Do I really need to be eating organic, free-range, sugar-free, & plant-based?

Jenna Gorham  |   Wednesday Mar. 1st, 2017

Like many, I often ponder these questions. As a registered dietitian nutritionist, I know I don’t need to eat all organic in order to eat ‘healthy;’ they’re not synonyms and I tell my clients the same. But, ethically, would I feel better, like I was making a difference, if I did?

After reading Marissa Landrigan’s thought-provoking book, The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat, I’m left with personal questions such as these. Her novel follows her through her 20s as she searches for ethical food and what that means to her. She begins her search believing that going vegetarian is the way to eat ethically. Like many ethical vegetarians, she realizes, “being a vegetarian means you have to eat a lot of vegetables,” and unfortunately she’d “never really been a fan.” She spent her early years as a vegetarian microwaving fake chicken patties and surviving on tater tots, cheese sandwiches, ramen, and Kraft macaroni and cheese.

The truth is, Marissa is not alone. As a Montana meat-lover, consuming the Standard American Diet, I’m sure you can relate to her friend’s thinking, “if a meal doesn’t have meat, even if it fills me up, I still feel as though something is missing.” As a flexitarian myself, I prefer not to put restrictions on foods I can and can’t eat or label foods as good or bad. More and more research is linking a plant-based diet to preventing and even reversing chronic disease. I see more and more clients wanting to go vegetarian or even vegan for various reasons, yet they don’t know where to start. They don’t want to end up like Marissa relying on the frozen foods section. I help them go about it in a healthy way to prevent malnutrition, find a healthy relationship with food, and find what eating ‘healthy’ means to them.

“Food, as far as (Marissa) was concerned, came from the grocery store.” Here in Bozeman, we’re lucky to live in a place that values local food and supporting local farmers; a place that has a year-round farmers’ market; and a place that educates our kids on where our food comes from with the Farm to School program. However, when Marissa moves to Bozeman after college, she finds herself struggling as a vegetarian in such a meat-loving state. When she goes on a date to the Land of Magic, she finds zero vegetarian options and a server that laughs in her face. Over the years as she continues her search, she educates herself by visiting slaughterhouses and going elk hunting here in Montana, eventually learning to eat meat again.

Marissa’s search expands from vegetarianism, to eating organic and local and no high-fructose corn syrup. She faces the dilemma that although she is eating organic or meat-free she may still be supporting large corporations. She explores these food industry buzzwords and finds what works for her and her beliefs.

The media is full of buzzwords that we begin to equate with meaning healthy or better for us, often tricking us into a purchase. Below are a few definitions to help you navigate your next trip to T&C or the Co-Op.

A product labeled organic must contain 95% organic ingredients.
If something is labeled “Made with Organic Ingredients,” it must contain
at least 70% organic ingredients.

For meat and poultry , the animals must be:
-Fed 100% organic feed (except for trace vitamins and minerals)
-Managed without antibiotics, growth hormones, or genetic engineering
-Allowed year-round access to the outdoors
-Raised on certified organic land

Contains no artificial ingredients, including color additives, and is only minimally processed (the processing does not alter the final product).

The supplier must be able to demonstrate that the animal has had access to the outside. The amount of time spent outside and the size of the outdoor area are unspecified.

There is no official definition for the term ‘local’. The meaning varies person to person, and often by what foods can be grown or produced in various locations or climates. The top three reasons people choose to eat local products are for freshness, supporting the local economy, and knowing where their food comes from.

No Hormones:
According to the FDA “Hormones are not allowed in raising hogs or poultry. Therefore, the claim ‘no hormones added’ cannot be used on the labels of pork or poultry.”
This term can be used on beef if adequate documentation can be provided to support the claim.

Last year, the USDA dropped its official definition of ‘grass-fed’ because experts claimed the ambiguous term is misleading because all cows naturally eat grass. There is currently no definition for this term. It is often used as a marketing ploy.

Landrigan’s novel is a worthy read and one that left me thinking. What does healthy eating and ethical food mean to you?

About the Author(s)

Jenna Gorham

Jenna Gorham, RD, LN is a registered dietitian in Bozeman, MT, providing nutrition counseling and consulting services for clients both locally and across the country. For more information see or contact Jenna at or 406-219-7547.

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