An Organic Ordeal
Published On September 5, 2012
By Bryce Wylde
Is Organic Food Healthier?
Somebody get me a spindoctor!
You couldn't miss the headlines this week, "Organic food is not healthier" "Little evidence of health benefits from organics" "Scientists question advantages of organic meat and produce." It's enough to make people wonder whether there is any benefit of buying organic. But before you make the switch, let's take a closer look at what the study really found and what other scientists say are the benefits of organic meat and produce.
Most people who buy organic are probably not making that choice, thinking they are getting more (ie vitamins and minerals) than they would in non-organic fruits and vegetables. Indeed todays savvy shopper wants less, far less. What organic shoppers are looking for is that produce is free of toxic pesticides and meat and dairy that are not pumped full of growth hormones and antibiotics. The study addresses those issues but most mainstream media seemed to have missed the message.
Here is the study. Researchers at Stanford University reviewed 17 human studies and 223 studies of nutrient and contaminant levels in unprocessed foods including; fruits, vegetables, milk, eggs, chicken, pork, red meat and grains. What they found is that conventional produce has a 30 percent higher risk for pesticide contamination than organic produce, and conventionally raised chicken and pork have a 33 percent higher risk for contamination with bacteria that is resistant to three or more antibiotics, than organic products. Organic farming excludes or strictly limits the use of manufactured fertilizers, pesticides (which include herbicides, insecticides and fungicides), plant growth regulators such as hormones, livestock antibiotics, food additives, and genetically modified organisms.
Something the researchers didn't examine in any appreciable way was the difference in levels of many of the phytonutrients that we know have tremendous health benefit. They did look at vitamins, minerals and phenols, but for the most part there were many antioxidants that are measureable that weren't compared. They also didn't properly get into flavonoids and polyphenols (like resveratrol) nor isoflavones. These constituents are naturally higher in organic produce as they are the natural defence mechanisms that plants use to fight off fungus and other microbes. Research shows that some of them also last longer when from an organic product. When fruits and vegetables aren't sprayed, the only way for the plants to survive is to increase these antioxidants - they're inherent natural defenses. Some of these important phytonutrients include: Inositol Phosphates (Phytates); Lignans (Phytoestrogens); Isothiocyanates and Indoles; Phenols and Cyclic Compounds; Saponins; Sulfides, Thiols; and Terpenes. Here is a great article that goes into more detail.
Another study in 2008 looked at the levels of pesticide residues in the diet, especially the diets of infants and children in the United States. What they discovered is that pesticide residue levels seemed to spike in the winter months, when most of the fresh fruits and vegetables are imported. For example, the levels found in sweet bell peppers pushed the risk index from 132 in the summer to 720 in the winter, for lettuce it jumps from 54 in the summer to 326 in the winter. Researchers say while there are probable links between adult exposure to pesticides and diabetes, cancer and age-related neurological disease like Alzheimer’s, the evidence isn't strong enough yet to make a solid connection. But they say, what is known is that for pregnant women, fathers-to-be and children under the age of 12, there is stronger evidence of a connection between pesticide exposure and babies not being carried to full term, underweight babies, and a higher risk of birth defects. They say the strongest benefits from avoiding pesticide exposure begin about 6-months before conception and run right through young adulthood, because they say, some of the health effects of pesticide exposure early on in life, will have an impact throughout a person's life because the exposures increase the risk of chronic diseases. The report concludes that if pesticides were substantially reduced in our diets, the rates for several birth defects would drop by as much as one-quarter!
Another 2008 scientific report by the Collaborative on Health and the Environment concludes that reduced exposure to pesticides would reduce the rates for mental retardation and ADHD and suggests the positive impact for millions of children could be significant by addressing the issue and "surely will be well worth the effort."
When it comes to most dairy products, cows are often treated with the synthetic hormone rBGH (also known as recombinant bovine somatotropin, or rBST). The World Health Organization, the US Food and Drug Administration, and numerous medical associations say that milk and meat from rBGH-treated cows is safe for human consumption, but not everyone agrees. Sale of the hormone rBGH has been blocked in Canada, Europe and other countries. And many doctors, scientists and natural-food advocates believe cows injected with the hormone are not as healthy as untreated cows and consumption might lead to health problems including early-onset puberty and several forms of cancer.
Organic farming excludes or strictly limits the use of manufactured fertilizers, pesticides (which include herbicides, insecticides and fungicides), plant growth regulators such as hormones, livestock antibiotics, food additives, and genetically modified organisms. Chensheng Lu, who studies environmental health at the Harvard School of Public Health, says it's "premature" to conclude organic meat and produce isn't any healthier than non-organic versions. He says people should consider pesticide exposure in their grocery-shopping decisions. "If I was a smart consumer, I would choose food that has no pesticides. I think that's the best way to protect your health." Here is a great consumer website for more information on all things organic.
Organic Trade Association CEO Christine Bushway says what the Stanford study says to her, is that “consumers seeking to minimize their exposure to pesticide residues will find that foods bearing the USDA Organic label are the gold standard. This is because organic foods have the least chemicals applied in their production and the least residues in the final products.” “And, because organic livestock practices forbid the use of antibiotics, including the routine use of low level antibiotics for growth, organic meat contains less antibiotic-resistant bacteria.” more
The Environmental Working Group, a non-profit health advocacy organization, has put together a list called “The Dirty Dozen,” that lists the 12 fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticide residues. It also lists “The Clean 15,” the fruits and vegetables with the lowest levels.