Organics Part 3: Is organic food healthier?

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

It’s easy to summarize the requirements laid out for USDA Certifcation. Verifiable and concrete facts are easy to explain, to prove, to support or oppose. Even an analysis of enforcement is easy to present in an unbiased manner, as nearly everyone agrees that the goverment isn’t doing enough.

From here we enter a stickier place. I want to present hard, scientific evidence of organic superiority or lack thereof. I’m a big fan of science; I’m an engineer after all. Science can answer almost any question, as long as you ask the right one. Unfortunately, you do have to look at all the answers, the hows and the whys. Another issue is the burden of proof. Does organic food have to prove that it’s healthier, or do those opposed have to prove that it’s not?

Pro-organic websites don’t use a lot of hard evidence to support their claims that organic food is healthier.  A small sample of results from a Google search “why buy organic?” include

  • “It’s common sense; organic food is good food. Good to eat, good for the environment, good for the small-scale farmers and farm workers who produce it.” (Source) This site continues on to discuss the “small farms” benefit, and mostly mentions the amount and types of pesticides as an important factor.
  • Another website, which refers to conventionally-grown and genetically modified produce as “dumb, dangerous food” has this to say: “Food the way Mother Nature made it is clean and wholesome. Your body knows just what to do with it. After all, it has had an awfully long time to figure that out.” Luckily, you can buy organic food right on their website! (Source)
  • Apparently, more and more farmers are getting cancer! (Source)

There are a lot of claims being made, but the big claims are

  1. Organic foods come from smaller, local farms
  2. Organic foods use less pesticides, which makes them healthier
  3. Organic foods have more nutrients
  4. Organic farms contribute to more humane animal treatment
  5. Organic milk has no antibiotics or growth hormones inside
  6. Organic farming is better for the enviroment

I’ll cover #6 in the next installment.  #1 doesn’t quite fall under the heading of today’s entry, but deserves some clarification.  It might have been true a few years ago, but with organic produce becoming a bit of a cash cow, larger corporations are jumping on the bandwagon.  California alone produces over $600,000,000.00 in organic produce, most of it coming from just five farms which are also the same producers of most non-organic food in the state.  General Mills owns the Cascadian Farms brand, Kraft owns Back to Nature and Boca Burger, and Kellogg’s owns Morningstar Farms, to name a few conglomerates basking in organics’ glow (and dough).  I’ll discuss more on this in Part 5: My thoughts.


Pesticides

Organic farmers can use pesticides, but only ones on the USDA’s approved list. Conventional farms have hundreds of pesticides available (2).  We hear a lot of bad things about pesticides, so it’s natural to assume that organics using less pesticides must mean they’re better.

Conventional farms have to meet standards set by the government, which means that the amount of pesticide residue left on even unwashed fruit poses very little health risk. Other sources say that this is true for most people, but that children and pregnant women might want to switch to organic, just in case. Hard-core organics enthusiasts threaten that we are consuming a “cocktail of pesticides” and that we will later find out just how screwed we are.

What does science tell us? There are very small health risks from the amount of pesticides one would encounter by eating conventionally-grown produce. Pesticides can be detected in excrement, but there’s nothing about what that might mean, except that you have been exposed to them.  Plants also have their own natural pesticides: even the freshest organic apples (this same fact applies to other organic produce) contain natural compounds which, when extracted and given to rats in high doses, cause tumours.

Toxicologist Bruce Ames of the University of California became famous in the 1970s for sounding the alarm on the cancer-causing (or carcinogenic) potential of man-made chemicals.  However, after testing ‘natural’ pesticides in rats, he called off the warning. A paper he published in 1990, titled, “Dietary Pesticides (99.99 per cent All Natural)”, it reported that in a regular diet, people consume about 10,000 times more natural carcinogens than synthetic ones. According to the report, a single cup of coffee contains more natural carcinogens than a year’s worth of the pesticide residue on fruit and vegetables. (5)

If pesticides cause cancer, shouldn’t we expect to see higher rates?  Fortunately, cancer rates (when age-standardized) have been dropping since 1950. The results of a 13-year study of nearly 90,000 farmers and their families in Iowa and North Carolina — the Agricultural Health Study – set out to answer this question. These people were exposed to higher doses of agricultural chemicals because of their proximity to spraying, and 65% of them had personally spent more than 10 years applying pesticides. If any group of people were going to show a link between pesticide use and cancer, it would be them. They didn’t.(5)  Oddly enough farmers – who have the most exposure to pesticides – have the lowest cancer rate of any group.(1)

In short, there is no scientific evidence that the pesticides and pesticide levels used in organic foods are any better or worse for your health than those from conventional farms.

Nutrients

It’s hard to list any concrete facts here, because there is so little evidence either way. There have been studies that find higher levels of this mineral or that phytochemical, but most of the scientific research finds no difference. Even studies from The Organic Center admit, “In terms of specific nutrients, they report no consistent differences between organic and conventional foods for most vitamins and minerals, but higher protein and nitrate levels in conventionally grown crops.” (3)

Even with the small increases, there can be other explanations. The Soil Association in the UK points to a few small studies that demonstrate slightly higher concentrations of some nutrients in organic produce, such as one that found higher levels of flavonoids in organic tomatoes. However, further investigation indicates that this is due to stress from lack of nitrogen; the plants stopped making flesh and instead made defensive chemicals (such as flavenoids). (1)

Additionally, the very same mechanics that can produce potential benefits, like polyphenolic compounds, may also generate higher levels of toxins such as glycoalkaloids in potatoes and tomatoes.

At any rate, I’m going to have to go with The Organic Center. There is no scientific proof that organic plants are more nutritious.

Antibiotics and Growth Hormones

Organic dairy farms cannot treat their cows with antibiotics (in addition to other medicines) and cannot inject them with growth hormones that stimulate milk production.   Regular dairy farms are allowed to administer antibiotics to sick cows, but the antibiotics must be cleared from the cow’s system before it can be milked for production. Milk that shows any amount of antibiotics is not allowed to be sold.

You will never find antibiotics in any milk you find at the grocery store.

A study Vicini et al. published in the July issue of the prestigious Journal of the American Dietetic Association looked specifically at three label claims: conventional milk, recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST)-free milk and organic milk. No biologically meaningful differences were noted between the 3 milks. There were no differences in concentration of bST in milk regardless of label type. Concentrations of IGF-1(insulin-like growth factor-1) in milk were similar in conventional and rbST-free-milk, both were slightly higher in comparison to organic milk. Concentration of the steroid hormone progesterone was greater in organic milk compared to conventionally labeled milk or milk labeled rbST-free. Conventionally labeled milk had less estradiol compared to organic and rbST-free milk with concentrations of estradiol in samples labeled organic and rbST-free being the same (4).

There is a potential nutritional advantage of organic milk, such as increased levels of CLA, omega-3 fatty acids, and other antioxidants; however, access to fresh, high quality pasture is the key, not whether the production system is organic or conventional. (Translated, this means that you should be looking for grass-fed, not organic) (4).

It should be noted here that all milk is an excellent source of nutrients, no matter how it’s produced.

What I found most interesting here was that milk from a grass-fed cow (and organic doesn’t usually mean this – organic cows get <5% of their dry weight feed intake from pasture grasses) has the higher nutrients. If we combine this from what we learned in Part 2 – that many pro-organic groups take issue with the organic industry lack of humane animal treatment – this doesn’t translate into organic milk being better.

I’m going to go with science again on this one. There are no scientifically proven benefits of organic dairy over conventionally-produced dairy.

I won’t say anything about meat because it is largely ignored by the organics industry. Most of the livestock-related information is about dairy cows. There are no observable health benefits here, either. I will say that raising livestock is not a very efficient or humane way of producing food no matter how you do it. Organically raised animals may have access to the outdoors, but it might simply mean that cattle are cooped up in outdoor pens. The rules governing poultry are even less stringent than for other livestock. Some “organic” chickens, for example, spend their short lives confined in coops with screen windows. (6)

If you’re that worried about animals, go vegetarian.

If we look to science, there is no evidence that organic food is better for us. Even the USDA, which is responsible for certifying farms as organic, makes no claims about health or environmental benefits. Organic farming is simply a different method of food production.

Final thoughts

Undoubtedly some of the people who are reading this are thinking, “I don’t care what she says, I just know that food produced without technological advancements has to be better!” And that’s fine. You can’t really put a price tag on feeling safer. I should note however, that you are using an awful lot of technology every day, in your Equal, your sunscreen (you ARE wearing sunscreen, right?), your deodorant, your Diet Coke, your shampoo, your medicine/birth control pills/aspirin, and even your toothpaste. In fact, these products contain chemicals in significant amounts, not just in their production. It doesn’t make sense to only fear technology when it applies to farming.

My final note is just some good old fashioned advice: whether organic or local or conventionally-grown, it’s always a good idea to eat your veggies.

Sources for citations:
(1)
(2)
(3)
(4)
(5)
(6)

Read Part 1:What does “organic maean, anyway?
Read Part 2: Shortcomings in Enforcement

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One Response

  1. Thank you for all the research you put into this!

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