than conventional alternatives?
You're trying to eat healthy, and you know that means choosing plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein. But as you wander the aisles of your local market, checking out the fresh produce, meats, and dairy products, you realize there's another choice to make: Should you buy organic?
And more and more shoppers seem convinced. Even though organic food typically costs more --sometimes a lot more -- sales are steadily increasing.
"We've had a strong 20%-a-year growth rate since 1990," says Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association (OTA). She also says more land is going into organic production all the time -- up to 2.35 million acres in 48 states as of 2001.
But many experts say there's not enough evidence to prove any real advantage to eating organic foods.
"There's really very limited information in people on actual health outcomes with consumption of these products," says David Klurfeld, PhD, chairman of the department of Nutrition and Food Science at Wayne State University in Detroit. "We don't know enough to say that one is better than the other."
So, before you decide whether organic food is worth the price of admission, let me give you my two cents worth...
The simple answer is yes. Organically grown fruits and vegetables are not exposed to the harsh pesticides that are used (often every week) on conventionally grow foods. Pesticides in general, have been shown to negatively impact human health, so therefore organic foods are safer.
Now for the harder question, are organics more nutritious? The answer here may surprise many of you. The answer is actually yes and no! Hundreds of studies have been reviewed and researchers didn’t find significant differences for most of the traditional nutrients like vitamins and minerals. They concluded that despite the widespread perception that organically produced foods are more nutritious, they didn’t find robust evidence to support that perception. They did, however, find higher levels of important phytonutrients in organic. This is where the real health advantage is!
These so-called “secondary metabolites” of plants are behind many of the benefits ascribed to eating fruits and vegetables. In fact, many healthcare professionals are now considering the phytonutrients to be even more important than the vitamins and minerals in our foods. Organic fruits and vegetables had between 19 and 69% more of a variety of these antioxidant compounds. The theory many subscribe to is that these phytonutrients are created by the plant for its own protection. For example, broccoli releases the bitter compounds like sulforaphane when the plant is nibbled on, to ward off those who might want to eat it. Bugs take one bite and say, “Ew, this tastes like broccoli!” But pesticide-laden plants are bitten less by bugs and so may be churning out fewer of these compounds. Plants raised organically, on the other hand, are in a fight for their lives and may necessarily have to produce more protection. Some researchers disagree and they insist that we don’t have good evidence to back it up. They suggest a more likely reason has to do with the fertilizer; plants given high dose synthetic nitrogen fertilizers may divert more resources to growth rather than defense. Personally, I tend to believe that a fair amount of both lines of thinking is correct.
These antioxidants may protect the plant, but what about us? More antioxidant phytonutrients are found in organic vegetables and so yes, they displayed more antioxidant activity, but also more antimutagenic activity. Researchers exposed bacteria to a variety of mutagenic chemicals like benzopyrene, the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon found in barbecued meat, or IQ, the heterocyclic amine found in grilled/broiled/fried meats (as well as cigarette smoke), and there were fewer DNA mutations in the petri dishes where they added organic vegetables compared to the petri dishes where they added conventional vegetables. Preventing DNA damage in bacteria is one thing, but what about effects on actual human cells? Well, organic strawberries certainly taste better, and have higher antioxidant activity, and more phenolic phytonutrients, but what happens when you stack them up head-to-head against human cancer cells?
Extracts from organically grown strawberries suppressed the growth of colon cancer cells and breast cancer cells significantly better than extracts from conventional strawberries. Now this was dripping strawberries onto cancer cells growing in a petri dish, but as I often said, lab results may differ in clinical trials. Still, there are real life circumstances in which strawberries come into direct contact with cancerous and precancerous lesions, and so presumably organic strawberries would work even better, but they haven’t yet been tested in those particular ways in clinical trials as of yet.
Although in vitro studies show higher antioxidant and antimutagenic activity as well as better inhibition of cancer cell proliferation, enough clinical studies on the impact of eating organic on human disease and disease prevention, simply has not yet been done. Based on antioxidant phytonutrient levels, organic produce must be considered 20 to 40% healthier, the equivalent of adding one or two serving’s worth to a five-a-day regimen. But organic produce may be 40% more expensive, so for the same money could you just buy the extra servings worth of conventional produce? Perhaps but then you are missing out on the increased amount of phytonutrients that organics offer. From a purely vitamin and mineral-per-dollar standpoint, it’s not clear that organic foods are any better. But people often buy organic foods to avoid chemicals, not because they are more nutritious.
Happily, doing so just got easier. A recent review of 343 studies published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that organic foods are more healthful than conventional foods, mainly because the former contain higher concentrations of antioxidants, while the latter contain higher levels of the toxic metal cadmium.
What’s so special about antioxidants? According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), antioxidants are man-made or natural substances that can prevent or delay cell damage, which lowers the risk of certain diseases. Fruits and vegetables are rich sources of antioxidants, but organic fruits and vegetables are especially filled with these helpful molecules.
Primarily, antioxidants combat free radicals, which can cause “oxidative stress” – a process that has been shown to play a role in the development of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other conditions, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Some of the best food sources for antioxidants include fruits and vegetables rich in vitamin C (strawberries, broccoli, kale), vitamin E (nuts, spinach, canola oil), beta carotene (carrots, sweet potatoes, peas), and lycopene (watermelon, pink grapefruit, tomatoes).
On the flip side, what’s so bad about cadmium? First of all, it’s present in cigarette smoke. If that’s not enough, chronic inhalation or oral exposure to cadmium can cause kidney disease, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). On its website, the EPA notes that for non-smokers, food is the largest source of cadmium exposure and that cadmium levels in foods can be increased by the use of fertilizers or sewage sludge on farm fields. The EPA considers cadmium a probable human carcinogen, and yet it pervades our food supply.
Dr. Charles Benbrook, co-author of the recent study, said that buying organic is “the surest way of limiting exposure” to toxins, but people should increase their intake of fruits and vegetables regardless of how they are grown. Yet should they do so with a guilty conscience? That conventionally grown strawberry might not taste so good with the knowledge that it is nutritionally inferior.
We know that organic foods are safer and healthier, and now we know why. Yet toxic pesticides, insecticides, fertilizers, fungicides and other dangerous farming practices persist – unnecessarily, in my opinion. One of the reasons scientists think organic fruits and vegetables are higher in antioxidants is precisely because they produce more of these substances to ward off insects and other environmental threats. They adapt to their surroundings naturally rather than artificially, kind of like humans. Left to their own devices, it turns out fruits and vegetables are pretty darn smart.
Defenders of conventionally grown crops have argued that any pesticide residues found on their products are too small to pose a health risk. This is probably true if you eat just one carrot or just one pepper. But what about all the many carrots and peppers eaten over a lifetime? We know little to nothing about the long-term effects of sustained exposure to small amounts of pesticide residue, or the health consequences of eating genetically modified and engineered foods. So, I have to admit that I am not interested in being a test dummy, and you shouldn’t be either.
Here’s what we do know: Pesticide residues have an accumulative affect. Beginning in the womb, our many chemical exposures stay with us throughout our lives, according to the Pesticide Action Network North America. This is our chemical body burden. We are exposed to such substances not just in dirty food, but also in dirty air, water and soil, largely because of the toxins sprayed and applied on our farms.
So, bottom line, what should we do? In my opinion, we should all be buying and growing organic fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and herbs. If anyone asks you why, explain proudly. Support organic farmers. Repeat as necessary.
If you want to learn more about this subject, and what we can all do about it please pick up a copy of my latest book: The Vegetable Imperative, it is available at my website, on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere.
I still have more to say on this issue, if you want more just click 'Read More' below.
Before October 2002, states followed varying rules for certifying and labeling organic products. But now all organic foods are grown and processed according to strict national standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. To meet these standards, organic crops must be produced without conventional pesticides (including herbicides), synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. Organically raised animals must be given organic feed and be kept free of growth hormones and antibiotics. Organic farm animals must have access to the outdoors, including pastureland for grazing.
If a food has a "USDA organic" label, it contains at least 95 percent organic ingredients, and a government-approved expert has inspected the farm where it was produced to make sure the farmer follows USDA requirements.
"Before the standards went into effect, you never knew what you were getting," says Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD, director of nutrition for the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic. "My comment to people always used to be, 'Buyer beware,' so I'm thrilled that now we as consumers can be confident that when we buy something organic, it really does adhere to certain established standards."
I answered this above but for those of you who need to hear it again, let’s review. "If you're talking about pesticides, the evidence is pretty conclusive. Your chances of getting pesticide residues are much less with organic food," says John Reganold, professor of soil science at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash.
Reganold points to a large-scale study done by the Consumers Union. Researchers looked at data from more than 94,000 food samples and 20 different crops. They found that organically grown crops consistently had about one-third as many pesticide residues as the conventionally grown versions. Organic foods also were far less likely to contain residues of more than one pesticide.
Even so, the amount of man-made pesticide residues found in conventional foods is still well below the level that the Environmental Protection Agency has deemed unsafe. If you trust the EPA then the only real issue is whether these small doses, over years and decades, might add up to an increased health risk down the line. That is also a concern for those of us not convinced that the EPA’s information is reliable.
"Is it going to make a difference? I don't know," says Reganold. "But it's something to think about, and we're the guinea pigs. Like it or not, we are the guinea pigs."
Man-made pesticides aren't the only threats to food safety. There is also the question of natural toxins produced by the plants themselves. In this arena, conventional foods may actually have the advantage. Because organic production steers clear of synthetic insecticides and herbicides, organic crops usually contend with more pests and weeds than conventional crops. This means the organic plants may produce more natural toxins. I find this to be perfectly fine since many of the plant toxins are actually beneficial to human beings in the amounts that are produced in the plants.
"Plants can't get up and walk away. If they're being attacked, they've got to sit there and take it. So, they may resort to their own chemical warfare," explains Carl Winter, director of the FoodSafe program and an extension food toxicologist at the University of California, Davis.
Again, in most cases these natural plant toxins are safe to humans, but some of these natural pesticides could be just as harmful to people -- or even more so -- than the synthetic pesticides used in conventional agriculture. One familiar example is solanine, a substance produced by potatoes as they turn green, which can make you pretty darn sick if you ingest too much of it – but you needn’t worry too much about this as you will usually not eat enough green-turning potatoes to ingest too much solanine .
Another safety concern that has been raised about organic food is the issue of manure fertilizers. Some critics fear that using manure to fertilize organic crops might increase the risk of contamination by dangerous microbes like E. coli.
"The organic farmers talk about the soil being more alive on organic farms than conventional farms. That life isn't just insects and worms; it's loaded with bacteria," says Klurfeld. But organic production standards do include strict rules on the composting and application of manure. And there's little evidence that organic food has bacterial contamination more often than conventional food.
"The organic system is the only one with agricultural standards that prohibit the use of raw manure within a certain time frame between harvests of crops for human consumption," says the Organic Trade Association's DiMatteo. She adds that bacterial contamination usually happens because of improper handling after the food has left the farm, and conventional food is just as likely, if not more likely, to be affected.
“Remember, composting with and application of, manure is not a new thing. Our ancient ancestors have been doing this for eons, and we are still all here!”
– Joe Urbach, The Phytonutrient Blog
Whether the issue is bad bacteria or pesticide residues, experts agree that the best way to safeguard yourself is to thoroughly rinse all fruits and vegetables under running water. You should even wash items with inedible skins, like melons and citrus fruits, because cutting the rind with a knife can bring contaminants to the inside.
Is Organic Food Worth the Cost?
Look, this is a question that we all must decide for ourselves. For me the answer is a resounding YES. If you have not made up your mind yet you might also want to consider the following…
Whether or not organic food really is safer or more nutritious, advocates say there is one more compelling reason to go organic: The health of the environment and society as a whole.
"Toxic and persistent pesticides do accumulate. They accumulate in the soil; they accumulate in the water; they accumulate in our bodies, this is all pollution." says DiMatteo. "So, by eliminating the use of these pesticides and fertilizers in the organic production system, we are not contributing any further to this pollution."
But food experts caution that while the big picture is important, you must make the decision that makes the most sense for you. If you can manage the higher price, and you like the idea of fewer pesticides and a more environmentally friendly production system, organic food may be for you. But don't skimp on healthy conventional foods just because you think you need to save your pennies for the few organic items that you can afford. It can be a real balancing act.
"The best thing you can do for yourself is to eat lots of fruits and vegetables and grains. And eat variety. From my perspective, it doesn't matter whether they are organic or conventional, just eat more fruits and vegetables and less pre-processed foods!" – Joe Urbach, The Phytonutrient Blog.
If you like the idea of organic foods but aren't ready to go completely organic, you can always pick and choose. Depending on your own needs and goals, here are a few items you might want to put on your list.
If you are most interested in reducing pesticides in your food, buy organic versions of foods whose conventional forms may carry high levels of pesticide residues. These include:
- Green peas
- Green beans
- Green onions (scallions)
- Summer and winter squash
If you are most interested in promoting the growth of organic farming, buy organic foods that require large expanses of cropland and pasture, such as:
- Other grains
- Dairy foods and beef
If you're interested in more natural conditions for farm animals and fewer antibiotics and hormones, buy products from organically raised livestock and poultry, such as: