because you know, we need those things like vitamin C to keep our immune system really pumping right now. So the food grows at the right time for us to need it. And so yeah, I think that's a really beautiful idea to get into those seasonal boxes for sure.

Taryn Richardson  15:01

And food tastes so much better when it's grown in season, too. Like, it's actually grown outside in the sun, in the natural environment. We've got oranges at the moment that are just so good. I'm eating at least one a day. But there's no way I would buy an orange out of our season. It comes from America for one and it just doesn't taste any good.

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  15:20

You're absolutely right. Straight off the plant is always so much more delicious.

Taryn Richardson  15:25

I really wish that we had acreage, that we lived at a beach so I could surf in the morning. But we get an acreage so we could grow our own stuff like when we did when we were kids. I'd love to get back to that but geez, most of us are so time poor. So I think something like a farmers box or farmers markets. Even if you can't get to the farmers markets because you're out on the bike or you're running, get something delivered straight to your house, because it comes from the farm. It hasn't had to sit in a package truck with ethylene gas pumped at it to force it to ripen because it's been picked green and all those sorts of things that go on in large change supermarkets. You're making my blood boil, too. We should not put too food nerds together to talk about the health of our entire nation.

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  16:09

Totally. I mean, the other frustration with organic just to keep your blood boiling is of course that if you do choose to buy it from the supermarket, it's packaged. You know, your raw produce is on a tray with a plastic, wrapping over it with a sticker on it telling you that it's organic. I don't know about you but that fundamentally doesn't align for me. If I'm interested in organic produce, then I'm probably also thinking about the lifecycle of the packaging and all of the other things that go in. So it's this, yes, I want organic and I can always access it from a farm or whatever. And so, you know, the majors do have a variably sized, organic produce section but I have to compromise and take home a heap of plastic, which we know just ends up everywhere. It's a really messy game, organic. I don't think it's going to end up being the standard for food. I think there are just too many issues with the system to be honest.

Taryn Richardson  17:04

Because it's also so much more expensive for somebody that's on a budget, it's just way out of their budget. And where do you draw the line for, I want to eat well and I want my nutrients but I just can't afford to eat that or eat it on a regular basis or even get enough fruits and vegetables in a day if you go down that organic path.

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  17:24

Totally. There are some really nice lists kind of the Dirty Dozen or the Clean 15 or whatever - foods that are generally lower in sort of pesticide, herbicide usage versus those that tend to be higher. And so that can be a nice place for people who want to do the best they can. But you know, I think essentially everyone has limits in what they are willing to spend on their food. And when you see things can be double sometimes just because it's got that organic tag next to them. So those lists can be really helpful because there are some foods that you kind of want to avoid conventionally. But again, that's not just the end either. You can wash your produce and there are some pretty straightforward ways to kind of get a lot of the pesticide residue off your food.

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  18:11

And in this country, the standards are pretty high. So the food is supposed to be clean. I'm not going to pretend that it's perfect and that we probably don't have more glyphosate coming in than ever before. But it's probably not coming in where people think. It's probably not really coming in on your zucchinis and lettuces and stuff. It's probably coming in in your cereals, because one of the things that glyphosate is used for now is as a desiccant. So it used to just be a herbicide and so it typically isn't sprayed all over the plants because if it gets sprayed all over your crop, then it's going to kill the crop too, unless it's a genetically modified crop that is resistant to glyphosate. But that's a whole nother conversation. 

Taryn Richardson  18:48

We don't have enough time for that.

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  18:49

We don't have enough time. But what we do do particularly in wheat is spray it over those crops just before harvest because it dries the crop. So it means the farmer isn't as dependent on the weather for when they harvest the wheat. So if I was to suggest one thing that you skipped or that you did choose organic and non GMO, it would be cereals, it would be those grains, because that's where you probably going to get the most of that residue.

Taryn Richardson  19:17

Yeah, and the other thing is berries that people often mentioned, too. They're generally really high in pesticide residue. Is that correct? 

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  19:23

Yeah,  strawberries are particularly. You know, they're low to the ground. They're right there. They're  not wrapped in anything. You know, your fruits that have got a peel may be pretty safe, right?

Taryn Richardson  19:34

And so what can we do with our strawberries if we want to lower that? Choose organic or wash the crap out of them? Yep, both of those options. You've got to remember though, that typically, the herbicides and pesticides that we use are intended to not easily be washed off because obviously it rains and so the farmer doesn't want to have to keep reapplying. So you need to have something to help remove them off your produce. And that's why berries are tough because they're fragile, so you don't sort of want to be soaking them in a bicarb or too long in a salt solution to get that pesticide off. Vinegar can be pretty good, yeah. I prefer to choose organic berries but again, you know you're paying ridiculous amounts of money for a pint of the strawberry so you've got to really want them, you've got to really, really enjoy them. And I don't know about you, but my 11 year old just eats them like the punnet and it's just gone. I'm like, holy shit, that was $8, just gone.

Taryn Richardson  20:22

So can you give me Dr. Hayley's recommendations, the short form? What's a summary of whether you should choose organic or not?

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  20:31

I think if you can, yes, because it means that then we are more likely to get more and more organic produce available. And the more that is available, the more cost effective it will become. So that is the reality of any system, the more of it we have, the cheaper it gets.

Taryn Richardson  20:44

Consumer demand.

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  20:45

Totally. If you can't, then grow what you can, go to your local farmer, and use those pretty simple washing techniques, all those sort of lists. Maybe we should just share some of those lists. 

Taryn Richardson  20:56

Yeah, so what I'll do is I'll put those lists on the website if you want to go and download them for free - dietitianapproved.com/organic.

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  21:04

Do you recommend people go organic?

Taryn Richardson  21:05

I have same sort of advice as you. It is cost prohibitive for people and so I'd much rather people eat more fruits and vegetables in their life than be restricted by only choosing organic and then still not meeting their micronutrient needs.

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  21:21

Tough answer, isn't?

Taryn Richardson  21:22

It is tough. And like you're very much a global thinker as well, like me, and you just want to change the world. So. you're like...

Dr. Hayley Dickinson  21:30

Be patient, come on.

Taryn Richardson  21:31

Yeah. And if we are, or more of us are choosing to buy organic, then that's going to increase you know, supply and demand and that will eventually change the world. But I do understand that it is a cost thing for people but just people don't understand the whole greenwashing that happens with the organic industry and that that term is not regulated and I think that's really important to highlight. All right, well, thank you so much for joining me. I'm glad you didn't get too hot and sweaty this time. Little bit hot and sweaty. She loves sharing your passion and just debunking some of those myths when it comes to talking about organic foods, because I think it's really important to highlight and recognise so that if you're choosing that, you know what to look for. And you can make educated decisions around whether that's something that is important to you or not. So thank you so much, Hayley. And I'll share that link in the show notes if people do want to go and grab those lists - dietitianapproved.com /organic. 

Taryn Richardson  22:27

Pleasure mate. Good to talk to you. Wew!

Taryn Richardson  22:30

Thanks for joining me for this episode of the Triathlon Nutrition Academy podcast. I would love to hear from you. If you have any questions or want to share with me what you've learned, email me at [email protected]. You can also spread the word by leaving me a review and taking a screenshot of you listening to the show. Don't forget to tag me on social media, @dietitian.approved, so I can give you a shout out, too. If you want to learn more about what we do, head to dietitianapproved.com. And if you want to learn more about the Triathlon Nutrition Academy program, head to dietitianapproved.com/academy. Thanks for joining me and I look forward to helping you smashed in the fourth leg - nutrition!¬†

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