A recent study conducted by scientists at Stanford University concluded that organically grown produce was comparable in nutritional content to produce that was conventionally grown. The comparison was extended to include organically produced meat, leading many to question the validity of spending more for food that may or may not be healthier for them.
The production of organic food is closely regulated in the United States, following strict guidelines as outlined in the Organic Food Production Act of 1990. Nutritional value is not the only concern when deciding whether or not to buy organic. Other important reasons include improved taste, decreased exposure to pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and a reduced risk of toxic overload.
Pesticides and Developing Children
In 2011, a multicenter study involving scientists at four major American universities examined the effects of organophosphates on pregnant women and their children. Organophosphates, which form the basis of many insecticides, herbicides and nerve gasses, are listed by the Environmental Protection Agency as highly toxic to bees, wildlife and humans. In the 2011 study results, children born to women who were exposed to high levels of organophosphates were shown to have lower IQ’s than their peers.
Other recent studies suggest a link between low-level exposure to organophosphates and impaired neurobehavioral development in fetuses and children. In the above-mentioned Stanford study on the nutritional content of organic food, the conventionally grown produce that researchers examined had pesticide residue levels that were deemed “under the safety limits.” But even at low levels, organophosphates and other pesticides act on brain chemicals closely related to those involved in attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder(ADHD). These substances, which can also be absorbed through the lungs and skin, have cumulative effects because they break down slowly and are temporarily stored in body fat. Thus, exposure to even small amounts of pesticides over an extended period of time can have significant consequences.
Detoxification Impaired by Pesticides and “Non-Foods”
Pesticide residue that’s ingested with food is just one more harmful substance in the increasingly toxic environment that most people are experiencing today. Such toxic overload overburdens the liver, the main organ of detoxification in the body, which holds onto toxins and becomes less productive when overwhelmed. Inflammation may ensue as a result, leading to fatty accumulation in the organ and dysfunction in the rest of the body. A direct example of this phenomenon is found in the film Super Size Me, in which filmmaker Morgan Spurlock ate McDonald’s fast food, exclusively, for 30 days. During his experiment, Spurlock gained 24 pounds, elevated his cholesterol to 230 and experienced mood swings and sexual dysfunction with the formation of a fatty liver. These conditions were reversed when he later switched to an organic vegan diet.
When it comes to non-organic meat, which is most often served in restaurants, dangerous substances include the antibiotics and hormones given to the animals, as well as contaminants in their feed. Such non-organic feed may be bioengineered or genetically modified, making it unrecognizable to the body as food. These “non-foods” may perpetuate dysbiosis, a bacterial and fungal imbalance in the intestine. They can also impair the liver’s ability to detoxify and contribute to inflammation, now considered a major causative factor in chronic disease.
Benefits of Organic, the “Dirty Dozen” and the “Clean 15”
While the Stanford study may have ignored these important arguments about the benefits of eating organic food, it did have some noteworthy findings. Organic milk, for example, was found to have more omega-3 fatty acids, which benefit heart and brain health. The organic produce contained higher levels of phosphorus and compounds called phenols that are protective against cancer. Organic strawberries were also found to have higher levels of vitamin C than their conventionally grown counterparts.
While the barriers to eating organic may include higher costs, there are indications that the tide may be changing. More grocery stores, and even warehouse stores, are selling organic food. When choosing which foods to buy organic, people can consult the Environmental Working Group’s annual “Dirty Dozen” list, citing the most contaminated conventionally grown foods to buy. Currently, the group estimates that people can reduce pesticide exposure by 80 percent if they switch to organic when buying these 12 foods: apples, celery, sweet bell peppers, peaches, strawberries, imported nectarines, grapes, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, blueberries (domestic) and potatoes. A special category now includes green beans, kale and other leafy greens.
Conversely, the group’s “Clean 15” foods, which are deemed lowest in pesticide residue, include: onions, sweet corn, pineapples, avocado, cabbage, sweet peas, asparagus, mangoes, eggplant, kiwi, cantaloupe (domestic), sweet potatoes, grapefruit, watermelon and mushrooms. When budgets are tight, consumers can purchase conventionally grown versions of these vegetables and fruits with less concern.
Finally, it’s important to note that not all corn is, in fact, “clean.” Commodity crops used for animal feed and biofuel are almost always produced with genetically modified seeds, as are some sweet corn varieties sold for human consumption. Since they are not labeled as such, consumers may want to choose the organic varieties.
Dawna L. Jones, MD, is the medical director for Bella Natural Health