Organic Broadcaster

Think beyond the plate to see all benefits of organic food

By Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.

Studies have shown that eating organic food reduces a person’s exposure to toxic pesticides, antibiotics and growth hormones, increases levels of health-promoting omega-3s, and supports environmentally responsible farming practices.

Are organic foods more nutritious than non-organic? Are they healthier or safer? As a dietitian, I’m often asked these questions and I answer with a resounding “yes!” Here’s why.

First and foremost, let’s get on the same page about how we define “nutritious.” I believe a “nutritious” food is more than the sum of its nutrients. Certainly, nutritious foods are nutrient-dense. In other words, they provide a rich source of nutrients in relation to their calories. But they must also be free of contaminants, such as heavy metals, or antibiotic and pesticide residues. And, they should be produced in a way that does not harm our larger environment.

Personally, I like to factor food safety into my definition of “nutritious.” I look at food safety from both a chemical and bacterial perspective. For example, if an otherwise nutrient-dense food is contaminated with bacteria, toxic chemicals, or antibiotic, pesticide, or hormone residues, then it becomes less “nutritious.”

Governed by Law
I like to help consumers understand how our national organic standards1 prohibit the use of irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In addition, consumers may not understand that organic farmers don’t use antibiotics or growth hormones, and they must feed their animals organic (non-GMO) feed.
Plus, because organic farmers are required to give their livestock access to pasture, we can expect organic milk and meat to have higher levels of health-protecting omega-3 fatty acids.2,3

Furthermore, organic farming methods are based on building and improving the soil, promoting biodiversity, and protecting our natural resources. Therefore, it stands to reason that healthier ecosystems, higher quality soil and clean water will produce healthier plants, which in turn support healthier animals and humans, not to mention a healthier planet.

Case closed, right? Not so fast. Enter the media, which frames the organic vs. non-organic issue as a “debate.” The problem with this frame is that it implies that both sides have equal value, even when the evidence strongly supports one side over the other.

Is it any wonder consumers are confused?

Remember the media frenzy over the Stanford University study? Researchers stated that they wanted to investigate whether organic foods were safer or healthier than conventional alternatives. After reviewing over 200 studies, the investigators concluded that there was “no strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.” The media ran with this sentiment, and gave consumers reason to doubt the value of organic food and farming.4

However, if you had access to the full report, you would have learned that the researchers also concluded that “organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.” They also said that “organic milk may contain significantly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids,” and that “organic produce had higher levels of health-protecting antioxidants.”

Those conclusions didn’t make major headlines, but they indicate none the less, that organic offers a safer and healthier option compared to non-organic.

Today, we have an ever-growing arsenal of evidence showing the benefits of organic food and farming.

Healthier, Safer
Reduced exposure to pesticides is a key reason why consumers choose organic food, and they’re smart to do so. In 2006, research showed that children consuming organic diets had significantly fewer pesticide residues in their urine, as compared to when they consumed a non-organic diet.5

Chuck Benbrook, Ph.D., a research professor and program leader at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University says that while pesticide residues are rarely found in organic food, “most conventional fruit and vegetable samples contain two to five [pesticide] residues, and in several important crops, about 10% of samples contain eight or more residues.”6

In 2010, the President’s Cancer Panel Report7 recommended choosing food grown without pesticides and chemical fertilizers to reduce our risk for cancer.

The presence of a pesticide residue is just one factor that determines risk, says Benbrook. We have to consider the pesticide’s toxicity, additive or synergistic effects with other residues, and the age and health of the person exposed. There’s growing evidence that even small amounts of pesticides—well under the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) limits—
can cause harm to embryos and children. Because of their smaller body size and rapid physical development, children are especially vulnerable to the effects of pesticides and other environmental toxins.7

A growing body of research shows that pesticide exposure harms our developing children’s brains, and increases their risk for birth defects, ADHD, autism, reduced I.Q., and other neuro-developmental problems.8,9,10 We are wise to err on the side of safety, and keep these neurotoxins out of our children’s environments.

Organic food and farming also reduces the risk of antibiotic resistance. According to the Infectious Diseases Society of America, antibiotic-resistant infections are one of the greatest threats to public health. Because organic livestock are not given antibiotics, they are naturally less likely to harbor and spread antibiotic-resistant bacteria. That makes organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products both healthier and safer.

New Research
In July of 2014, we gained even more evidence supporting the multiple benefits of organic foods, thanks to an extensive international study involving scientists at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom and Washington State University. This time, the researchers analyzed 343 peer-reviewed, high-quality studies, comparing the nutritional differences between organic and conventional crops (fruits, vegetables and cereals).11

Their conclusions, published in the prestigious British Journal of Nutrition, stated the following:
• Organic crops and crop-based foods are
significantly higher in health-protecting antioxidants, and lower in pesticide residues, and the toxic metal cadmium, as compared to conventional;
• Concentrations of antioxidants were between 18-69% higher in organically-grown crops, compared to conventional; and,
• Conventionally grown fruit had the highest frequency of pesticide residues, approximately seven times higher than organic fruit; conventional vegetables and crop-based processed foods had pesticide residues three to four times higher than organic.

Clearly, we have solid evidence showing that organic foods deliver more bang for the buck. And what mother wouldn’t want to feed her children higher nutrient foods, while reducing their exposure to pesticide residues and other toxins?

Bottom Line
Organic food and farming offers multiple health benefits to farmers, consumers and our larger communities, including the protection of groundwater and drinking water from pesticides and nitrate contamination.

However, many factors affect a food’s nutritional content: seed variety, growing conditions, post-harvest handling, storage time and temperature, and finally, consumer handling. We can harvest the most nutritious bunch of organic spinach on earth, but if we let it sit in the hot sun, or in our refrigerator crisper for a week, or overcook it, we can count on losing nutritional quality.

I advise consumers to choose organic food, handle it with care, and support organic farmers. I also encourage conversations between farmers and consumers. We can all benefit from learning more about the vital connection between soil quality, plant, animal and human health.

We can feel confident that if a farming system is better for the Earth, it’s better for us too.

Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D., the “Food Sleuth,” is a MOSES board member, an award-winning writer, speaker, and radio host based in Columbia, Mo. Reach Melinda at foodsleuth@gmail.com.
References:
1. USDA National Organic Program: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/organicinfo

  1. Clancy, Kate. “Greener Pastures: How Grass-Fed Beef and Milk Contribute to Healthy Eating.” Union of Concerned Scientists. March 2006.

  2. Benbrook, C.M., et al., “Organic Production Enhances Milk Nutritional Quality by Shifting Fatty Acid Composition: A United States-Wide, 18-Month Study. PLOS One, December, 2013. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0082429

  3. Brandt, Michelle. “Little Evidence of Health Benefits from Organic Foods, Stanford Study Finds.” Inside Stanford Medicine. Stanford School of Medicine. September 2012. http://med.stanford.edu/ism/2012/september/organic.html

  4. “Organic Diets Significantly Lower Children’s Dietary Exposure to Organophosphorus Pesticides,” Environmental Health Perspectives, February 2006.

  5. Benbrook, Chuck, Ph.D. “Initial Reflections on the Annals of Internal Medicine Paper Are Organic Foods Safer and Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review.’ Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, Washington State University. Sept. 2012. http://www.tfrec.wsu.edu/pdfs/P2566.pdf

  6. President’s Cancer Panel Report: “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now.” U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. April 2010. http://deainfo.nci.nih.gov/advisory/pcp/annualreports/pcp08-09rpt/PCP_Report_08-09_508.pdf

  7. Bouchard, Maryse F., Ph.D., et. al. “Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Urinary Metabolites of Organophosphate Pesticides.” Pediatrics. American Academy of Pediatrics. 17 May 2010. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2010/05/17/peds.2009-3058.abstract

  8. Grossman, Elizabeth. “‘Organic, Schmorganic’ – Unless It’s Your Child’s Ability To Learn That’s Impaired By Pesticides.” The Pump Handle. ScienceBlogs, LLC.13 September 2012. http://scienceblogs.com/thepumphandle/2012/09/13/organic-shcmorganic-unless-its-your-childs-ability-to-learn-thats-impaired-by-pesticides/

10. Landrigan, Philip; Lambertinis, Luca; and Birnbaum, Linda. “A Research Strategy to Discover the Environmental Causes of Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disabilities.” Environmental Health Perspectives. 120:7. July 2012. library.constantcontact.com/download/get/file/1102175172120-212/Autism_editorial_final.pdf

  1. Baranski et. al., “Higher Antioxidant and Lower Cadmium Concentration, and Lower Incidence of Pesticide Residues in Organically Grown Crops: A Systematic Literature Review and Meta-Analysis” British Journal of Nutrition, 2014: http://csanr.wsu.edu/m2m/papers/organic_meta_analysis/bjn_2014_full_paper.pdf

 

From the March | April 2015 Issue

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