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Organic, Gluten-Free, Vegan—Which One's Healthiest?

Organic. Humane. Gluten-free. What's are the most important factors to consider when you choose a food brand? There's no simple answer, but getting clarity on your priorities can help.

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
5-minute read
Episode #580
organic vegan
The Quick And Dirty
  • Certifications such as organic, vegan, or gluten-free mean only what they say. Vegan does not mean organic. Organic does not mean healthy. Local doesn't mean small.
  • Because they encompass such a diversity of priorities, it’s impossible to use any one of these designations as a proxy for overall merit.
  • You need to be clear about your own priorities, which may include a lot of things besides nutrition.

I’ve received a series of questions from listeners lately. While the specific topics were quite different, they all have a common root—confusion about what various food designations and certifications mean.

Rohit's question was about contaminants in protein powders.

I was recently researching which protein powder to buy and, to my shock, one of the brands I was looking at was rated worst in terms of contaminants (lead and cadmium.) This plant-based protein was certified USDA organic. Clearly, this label means nothing since they do not test for heavy metal contaminants. Why do we place so much importance on the USDA organic label if it does not protect us from contaminants?

Dennis was surprised to find that certified vegan products are often full of miscellaneous chemicals and artificial ingredients.

I have come to the conclusion that if I want to eat nutritious meals, avoiding processed foods, whether vegan or not, may be more important than seeking out certified vegan products.

Elaine’s question had to do with weight loss.

I’ve already cut gluten and dairy out of my diet. I'm not sure what else I can do to lose weight.

In each case, I think there’s some confusion about what various labels—such as organic, vegan, or gluten-free—do and don’t mean.

"Certified organic," for example, doesn't mean free of chemicals. It also doesn't mean more nutritious or healthier. It means that no synthetic chemical pesticides or fertilizers are added to the crops or the soils.

Certified organic doesn't mean free of chemicals. It also doesn't mean more nutritious or healthier.

The reason organic products can contain heavy metals—including cadmium, lead, and arsenic—is that these minerals are naturally occurring in the environment. Even though they're not added through fertilizers or pesticides, they exist in the soil. And the reason vegan protein powders are often higher in heavy metals than whey or egg-based protein powders is that plants tend to absorb these metals from the soil they're grown in. 

Similarly, the designation "vegan" does not mean healthier, more nutritious, or even more natural. It only means that no animal products are used. As Dennis points out, a lot of the certified vegan foods you’ll find on the shelf these days are highly-processed junk food.

Furthermore, eliminating gluten or dairy from your diet does not automatically lead to weight loss. Gluten-containing foods like breads, cookies, crackers, pasta, and other flour-based foods can contribute a lot of calories to your diet without a whole lot of nutrition. Cutting down on flour-based foods is actually not a bad strategy for losing weight, but not if you simply replace them all with gluten-free versions.

Eliminating gluten or dairy from your diet does not automatically lead to weight loss.

Because it’s not the gluten, per se, that’s the problem. Gluten-free products are often lower in fiber and higher in sugar and calories than their gluten-containing counterparts. In fact, people adopting a gluten-free diet for medical reasons often end up gaining weight.

Beware the health halo

Because we place a certain value on something being organic, vegan, local, sustainable, or gluten-free, these designations often enjoy a bit of a health halo. If we perceive them as being better for us in one aspect, we tend to think of them as better in every dimension.

But this is not at all the case. Certifications such as organic, vegan, or gluten-free mean only what they say. Vegan does not mean organic. Organic does not mean healthy. Local doesn't mean small. 

And because they encompass such a diversity of priorities, it’s impossible to objectively rank them or to use any one of these designations as a proxy for overall merit.  On the other hand, doing exhaustive research on every supplier and poring over the ingredient list for every food you buy is probably not realistic. So, you may be able to use one or more of these designations as a short-cut, to identify or weed out products that do or don’t fit your criteria.

So which ones should you pay attention to? You need to be clear on your own priorities, which may include a lot of things besides nutrition.

What are your food and nutrition priorities?

If reducing the use of and exposure to synthetic pesticides ranks highest on your list, then the organic certification may be most meaningful for you. If animal welfare is your overriding concern, then you might prioritize vegan or certified humane foods. If your primary goal is to support small local farmers, then shopping at your local farmer’s market or signing up for a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program will be more important than whether or not those farms are organic. If reducing food waste is a big concern, then you might prefer to patronize one of the services that rescue and reroute produce destined for the landfill, even if that produce is coming from large-scale growers. And if you have Celiac disease, that gluten-free designation will probably be more important than any other. 

But if your primary objective is to optimize your nutrient intake or manage your weight, then none of those designations will matter nearly as much as the nutrition facts. If you’re looking for foods that are higher in protein or fiber or lower in sugar or calories, a glance at the nutrition facts label will tell you a lot more than whether or not the product is organic, vegan, local, or gluten-free.

If I had a choice between nonorganic whole-grain bread from my local bakery and organic white bread from a national brand with an expiration date four weeks from now, the organic certification wouldn’t tip the scales for me.

You can narrow the candidates based on nutrition first and then consider other concerns. For example, you might first decide on legume-based pasta over rice-based pasta because the former is higher in protein and fiber. Then, if organic food is your secondary priority, you could look into finding an organic legume-based pasta brand. Or, you might choose conventional kale over organic iceberg, because kale is more nutrient-dense. At the same time, you might be willing to spend a little more for organic apples instead of conventional apples in order to give the bees a break.

Personally, I know if I had a choice between nonorganic whole-grain bread from my local bakery and organic white bread from a national brand with an expiration date four weeks from now, the organic certification wouldn’t tip the scales for me.

I realize there are a lot of things to consider when making food choices. But all of these decisions will be easier if you have some clarity on which attributes matter most to you and what the various certifications and designations do and don’t mean.

Need more help sorting it all out? Search the Nutrition Diva archives for answers to hundreds of common nutrition questions and dilemmas. And if you can't find what you're looking for, send an email to nutrition[at]quickanddirtytips.com or call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206 to leave me a voicemail. I may feature your question in an upcoming episode!

About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.