From the editor: Many patients ask me if eating organic is really that much healthier. Today, Dr. Walter Crinnion, ND shows us exactly why organic foods really are better and how they are affecting our health.
1. Organic Foods Have Fewer Pesticide Residues than Commercial Foods
In the United States, 1.2 billion pounds of pesticides are sprayed per year with an annual cost of $11 billion, while the total world pesticide use exceeded 5.0 billion pounds in 2000 and 2001 (for a combined total of $64.5 billion). That should take care of all those nasty bugs!
But, less than 0.01 percent of all those billions of pounds that are sprayed actually make it to the intended pest! Oops. Kind of surprising that such an inefficient system is still in use today, isn’t it?
It probably wouldn’t be so bad if the pesticides were only harmful to a few bugs, but they are not.
All pesticides kill bugs by poisoning their nervous systems (think “brain” and “nerves”). Today the bulk of pesticides used are either organophosphates or pyrethroids. Organophosphates came out of nerve gas research in Germany between the first and second world wars.
This is also the same class of compounds that was released into a Tokyo subway a number of years ago by a cult group. So, if you are concerned at all about your brain, your children’s brains and the brains of our elected officials and everyone driving cars on the road around you, then maybe you want to help to start reducing the 99.99 percent of the 1.2 billion pounds of neurotoxic pesticides that are floating around because you decided to save a buck by buying a commercially raised apple.
While no pesticides or herbicides are used to grow crops that are certified organic, the idea that these crops are free of insecticide residue is actually not true.
Those that are raised in open fields are open to the air and get contamination from pesticides and heavy metals that are blowing around. And these pesticides have been shown to fly around the globe, traveling thousands of miles.
However, it is true that organically raised foods are significantly less contaminated with these chemicals than the same foods grown in non-organic methods (including integrated pest management systems). The levels of pesticide residue on foods in the United States is monitored through the Pesticide Data Program of the US Department of Agriculture , along with data from Consumers Union and the California State Residue Monitoring Program of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation reported that organically raised foods had 1/3 the amount of chemical residues that were found in conventionally raised foods.
When compared to those grown with integrated pest management techniques, the organics had 1/2 the amount of residues. In addition, organic foods were far less likely (by a factor of 10) to have 2 or more residues on them than conventional foods were. While only 2.6% of all organic foods had multiple residues detected, 26% of the conventional did.
Data from the Pesticide Data Program revealed that the conventional produce that had the highest percentages of positive (insecticide residue) findings were:
- celery (96%)
- pears (95%)
- apples (94%)
- peaches (93%)
- strawberries (91%)
- oranges (85%)
- spinach (84%)
- potatoes (81%)
- grapes (78%)
- cucumbers (74%)
That study found that an average of 82% of all conventional fruits were positive for insecticide residues while only 23% of the organics were. When it came to vegetables, 65% of the conventional tested positive, compared to only 23% for the organics.
The fruits and vegetables with the highest and lowest percentages of residues in the USDA study is very similar to the listing of the most and least toxic foods that is available on the web through Environmental Working Group .
The current list given by them lists the top 12 most toxic fruits and vegetables as (in order of toxicity):
- Bell Pepper
- Grapes (Imported)
And the least toxic ones as:
- Sweet Corn
- Sweet Peas
- Sweet Potato
Not only have repeated studies shown that organic foods have lower levels of insecticides, but there is also now clear evidence showing lower pesticide levels in the actual consumers of the organic foods (ie. You!).
It started with a simple study that looked at the organophosphate pesticide presence in the urine of preschoolers in the Seattle area. The researchers found that all but one child had pesticide residue in their urine (which meant it was in their bloodstream, as well).
When they questioned the parents of this one child, they learned that they only fed organic food to their children. So, the researchers began to plan another study to see if eating organic foods really did lower one’s pesticides levels. Well, their follow-up study with preschoolers proved that it did.
They enrolled families into the study by standing outside of the Puget Consumers Co-op (for families buying organic foods) and outside Larry’s Market (for families buying conventional foods). When they broke the code on the samples they found that the children whose parents supplied them with mostly conventional foods had 6-9 times higher levels of pesticides in their urine than the children who ate mostly organic foods.
How nice to be able to take some simple steps that keep neurotoxic compounds from entering the bodies of our children and ourselves.
2. Are Organic Foods Worth The Price? And, Do They Live Up To The Hype?
The sales of organic foods in the United States surged past the 20 billion dollar mark a few years ago, and is continuing to climb. But, what are we getting from all of those dollars?
Are we getting better quality food?
The possibility of improved health?
Or, as an editorial in the British Medical Journal, The Lancet, suggested last year, maybe we are just making ourselves think we are doing better.
The Lancet published this editorial after two reports by the same group of scientists came out of England about the “supposed” health benefits of organic foods. Because I have believed for years that organic foods are better for us and the planet, I immediately sought these articles out – and actually read them – something the editor of The Lancet and a number of news reporters apparently failed to do.
In answer to the question of whether organic food has higher nutrient content, this group of researchers said,
“there is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs”.
This was from their study that was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. If you only read the abstract of the article, it makes it seem as though it was a very thorough study – widowing 52,471 published articles, down to only 55 that “were of satisfactory quality”.
The funny thing is that these 55 articles were not even listed as references in the article. Hmmmm, now just how did that slip past the editorial review board?
Being the author of a handful of review articles, I happen to know that one must, not only supply the references, but must also talk about the articles that were referenced! Otherwise, you are left with nothing but thin air to base your conclusion upon.
So, this really got me going on a hunt for what the real facts were about the nutrient content in organic foods. My first stop was the computerized database that the National Library of Medicine keeps (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed). This is a wonderful resource that everyone with a computer and an internet hookup can access. The problem with my search for organic food information however, is that PubMed doesn’t have an established search term for “organic foods”. So, one has to really be creative and keep asking things in different ways, like “natural foods” or “nutrient content”, etc.
Well, it turns out that there are a lot of articles published about the nutrient content of organic foods.
It also turns out that all organic foods are not the same. Let me take tomatoes, for example. There are numerous studies on the nutrient content of organic tomatoes as compared to commercially raised tomatoes. Some of these studies showed that organic tomatoes had higher quantities of certain nutritional compounds, other studies did not.
The key in unraveling these studies was in noting how long the plots of land had been under organic farming methods. Tomatoes from ‘newly planted’ organic plots were not superior, but those from ‘mature’ organic plots were definitely better. So, the longer the farm has been organic, the better the quality of the food.
I ended up finding over 30 good articles just on the nutrient content of organic foods as compared to conventionally grown foods.
When it comes to vitamin and mineral content, multiple studies make it clear that organic foods have more of these nutrients than conventional foods:
- vitamin C
Even more, during the last fifty years, the content of vitamin C, phosphorus, iron, calcium, and riboflavin (Vitamin B1) has been declining in the conventional foodstuffs grown in this country. So, with organic foods taking the levels of some of these critical nutrients up rather than down in our foods, it would appear that organic foods are the best nutritional choice to make (provided one considers these nutrients important for health).
In addition to the vitamins and minerals in foods, are the helpful food chemicals, sometimes called phytonutrients (or nutraceuticals). These compounds, including flavonoids, carotenes and berry pigments have been found to be responsible for many of the health benefits of foods.
These compounds have powerful antioxidant action and help to protect our cells from damage. They can also enhance the function of our brains (something we often want for ourselves and others).
Well, it turns out that when fruits and vegetables are grown in ‘established’ organic farms, they typically have much higher levels of these healthy food chemicals than conventionally grown foods. This has been shown in apples, pears, tomatoes, potatoes, berries, and other organic products. And milk from cows raised organically also contained higher levels of essential fatty acids!
So, despite what the news media picked up, numerous studies make it clear that organic foods typically have greater nutrient content, and these nutrients have the ability to significantly impact our health for the better.
3. Will eating organic foods help you to be healthier?
In the first 2 points, I reviewed the published studies that have shown that organically-grown food has more vitamins, minerals and health-promoting ‘phytonutrients’, as well as far fewer pesticides than commercially grown foods. So, if one chooses what foods to eat, at least partly on the level of nutrients they provide, as well as their potential for toxicity (or lack thereof), then organic foods would already be a good choice.
But, is there evidence that these foods really help us to be healthier?
A recent study in the medical journal Pediatrics reported that children who have higher levels of organophosphate pesticides in their urine had higher rates of attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder (ADHD). For one of the pesticides, those children who had high levels of it had almost twice the rate of ADHD as those without any of that pesticide in their urine.
The studies in Seattle that I reviewed in the past showed that children who ate organic foods had virtually undetectable levels of organophosphate pesticides in their urine. So, maybe ADHD is not a deficiency of Ritalin, but an overload of commonly found food-borne pesticides.
But, until they do a study that compares children eating organic foods with those that eat commercial foods to find out if the organic kids have less of a problem with ADHD, we will not know for sure – but it sure looks good from my perspective.
With the previously reviewed information we know that organic foods have higher levels of the healthy “phytonutrients” in foods. These compounds typically have very high anti-oxidant activity, which is very important for maintaining health and preventing illness.
In fact, oxidative damage is thought to be the major cause of the physical changes that we call “aging”. So, having higher levels of antioxidants in our foods would be considered a wonderful, potential health benefit. In fact, a few studies have already been done that also show that consumers of organic foods have higher levels of these healthy compounds in their bodies .
There are also implied health benefits for organic foods when it comes to cancer prevention. One study measured the ability of vegetables to suppress the cancer-causing genetic damage of various environmental toxins, including benzo(a)pyrene (BaP) which is the main cancer-causing chemical in cigarette smoke and auto exhaust.
They found that the organic vegetables were much more active than their conventional counterparts in suppressing the toxicity of this nasty chemical . In another laboratory study, organic strawberries were able to block the rapid growth of colon and breast cancer cells . For both of these cancer cell lines, the extracts of the organic berries were much more potent at reducing cancer cell proliferation than the conventional strawberries.
Only one article to date has been published that actually studied whether an organic diet made a difference in health outcomes with humans.
These researchers measured whether or not diets with varying amounts of organic foods made any difference in the rate of allergies for infants . They found that children who consumed organic diets had fewer problems with eczema. When they looked more closely at the types of organic foods, they found that children consuming organic dairy had a 36% reduction in their risk of having this allergic skin disorder. With the rates of eczema and other allergic disorders rising, this is a very important finding.
So, while the studies are limited, they are positive in showing that organic foods provide both implied, as well as, actual health benefits. These benefits alone may save the consumer far more money than is spent on the cost of buying organic foods.
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 Olsson ME, Andersson CS, Oredsson S, Berglund RK, Gustavsson KE. Antioxidant levels and inhibition of cancer cell proliferation in vitro by extracts from organically and conventionally cultivated strawberries. J Agric Food Chem 2006;54:1248-55.
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