Ever find yourself in the produce section at the supermarket staring down two colorful apples wondering which one is worthy of making its way into your grocery cart? Both apples look the same but one has that familiar USDA Organic sticker plastered on it. One things for sure they definitely aren't priced the same.
With an average cost of 10%-40% higher are organic foods worth it? Do they have more nutritional value? And does this make a difference to your overall health? I invite you to read further as I help you get to the bottom of all this organic talk so that you can make the decision that feels the best for you.
What Deems a Food To Be Organic?
The U.S. government establishes strict standards to be met for farmers before they can use the USDA Organic seal on their food products. A product can use the USDA Organic seal if it contains at least 95% organically produced ingredients.
The following chart shows the differences between organic vs. conventionally farmed food:
Does Organic Food Contain More Nutritional Value?
This question has created a lot of controversy over the past few decades as organic food has become increasingly more popular. More and more studies have been conducted in recent years factoring in things like farming methods, climate variability, food formulations, and harvest rates among other things to assess the nutritional content of our food in terms of its vitamin, mineral, phytochemical, antioxidant, and toxin load. Here's a few of the findings below.
● A study looking at organic and conventionally grown pears and peaches found that the organic fruits had an improved antioxidant defense system (higher levels of polyphenols, PPO, vitamin C, & vitamin E) in comparison with their conventionally grown counterparts . Another study found that organically grown strawberries have more antioxidant activity and anti-cancer effects than conventionally grown strawberries . Scientists suggest that this data shows that organically grown food is in effect "beefing up" its own defense mechanisms to protect itself in the absence of pesticides.
● A review in 2006 showed that organic foods had significantly higher amounts of antioxidants (vitamin C, polyphenols, & flavanoids) and minerals in addition to lower levels of pesticide residues, nitrates, and some heavy metal contaminations than conventionally grown crops. They concluded that because of this organic crops had a higher nutritional value and a lower risk of causing disease due to contamination .
● A number of studies have shown that organically grown food contains more dry matter (less water) than conventionally grown fruits and vegetables [5,6]. An increase in dry matter means that there are more nutrients per unit weight of food.
● One study looked at the nutrient content of eggplants cultivated over two successive years by both conventional and organic methods. The study found that the organic crop was higher in potassium, calcium, magnesium, copper, and phytochemicals called phenolics .
● Whole wheat production was studied over a 3 year period comparing organic and conventional crops. The study found that there was no difference in concentrations of the phytochemicals (carotenoids & phenolic acids) between the two groups. Instead, improved climate factors produced a 55% increase in phytochemical composition in year to year production .
The best overall review to date of the nutritional value of organic vs. conventionally grown crops was published by The Organic Center in March of 2008. In this review they assessed the results of 97 peer-reviewed studies published over a 27 year period comparing the nutrient levels in organic and conventionally grown foods . To determine the nutrient quality of the food they focused on 11 different nutrients using matched pairs which is defined as "crops grown on nearby farms, on the same type of soil, with the same irrigation systems and harvest timing, and grown from the same plant variety".
What they found was that organically grown crops had a 25% overall higher nutrient content than conventional crops. A little over 60% of the organic crops had higher levels of a disease fighting flavonol named Quercetin. Vitamin C was found in higher concentrations in approximately 50% of the organic crops compared to conventional crops. And to top it off they also found that 80% of the organic crop samples had a higher total antioxidant capacity than conventional crops!
The organic world is not without its critics though. An article titled "Nutritional quality of organic foods: A systemic review" published in 2009 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition claims that there was no evidence suggesting organically grown foods were nutritionally superior to conventionally grown foods. Come to find out this article originated as a report commissioned by the Foods Standards Agency (FSA) out of the UK. According to Paula Crossfield (co-founder and managing editor of civileats.com) the report was heavily biased and heavily tied to special interests of agribusiness, the dairy industry, Sarah Lee Corporation, and one of UK's biggest grocery chains. You can read Paula's full review here about the misleadings in this article.
Does Organic Food Significantly Improve Your Overall Health?
It is clear from the scientific literature to date that organic food is certainly more nutritious and less toxic than conventional food but does this equate to better overall health and a lower risk of chronic diseases? You might be surprised by the answer to this as you'll soon find out.
Much of the published data on pesticide exposure and disease does show an increased risk in some cases. The biggest fear of many people is cancer. The National Cancer Institute states that "studies of people with high exposure to pesticides, such as farmers, pesticide applicators, manufacturers, and crop dusters, have found high rates of blood and lymphatic system cancers; cancers of the lip, stomach, lung, brain, and prostate; as well as melanoma and other skin cancers". Another study performed a meta-analysis on 40 case-controlled studies and found that exposure to pesticides for greater than 10-20 years was associated with a higher risk of Parkinson's disease but several other risk factors such as rural living, well-water consumption, and farming played a part as well . Another study showed an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease in occupational workers exposed to pesticides .
So while there is a link to pesticide exposure and disease it appears that the highest risk is in those who have the greatest exposure (farmers, workers, etc.) and only after being exposed to high amounts over long periods of time. The amount of pesticide residue left on the food you buy is much lower than what these studies allude to.
An even more important aspect of this topic in regards to pesticide exposure and your overall health is what you can do to prevent the risk of disease from occurring. A large body of evidence points to the fact that consuming a nutrient dense, plant-based diet and avoiding processed and animal-based foods reduces your risk not only of cancer due to pesticide exposure but also many other chronic diseases (heart disease, diabetes, dementia, etc.).
The CDC actually reported in 2009 that the primary source of exposure to organochlorine pesticides was from fatty foods such as dairy products and fish . So just by avoiding fatty animal-based foods you are already decreasing your exposure to pesticides.
The most influential evidence to date concerning diets relation to cancer has been conducted by Dr. T Colin Campbell who has spent over 40 years in nutritional research. Dr. Campbell conducted several studies on a known potent carcinogen called aflatoxin. In animal studies he was able to show that the cancer causing effects of aflatoxin could be "turned on" and "turned off" simply by how much protein was consumed. When more than 10% of the total calories were consumed as casein (animal based protein found in dairy) then cancer growth was ignited and tumors began to form . He then conducted a similar experiment testing both animal protein (casein) and plant proteins (wheat and soy). This time he fed 3 different groups of lab animals a 20% protein diet (far exceeding the 10% needed to cause cancer growth) that consisted of either casein, wheat, or soy protein. Remarkably, the 20% wheat and soy groups had no signs of cancer growth while the 20% casein group all developed cancer .
Dr. Campbell's work is further validated by Dr. Joel Fuhrman's review of the scientific data on the benefits of eating a plant-based diet to reduce your risk of cancer as seen in the video below.
Summary & Final Thoughts
Organic foods have clearly been shown in a large body of scientific studies to have a higher nutritional value than their conventionally grown counterparts. However, even though eating non-organic foods increases your exposure to pesticides it doesn't mean that you're on the fast track to develop cancer and other debilitating diseases. What is more important is that you eat a diet that contains large amounts of nutrient dense, health promoting foods such as fruits & vegetables as well as legumes, whole grains, & nuts/seeds. By doing this you are arming yourself with an excellent defense mechanism against so many of the chronic diseases that we're experiencing today in our society. You're best bet is to eat a diet that consists 100% of these foods with the highest emphasis on fruits and vegetables. You can learn more about how to do this by visiting my website.
I'd also like to mention an excellent resource from the Environmental Working Group which publishes a list of foods from best to worst in relation to their pesticide exposure. I think you'll find their list very helpful if you're wondering which foods have higher amounts of pesticides compared to others.
In the end, I would say that if you can buy organically grown food products and they are readily available at a price that you can afford then you should absolutely do it. But more importantly, you should eat a nutrient dense, plant-based diet and stay away from processed and animal-based foods regardless of their organic or inorganic nature if you want to do what's best for your overall health.
Now I'd love to hear from you...
Do you buy organic?
If so, what are the reasons for doing so?
Do you have any other resourceful information for your fellow readers on this topic?
Dustin Rudolph Pharm.D.