When it comes to organic food vs. "conventional" food, we're all pretty clear that an organic apple would have higher health benefits than, say, a conventionally grown Apple-tini. But what about serious comparisons of the health benefits of organic food vs. conventional food? Is organic food really better? If so, in what ways is it better?
Our guest article today answers that question. It's from Shane Heaton, a clinical nutritionist and editor of the newsletter
Organic Food Quality News.
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Spreading the Organic Word
A growing number of consumers, and especially those dealing with chronic illness, are switching to organic food. A key motivation for consumers doing this is a simple belief that it's better for them. But is it true that there are health benefits to eating organic food?
Official food agencies around the world are unanimous in claiming there is no evidence of a nutritional difference. Yet a more careful and thorough review of the science comparing organic and non-organic food reveals that, collectively, the available evidence does indeed support the consumer belief and claims by the organic industry that their food is safer, more nutritious, and better for you than non-organic food.
It's often claimed that a large number of studies have found no difference in the nutrient content of organic and non-organic crops. It's true there have been more than a hundred studies comparing the nutrient content of organic and non-organic foods and the results are inconclusive. But this is because the majority of studies are of poor quality, being either agriculturally or analytically flawed.
I reviewed the literature using clear validity criteria to ensure relevant nutrients were being compared in properly matched organic and non-organic crops. This eliminated 72% of
comparisons as invalid. The results of these spurious studies were either dramatic, inconclusive, non-significant or inconsistent, as would be expected, and served only to obfuscate the clear trend in the valid data that organic crops, on average, do contain higher levels of trace minerals, vitamin C, and antioxidant phytonutrients.
Official food composition tables, including data compiled by the US Department of Agriculture, reveal that since the 1940s the mineral levels in fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy have declined substantially in conventional foods. Combine this with earlier (pre-ripened) picking, longer storage, and more processing of crops, and it's not surprising that we may be getting fewer nutrients in our food than we were 60 years ago.
The artificial fertilization associated with conventional crops produces lush growth by swelling produce with more water. On a pound-for-pound basis, organic food has more "dry matter" (i.e. food). Partly because of this (and for other reasons too), there are higher levels of nutrients in organic produce. Research by American nutritionist Virginia Worthington has confirmed that, based on current dietary patterns, the differences can be enough to help you achieve the recommended daily allowances for certain nutrients that you otherwise may not get.
We can expect also that phytonutrients, many of which are antioxidants involved in the plant's own defense system, will be higher in organic produce because crops rely more on their own defenses in the absence of regular applications of chemical pesticides. Evidence is emerging that confirms this expectation. Higher levels have so far been found of lycopene in organic tomatoes, polyphenols in organic potatoes, flavonols in organic apples, and resveratrol in organic red wine. A recent review of the subject estimated that organic produce will tend to contain 10-50% higher phytonutrients than conventional produce.
Consuming more organic food certainly isn't the only way to improve one's nutrient intake, but it may be the safest. It's regularly claimed by the mainstream food industry that pesticide residues in foods are known to be safe on the basis of total diet surveys that supposedly find the levels of pesticide residues in our food to be very low and within acceptable safety limits. But monitoring programs consistently show that around one in three non-organic food samples tested contains a variety of pesticide residues, with far lower levels being found in and on organic produce. Conventional-food proponents also claim that rigorous safety assessments show that pesticide residues are no threat to human health. Yet consumers intuitively know this is a false assurance.
Most pesticide-residue safety levels are set for individual pesticides, but many samples of fresh produce carry multiple pesticide residues. Rules often do not take into account the "cocktail effect" of combinations of pesticides in and on foods. Research is emerging confirming the potential for such synergistic increases in toxicity of up to 100-fold, resulting in reproductive, immune and nervous system effects not expected from the individual compounds acting alone.
Israeli researchers have linked symptoms such as headaches, tremor, lack of energy, depression, anxiety, poor memory, dermatitis, convulsions, nausea, indigestion and diarrhoea with dietary intakes of pesticides. Belgian research has found that women diagnosed with breast cancer are six to nine times more likely to have the pesticides DDT or hexachlorobenzene in their bloodstreams compared to women who did not have breast cancer. Hawaiian researchers following 8,000 people for 34 years have found that increasing consumption of conventional fruit and juice (and the pesticide residues they carry) raises the risk of Parkinson's disease.
Children's immature and developing organs, brains, and detoxification and immune systems, plus their larger intake of food per kilo of body weight, combine to make them even more susceptible to toxins than adults. American toddlers eating mostly organic food have been found to have less than one sixth the pesticide residues in their urine compared to children eating conventional foods, lowering their exposure from above to below recognized safety levels.
Elizabeth Gillette's landmark 1998 paper in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives showed how a combination of low-level environmental, household and dietary exposures caused subtle yet measurable developmental deficits in children. Gillette compared children in two nearby isolated villages in Mexico, one in which pesticides were routinely used in their farming, and one in which they were not. Everything else was the same between these two villages—genes, diet, lifestyle, climate, culture, etc. The study found significant differences between the two groups in both mental and motor abilities (with the children who were exposed to pesticides scoring at a much lower level), as well as an increase in aggressive behavior.
In many Western countries, children and adults are similarly exposed to multiple sources of pesticides, and in 1995 an Australian study of breast milk found that infants are regularly exposed to several pesticides at levels greater than maximum recommended exposures. In Canada, a direct correlation has been observed between pesticide contamination of breast milk and increased risk of otitis media in Inuit infants.
Organic Food and the Problem
of Antibiotic Resistance
Considering the growing problem of increasing antibiotic resistance in pathogenic bacteria, animal farming may be a much larger contributor to the problem than over-prescription of human antibiotics by doctors.
While the use of antibiotics is severely restricted in organic farming, they're used extensively in non-organic farming to promote growth and to prevent disease from decimating intensively reared, overcrowded, stressed farm animals. As much as 60% of all the antibiotics used in Australia are given to farm animals, not people.
University of Queensland marine biologist Dr Simon Costanzo reported in the March 2005 issue of Marine Pollution Bulletin that antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant bacteria are common in the sewage and waterways of the state capital Brisbane, potentially posing a threat to human health and the environment. The British Medical Association has warned that antibiotic resistance is "one of the major public health threats that will be faced in the 21st century," while the World Health Organization has called for a reduction in the use of antibiotics in agriculture.
Better animal welfare standards in organic farming minimize the need for antibiotics and other veterinary drugs—they are used only when strictly necessary.
Artificial colorings and preservatives in food and drink are thought to contribute to hyperactivity in pre-school children, and while many still contest this issue, a recent study in the UK found that the proportion of hyperactive children was halved when additives were removed from their diets. Many additives—such as preservatives, artificial sweeteners, colorings and flavorings, MSG, hydrogenated fat, and phosphoric acid—are prohibited in organic food production.
Similar tests with humans are problematic, though evidence is emerging here too. An early observational study revealed that boarding-school students eating predominantly organically for three years
experienced a "very marked decline" in colds and influenza, more rapid convalescence, excellent health generally, fewer sports injuries, a greater resilience to fractures and sprains, clear and healthy skin, and improved dental health.
A recent Danish organic human three-week feeding trail with 16 subjects found significantly higher concentrations of quercetin (an antioxidant flavonoid) not only in the organic diets but also in the urine of those eating organically, confirming increased absorption and systemic circulation.
So is organic food better for you? In my opinion, yes. Decreasing one's toxin burden and increasing one's intake of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants can have a significant impact on health, especially when trying to improve or restore health.
Can people afford it? I'm certain of it. Official household spending statistics in Australia and the UK reveal that the average family spends five times more on junk food, take-away (carry-out food), alcohol, and tobacco than on fruits and vegetables, and five times more on recreation than on fruits and vegetables. To make healthier choices they need encouragement and education.
I believe it's a false assumption that advocating organic food will reduce fruit and vegetable consumption due to the higher price. Perhaps people will instead cut down on junk food, take-away, alcohol, and cigarettes. Some even report anecdotally that the better taste of organics facilitates an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption that was hitherto unachievable.
Organic foods are a simple way to reduce an individual's toxin burden of pesticides and food additives, increase their nutrient intake, and perhaps alter their consumption patterns away from less healthy choices.
Organic food isn't a luxury. It's how food's supposed to be, and a valuable part of any regimen intended to maintain, improve, or restore health.
Shane Heaton is a clinical nutritionist practicing in Australia. He is editor of the newsletter Organic Food Quality News,
which is available free by email.
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