The Health Benefits of Organic Food - What’s the fuss?
One of the biggest controversies going on the health and nutrition front is whether organic food is worth the money?
It’s a question I’ve asked when faced with the choice in the supermarket. How do you decide between the cheaper conventional tomato in the bin and the more expensive organic version?
They look the same – sometimes the conventional one even looks a little better than the organic– bigger and brighter, if less tasty – or did I just imagine that? Are they the same? Are there, in fact, any benefits of organic food over conventionally raised eats?
What are the benefits of organic food over their conventional brethren? Is the additional cost and possible effort in finding worth it or are we fooling ourselves?
Studies show that consumers consider organic food the more virtuous on a number of fronts; some with merit (lower pesticide residues); some without (some people think foods labeled organic are lower in calories so they can eat more – Nope!). They are willing to shell out extra money for organic products supposedly on the basis that the benefits of organic food are worth paying for.
Food manufacturers, recognizing that consumers will pay a premium for organic fare, have hopped on the bandwagon and are providing more and more organic products – some, including organic cookies and organic sugared breakfast cereals, of questionable nutritional value, regardless of the organic label.
What are the health benefits of organic foods?
The Benefits of Organic Food – The Purported Health Advantages?
The two oft quoted health benefits of organic foods over conventional fare are that
In addition to the above health benefits of organic food, ethical and environmental reasons exist for switching.
These include a cleaner planet where synthetic chemicals, drugs and hormones don’t enter the eco system to contaminate water, soil and animals with myriad bad effects, sometimes for decades; as well as more sustainable farming practices that promote healthy soil and, in some instances, if not routinely, more ethical treatment of animals.
Let’s look at the above two health benefits of organic food –more nutrition and less health damaging synthetic chemicals in the food.
The Benefits of Organic Food – What are organic foods?
Before exploring whether the purported benefits of organic food are true, let’s define what we mean by “organic”.
Organic foods are generally ones that in the case of plants are grown without synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or other growth enhancers.
In the case of organically reared animals and their products, their feed will be organic as described above. As well, unlike conventional farming, livestock won’t be given routine antibiotics or growth hormones to enhance development or milk yields.
Basically….cows on steroids are okay in conventional farming but not in organic. Lest getting really off topic, I won’t mention anything about steroids and whether that’s okay for professional or amateur athletes.
Benefits of Organic Food – Production and Labeling Laws for Organic Food
In the last few decades, many of the major industrial countries including the US, the European Union, Canada, Australia and Japan have implemented legislation to regulate what is sold or marketed as organic and establish production and/or labeling regimes to regulate what foods can be called organic and, as importantly, what can’t be.
The idea behind most of the organic food legislation, in the case of plants and animal products, is to set minimum production standards and, in the case of processed foods, minimum ingredient requirements, for what constitute an organic food. Some of the rules, including those in the US, have inspection and reporting requirements for farmers who want their produce to qualify as organic and get permission to use the coveted organic label.
Generally, the goal of organic labeling laws is to ensure that consumers are not misled when a store or manufacture claims or labels something organic and that consumers really get the supposed benefits of organic food that they’ve bargained for.
Of course, we must still answer the question – what are the benefits of organic food and are they worth it?
Benefits of Organic Food - What Qualifies as Organic?
When it comes to organic food, a food can be organic if raised with
Benefits of Organic Food - What organic does NOT mean?
With the advent of organic food legislation and the industrialization of the organic food market, organic does not necessarily mean that your food will be, in the case of animals, free-range, pastured or grass fed, or for that matter that the animals will be treated ethically or given open space to roam free, like the picture of happily grazing cows in green pastures on your milk box might suggest.
Organic doesn’t guarantee your food will be local – it could still come from half way around the world in a refrigerated cargo hold of an airplane. This is increasingly the case with China having becoming one of the major providers of organic produce to the likes of retail giants like Costco and Walmart.
Organic does not mean your food was raised, harvested and transported with a small carbon foot print.
Neither does organic mean, your food will come from a small family owned farm with workers who are adequately paid or well treated. An organic label does not equal fair trade.
Also organic doesn’t absolve you from having to wash your vegetables and food prior to eating or follow good hygiene practices when preparing it.
With organic food, traditional fertilizers from manure and organic materials are used. Approved synthetic chemicals can also be, if approved. Organic produce, like conventional can contain good ol’ fashioned pathogens like e-coli, salmonella, listeria and others. These organisms don’t read labels, nor can some be ‘rinsed’ away. Washing, scrubbing and, where appropriate peeling, fruit and veg and in the case of meat, eggs and dairy, hygienic preparation and storage, is as important with organic foods as conventional.
|Benefits of Organic Food - The Certified Organic Label is Not a Virtue Label
If ethical and environmental and labour issues are important to you, look into the provenance of your food and buy fair trade labelled products or via a food co-op or farm where you know its buying or growing practices.
…. Since an organic label is not a virtue label, look into the provenance of your food, if ethical and environmental and labour issues are important to you, and I hope they are.
The Benefits of Organic Food – Is organic more nutritious than conventional food? The answer? Sometimes yes; sometimes no
The results of research into the nutritional benefits of organic foods over conventional food are mixed.
It appears that the nutritional advantage of organic over conventionally raised food is slight and depends on the type of food and the nutrient at issue. Organic may not be worth it, especially if you can find fresh conventionally grown vegetables from a local area farm of top quality.
From a nutritional perspective, those fresh conventional veg might beat out organic ones picked days or weeks previously and shipped from overseas.
Several studies have shown minor differences, if any, in the nutritional value of organic food over conventional. Here’s some of the mixed evidence.
It is perhaps not surprising that organic produce might have somewhat higher concentrations of health protective phytochemicals than conventional produce. Why you might ask?
Organic vegetables theoretically confront more pests, viruses, weeds, fungi and bacteria than their conventional cousins. Conventional fruits and vegetables raised with the aid of multiple application of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides live in a relatively pest, disease and fungus-free environment and, therefore, do not have the same need to develop protective nutrients like organic plants fending for themselves in a Darwinian world of nature.
…. It is these plant’s protective flavonoids, along with their antioxidant nutrients, that also protect us from disease and DNA damage. This is why a surfeit of fruits and vegetables and whole grains (whether organic or conventional) as part of a healthy balanced diet has been demonstrated repeatedly to boost the immune system and prevent disease.
While the nutritional differences may be minor between organic and conventional food, a January 2013 online study conducted by researchers and Southern Methodist University suggests that organic foods is intrinsically superior to its conventional cousins. Fruit flies fed an exclusively organic diet lived longer and were more fertile than those reared on the same conventionally grown food. Longevity and fertility are two major factors that relate to overall health. The researchers concluded that the results suggest tangible, if subtle advantages, to organic over conventional food and proposed further research.
Benefits of Organic Food - Many Variables Can Affect Nutrient Value – Organic growing methods are just one
The problem with comparing the nutritional differences between conventional and organic foods for difference that may be minor or disputed is that nutrient value of food depends on many variables, aside from whether it is organic or conventionally grown.
This includes when it was picked, the plant variety, how it was stored and transported, the soil content in which it was grown, weather conditions and other factors that make comparing organic and conventional foods an inevitable exercise of comparing apples and oranges.
Despite these variables the below organically raised food have been found in studies to contain higher concentrations of the following nutrients, although not all studies have been consistent:
As mentioned, organic rearing appears to increase the lycopene in tomatoes. There is persuasive evidence that men who have a high lycopene intake have a substantially lower risk of prostate cancer as well as a reduced risk of other cancers. Organic tomatoes seem to be the best choice, if you want a lycopene boost.
Mineral content may be a better reason for going organic than eating conventional fare because organic farming requires more attention to healthy soil management than conventional farming where chemical fertilizers are used to replenish soil instead of the practice of rotating crops and leaving fields fallow – staple techniques of organic farming that enhance soil quality. This plays out to the health of the plant because plants get their minerals from the soils in which they are grown. If soil is nutrient depleted, so will the plants grown in it and vice versa when it comes to mineral rich soil.
Benefits of Organic Food – What about Pesticides?
One of the most persuasive benefits of organic food appears to be the reduced pesticide residues.
So what’s wrong with pesticide residues in food? It’s an important question to ask because pesticides have been part of the Green Revolution that increased agricultural yields substantially post World War II. They have had a remarkable effect on the business of agriculture and providing lots of cheap food for millions – the issue of the environment and health effects aside.
A spokeswoman at an organic grape farm with whom I talked explained that her farm’s yields were approximately 30% less after shifting to organic from conventional farming. My research confirms this approximate figure. It’s not to say the farm isn’t economically better off or the same, after accounting for reduced pesticide/fertilizer costs and higher prices obtained for their certified organic produce, but reduced yields are important to note in full discussion of the benefits of organic foods versus conventional.
Unfortunately one of the biggest problems with pesticides is that they can have myriad damaging effects on the human body.
This is not rocket science. Pesticides (whether fungicides, herbicides, miticides or insecticides) are designed to kill organisms that attack plants. Not surprisingly there is a risk of residual damage to those organisms like us humans who spray, apply, transport and eat the end product that may contain trace amounts of these damaging substances. The regulations around the use, application and storage of pesticides and testing of produce to ensure maximum residue levels are not overreached attest to these dangers.
The Benefits of Organic Food – What’s wrong with pesticides and why you may want to reduce your load by eating organic?
Many of the common organophosphate pesticides used routinely in the US and elsewhere on fruits, grains and vegetables as well as on produce fed to livestock have powerful effects on humans.
Scientist are exploring the link between increase in use of pesticides that came with the green revolution after WWII where food production was transformed in our country and the
Many scientists are convinced that the pervasiveness of pesticides in our food and eco system generally have contributed towards the increase in these conditions.
Some of these effects of pesticides on health are because pesticides function as follows:
The Benefits of Organic Food – Regulations around Pesticides? The Weak Points in the Regulatory System
Because of the above concerns, most pesticides in the US are strictly controlled when it comes to their storage, dosing and application. Each is registered for use with specific produce at different times of the growth cycle etc. although there is disturbing anecdotal evidence that these rules aren’t followed consistently in the US. As for elsewhere, rules or enforcement can be minimal or non-existant.
Read Barry Eastbrook’s Tomatoland for a provocative, if less than appetizing, insight into the Florida tomato industry and several farmers’ flaunting of government pesticides controls to the detriment of farm workers, local farm communities’ health and, one wonders, the health of consumers.
As Cindy Burke in her even handed and practical guide on organic food To Buy or Not to Buy Organic explains, when it comes to pesticide residue in our food, the US government doesn’t try to limit our exposure to toxic chemicals through banning; instead it regulates their use, by determining “safe” residue levels allowable on our food.
While the residue of these pesticides may be minimal or trace in the food we buy, there is little scientific information about how much of a pesticide residue is safe in humans, if any.
This is the weakness of the US regulatory approach. Establishing these accurate levels would involve long term epidemiological studies, many of which don’t exist for many approved pesticides. Many are too new for this; others were grandfathered before current regulations came into effect.
Experiments on humans to determine safe residue levels would be unethical. Much of the evidence for the controls comes from lab experiments on animals, which prove these substances are toxic to living organisms at some levels – the question remaining how much is too much for humans?
The result is the government stated “safe levels” of many of these pesticides are in fact arbitrary – not comforting when it comes to my and my daughter’s health.
| Benefits of Organic Food -Health Conditions linked to Pesticide Exposure
Aside from the levels, the testing the US government does of food samples are spot checks for pesticide residues. Only a small fraction of food is tested for compliance each year. In other countries where many of these chemicals along with ones banned in the US, the controls and enforcement are less or non-existant.
For instance, DDT while banned for decades in Europe and US, is permitted along with other banned pesticides in many African and South American countries from where the food in my supermarket increasingly comes.
While there are no widespread studies showing that health-wise conventional food is extensively worse than organic food, due to pesticide residues; this too would be hard to study given all the other variables related and unrelated to diet that can affect the advent of cancer, neurological problems, autoimmune disease etc. Despite this, clusters of cancers and birth defects have been tracked in farm workers and others exposed to these pesticides in their application, albeit in greater amounts than those to which a consumer would be exposed by eating supermarket grapes with pesticide residues.
Studies have linked exposure to organophosphate pesticides to the following:
As mentioned, many of these pesticides, whether herbicides, fungicides, or insecticides, are designed to kill organisms – it’s why there are strict controls on their use. They are poisons! It’s not crazy conjecture that these substances, even minor so called “safe” amounts, over time and with repeated exposure by way of putting in my mouth and digesting, may have an effect on my health or that of my family.
I am not convinced that the government determined “safe” levels for pesticides are necessarily safe when my and my child’s exposure may be over decades and during all her significant growth periods.
I don’t want to find out that the US government, who represents not just my interests but equally the economic interests of industry with greater lobbying clout in Washington DC than I, got it wrong.
One does not need to be a conspiracy theorist crank to appreciate the economic realities between my personal health and the interests of agri-business and chemical manufactures. It happened with DDT. With globalization of the food supply, any government controls over my food may be diluted anyway.
Benefits of Organic Food -Carcinogen - any substance that causes or promotes cancer. “Possible carcinogens” are those substances that lab studies show cause cancer. “Known carcinogens” are those that both lab and epidemiological studies show are cancer causing.
Benefits of Organic Food – How Best to Avoid Pesticide Residues?
So what’s a shopper … a parent… a lover of fresh kale to do….?
Growing your own is great for some – although not an option for me and many others. Although, if inclined to garden, check out this Ted Talk from by Ron Finley A Guerrilla Urban Gardener in South East L.A. who’s managed to grow fresh produce in an urban desert, unlike anything you could imagine.
Going totally organic is not an option for everyone, either because of availability or the cost of organic food.
With this in mind, it is important as a consumer to understand which foods might leave you at higher risk for exposure to pesticide residues than others.
Another factor to consider in buying organic or not is who, among us, is most vulnerable to pesticide residues and, therefore, would be wise to limit exposure.
|Getting the Benefits of Organic Food - Factors to Consider when Buying Organic.
Benefits of Organic Food - Who is most vulnerable to pesticides?
When we talk about harm from pesticide residues in our food, generally we are talking about minor or trace levels, the health effects of which will be incremental – small amounts of exposure over long periods but that can accumulate to substantial exposure over a childhood, a pregnancy or a life time especially during significant growth stages.
It’s why some scientists talk
about your “pesticide load” similar to radiation exposure for nuclear power and
x ray technicians – small amounts may be okay on their own; however, the danger is incremental and arises from repeated minor exposures.
The problem when determining acceptable loads or safe levels is that there is no one safe level for everyone. Each person’s physiology and life circumstances are unique.
A person may have a higher or lower
tolerance to the effects of pesticides depending on her health, age, body mass and other
factors including diet, pregnancy and developmental
stage and functioning of organ systems
including the endocrine,
neurological or nervous systems.
It’s why any attempt to set on universal “safe” level of pesticide residue exposure for everyone may be pointless.
Benefits of Organic Food – Who is at Risk for Pesticide Residue Exposure?
Children are some of the most
vulnerable to the effects of pesticides. First, the younger a person, the smaller their
body mass. Effectively, the closer children approximate insect size the greater
their vulnerability. Second, a child and
teenager’s organs, including brain and nervous systems, are still developing.
These factors mean that the same pesticide residues in a food can affect a
child profoundly more than an adult who is large and has fully developed organs.
The corollary of that is that older people or those with a weakened immune system by illness or other factors including impaired liver or kidney function may be at greater risk from the effects of pesticide residues than younger healthier people.
Benefits of Organic Food - Who is High Risk to Effects of Pesticide Exposure?
Pregnancy is a particularly vulnerable time during which the foetus is at grave risk to the effects of toxins including pesticides. The thalidomide tragedy made it clear that the chemicals to which the mother is exposed affect the unborn.
Pesticides, with their potential for neurotoxic, endocrine disruptive and carcinogenic effect, should be avoided but especially among groups most at risk to their damaging effects.
Benefits of Organic Food – Does Consuming Organic Food Decrease Your Pesticide Load?
Does consuming organic decrease your pesticide load?
It appears it does and that the effects of reduced pesticides can be rapid once you shift to an organic diet.
In a 2006 study by a Harvard professor Chensheng (Alex) Lu found that pesticide metabolites in urine dropped significantly and rapidly from detectable to non-detectable levels among children who shifted from conventional to organic food.
He tested the urine of 23 young children over 15 days for metabolites that are markers of exposure to organophosphate pesticides – a type used widely in agriculture. Researchers found no detectible pesticide level in the kids’ urine when they were on the organic diet for 5 days. When the kids resumed a conventional diet, urine metabolite levels returned rapidly to pre-organic detectable levels.
The study showed two benefits of organic food –
|Benefits of Organic Food Within 5 days of switching to organic food from conventional, metabolites of organophosphate pesticides can go to undetectable levels in urine.|
The Benefits of Organic Food – When Some Organic Foods May Not Be Organic
Pesticide residues can be found on organic foods, although considerably less than on conventional food.
How could this happen, you may ask?
While it’s nearly impossible to eliminate all contamination from outside sources, the advantage of organic food is that it contains less contamination than conventional varieties.
The science suggests that 30% to 40% of conventional produce is contaminated with detectable pesticide residue; organic food contains an average of 7%. Even with an organic diet, we still must talk about pesticide load. Welcome to the 21st Century!
The Benefits of Organic Food – What Foods Are More Prone to Pesticide Residues?
One thing that seems clear when it comes to pesticides on crops is that certain foods contain more pesticide residues than others. The USDA publishes data from their spot checking of certain produce every several years, showing the relatively wide difference in pesticide residues among the different varieties of produce.
The range reflects a number of factors including the type and amount of pesticide used on different produce as well as how often and at what stage of production the produced is sprayed. Whether a food is grown in the soil like potatoes or on a vine above ground or within a protective rind make a difference on what pesticide you find in your food in the grocery store. Some foods are sprayed multiple times during growing process – others less so. The result is that some conventional food has proportionally much higher pesticide levels than others.
Knowing which are low pesticides foods and probably okay to buy in the conventional version; and which foods are high pesticide foods and may be worth the extra money to buy organic is useful.
The Benefits of Organic Food – What Foods are Worth Buying Organic or Conventional – The Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen
As a consumer, how do you sort through this data and figure out which fruit and veg are less risky when it comes to pesticide residue?
The Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org), a not-for-profit organization, has simplified this task by publishing the Dirty Dozen – the 12 foods with the top levels of pesticides, based on government stats. The list is often supplemented with a couple more species to be careful about. Depending on the numbers, the Dirty Dozen may be the Mean Fourteen.
The Dirty Dozen are the ones to consider buying organic as opposed to conventional. They are in order kale/collard greens, summer squash, apples, celery, tomatoes, cucumber, grapes, hot peppers, nectarines (imported), peaches, potatoes, spinach, strawberries and sweet bell peppers.
The EWG also has a Clean Fifteen list of the 15 fruits and vegetables known to have the lowest pesticide residues. These fruits and veg you can buy conventionally and know your risk of pesticide residue exposure is likely minor. These include asparagus, avocado, cabbage, cantaloupe, sweet corn, eggplant, grape fruit, kiwi, mangoes, mushrooms, onions, papaya, pineapple, sweet peas (frozen) and sweet potatoes.
|Measuring the Benefits of Organic -The Dirty Dozen (In fact The Mean Fourteen)
*Kale and summer squash have been identified as particularly tainted and are listed in addition to the dirty dozen – hence the list perhaps is better termed the mean fourteen. In the prior , tomatoes and … were identified as being particularly tainted.
| Measuring the Benefits of Organic - The Clean Fifteen
There you have it … a guide to make the right decisions in the supermarket when it comes to reducing exposure to potentially harmful pesticides.
The Benefits of Organic Food – No GMO seed used
While a discussion of the competing advantages/disadvantages of GMO versus non-GMO crops is beyond the scope of this page, the US organic rules mandate that non-GMO seeds be used in organic food.
Why would you care?
| Getting the Benefits of Organic Food -Ways to Avoid Pesticides
Often GMO seeds are bred to resist pests and different diseases better than their non-GMO cousins. It follows that the pest-resistant plants grown from genetically modified don’t need the same disease fighting substances and may develop fewer of these protective nutrients.
Since these plant chemicals including phenols and other substances can confer benefits on people who eat them – GMO produce, at least in this specific instance, may therefore not be as nutritious. Obviously, more research is needed before generalizing on all GMO crops but the hypothesis is worth examining.
Another concern about GMO crops is that they may represent a melding of species on a genetic level. This can pose a problem for people with allergies to certain foods including soy, corn and nightshade family of vegetables. You may not realize that your tomato may contain elements of the corn plant – a problem if you have an allergy to corn.
The Benefits of Organic Food – No Growth Hormones
In the US growth hormone has been routinely added in conventional dairy farming since 1980’s in order to increase milk yields. It is used in many developing countries like Brazil, Costa Rica and South Africa.
Organic milk does not contain added growth hormones RBST (recombinant bovine somatropin) or RBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) in milk production.
Canada, Australia and the European Union have banned its use, not for reasons of human health but for the health effects on the animals. While RBGH increases milk yields, it also increases significantly the risk of cows getting mastitis, an infection of the mammary gland. RBGH herds inevitably require antibiotics on a preventative basis to combat this increased risk of infection.
Aside from the effects on animal welfare, there is reason to be cautious about added hormones. Endocrine hormones (and these include estrogen, testosterone, thyroid hormone and insulin) work in feedback loops with the presence or absence of one hormone triggering release of other hormones. Hormones, whether natural or synthetic, can have powerful and unexpected effects on our bodies’ function and development.
Introducing added hormones can disrupt your overall hormone balance with unintended health consequences, some long term. HRT and hormone replacement therapy along with other hormone drugs like the birth control pill are a testament to hormones' profound effects on the human body even in small amounts.
It’s important to be especially cautious with children who can ingest, relative to body weight, large amounts of dairy or meat in various forms. While not established, it’s hypothesized that growth hormones may be one of the factors for the decreased age at which girls start menstruating today. Greater body weight and levels of childhood obesity are also implicated for the lower age.
The bottom line …. avoid synthetic hormones in you and your family’s diet whether by buying organic or sourcing hormone free products. You don’t necessarily need to buy organic to do this.
As mentioned, Canada has banned the use of synthetic growth hormone including, as has Europe. Hormone free milk is widely available in many areas of the US. In some states, like Massachusetts most of the conventional dairy is produced without added hormones. It will say so on the label.
When it comes to meat, free range or grass fed beef or lamb often has no added hormones even if it is not certified organic. The label or butcher can often give you this information.
The Benefits of Organic Foods – No Routine Antibiotics
One of the mainstays of conventional factory livestock production is the routine use of prophylactic antibiotics. This means animals are given antibiotics to prevent, as opposed to treat, illness.
In the US, according to the FDA the agricultural sector as of 2011 is the largest consumer of antibiotics using 80% of antibiotics produced.
Crowded pig, cattle and chicken housing as well as RBGH lead to higher rates of infection that can spread easily to a farm’s entire herd; to prevent this conventional farmers use antibiotics prophylactically.
When it comes to human health, experts have long recognized that overuse of antibiotics (whether consumed directly or via our food) can have a bad long term effect on the immune system, destroying the balance of gut bacteria needed for proper digestion, to say nothing about promoting the rise of antibiotic resistant diseases. An imbalance in gut bacteria can leave a person susceptible to overgrowth of unhelpful bacteria, which can, in turn, lead to leaky gut syndrome, poor liver detoxification, allergies and a spiral of health problems.
Furthermore, overuse of antibiotics leads to antibiotic resistant diseases as well as contamination of the environment due to these pharmaceuticals entering the eco-system to affect fish, water, animals and ourselves.
While the certified organic label will ensure that antibiotics are not used in your food; sometimes you can source, meat, eggs or diary that, while not organic, are from animals not fed antibiotics. The label usually states this.
Benefits of Organic Food – Without the Organic Label
One thing to keep in mind is there are many small or local farms that have decided to eschew official organic certification, due to the expense, administrative hassle or other concerns.
If you know your farmer or the provenance of your food, something that is possible if you buy at certain groceries, COOPs and farmers markets or farms where they pride themselves on providing this information.
Many farmers farm sustainably with minimal or no synthetic chemicals but are not certified organic.
The Benefits of Organic Food – A Final Thought
Know what’s in your food – because it will soon be you.
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