So organic foods are better for us, right? Surely we must be getting something extra for that higher price tag…
Actually, it’s more about what you aren’t getting. Buying something with the label “USDA Organic” or “Certified Organic” means that you’re buying a product that was grown without synthetic pesticides or chemical fertilizers and dyes. It also means that the food and most of it’s ingredients were processed without industrial solvents, irradiation or genetic engineering.
So really if you pay for organic, it’s more like you’re paying for less. But that’s a good thing! Let me explain…
There are four main things that go into food production that may or may not be cause for concern: synthetic pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones, and genetic modification. This might get a little long-winded, so feel free to jump down to the summary section at the bottom if you aren’t interested in the actual details!
Plants and Pesticides
Pesticides are chemicals sprayed onto plants with the intention of killing any pests (insects) that might want to eat the plant before it’s harvested for human consumption (or animal consumption). They’re basically poison.
And that’s why they can be so worrisome. At extremely high levels, they may cause cancer, brain damage, or birth defects if a woman is pregnant. There have also been a few studies that seem to indicate that as the amount of pesticide residue in children’s urine increases (meaning they’re consuming a lot of pesticides), they’re more likely to be diagnosed with ADD or ADHD.
By the way, they can’t be fully removed from our food just by washing it. And you can save your money on those fancy produce washes at the grocery store – they’re not any more effective than running the fruit or vegetable under water for one minute. Investing in a soft-bristled produce brush is a worthwhile purchase though. It’ll help you remove any lingering dirt and whatever pesticides might be hanging onto the dirt molecules, reducing how much you’re likely to eat.
But! You don’t have to toss all your non-organic fruits, vegetables, and grains for fear of the amount of pesticides on them. In 1996, Bill Clinton signed the EPA’s Food Quality Protection Act into effect. What’s that? It means that any food products sold for consumption have to have pesticide levels low enough that they’re safe for children to consume. Even better, it actually has a 10-fold safety factor built into it – so any food on supermarket shelves actually has pesticide levels 10 times lower that what is considered safe for kids to eat. All for the sake of what they call “reasonable certainty.”
Meat and Dairy
Organic meat and dairy come from animals that are raised without the use of antibiotics (unless the animal was ill at some point in their lives), added growth hormones, and their feed can’t contain animal byproducts, urea, or arsenic (ew).
Why are antibiotics even an issue if the animals are healthy? Because they make animals grow even bigger than they would naturally. How? By killing off the animal’s gut bacteria, the animal is able to harvest more energy from their food and use that energy to grow bigger. The real problem is that whatever bacteria survive that mega-dose of antibiotics are… wait for it… antibiotic resistant. This is where the term “superbug” starts getting tossed around. Because if we end up eating those superbugs and they make us sick, it’s going to be really hard to kill them off with the antibiotics our doctor is going to give us.
(Side note: The one and only book that I’ve read by Robin Cook was Toxin, about the father of a girl who contracts a case of E. coli from a fast food burger that’s extremely hard to treat. And that was long before my interest in food and nutrition began to develop. I should really re-read that…)
So growth hormones… they’re pretty much exactly what they sound like: hormones given to animals to encourage growth (maybe you’ve heard about athletes doping with human growth hormone… same principle, only we’re not looking for improved athletic performance but grow more meat). Most growth hormones have been banned in Europe from use in livestock since 1989, but it’s not actually the growth hormones that cause any risk to humans – they get broken down during pasteurization or during digestion. The concern is that growth hormones encourage the production of something called insulin-like growth factor (IGF), and some studies show that higher consumption of IGF from our food is associated with higher rates of cancer. This seems to still be in the research phase, from what I can tell the overall impression is that studies have been inconclusive.
Some other benefits of buying meat and dairy from organically raised animals is that they spend their life on certified organic land and are required to have year-round access to that land. Thirty percent of the diet of organically-raised ruminants (cows, sheep) has to come from organic pasture – this is where those happy cow commercials come into play! Plus, any supplementary feed must be 100% organic (because toxins and pesticides accumulate in fatty tissue).
Organic foods – plants or animal products – can’t have been genetically modified. I’m not talking about the selective breeding that has been going on for ages where we take the strongest bull and the cow with the best milk production and make them mate, and then keep encouraging that line of cows to become better and better… That’s fine. What GMO (genetically modified organism) refers to when it comes to food is the actual manipulation of DNA in a lab. Something like taking the gene for natural pest resistance from a marigold and putting it into a tomato plant to make the tomato plant less appetizing to the aphids. (Somewhat made up example there.)
Concerns about GMO foods include allergenicity, gene transfer, and outcrossing.
Allergenicity isn’t a true concern, actually. The idea is that if scientists take a gene from a plant that people are commonly allergic to (like a peanut plant) and put it in a plant that people aren’t normally allergic to (like an apple), they might be allergic to the new plant (apple). (Now this example is definitely made up.) But they’re not really doing things like this, so again – only a potential concern, not a real one.
People who worry about gene transfer worry that genes that have been transferred in, might go on and migrate further like to the human body after consumption, or to our gut bacteria. For example, a gene for antibiotic resistance might get transferred over to our bacteria creating… what was that term again? Oh yeah, superbugs.
The last big concern with GMOs is the outcrossing of the gene from the Franken-plant to the conventional crops or related plant species in the wild. There actually have been cases where genes in crops approved for animal feed have crossed into crops intended for human consumption.
BUT! All GMO products have been rigorously tested to be approved for sale and human consumption. And interestingly, it’s not in the produce section that you’ll find GMOs, but in those center aisles with all the nice, easy, tasty, pre-packaged foods. Almost all processed foods have at least one GMO ingredient (probably either soy or corn). So if you’re concerned about eating GMO foods, just start with whole foods! Not the pre-processed stuff! (Granted, there is a chance that some zucchini, yellow squash, and sweet corn have been modified, but otherwise your produce section is clean!)
More benefits of organic foods…
Not only are you avoiding pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones, and GMOs if you buy organic foods, you’re also
- More likely to be supporting smaller, independent farmers with your food dollars.
- Supporting better treatment of animals. (Happy cows!)
- Supporting better treatment for farm workers.
You see, it’s the workers on these big, conventional farms who are going to directly handling the pesticides and breathing them in. These workers have much higher rates of acute and chronic health problems, including
- breathing problems
- skin conditions
- birth defects
- neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.
And it isn’t just the people who work on the farm, these pesticides can drift on the wind and affect people who live nearby too. Their health isn’t quite as bad as the farm workers, but they also have higher rates of these conditions than the normal person.
Alright, that’s all great, but is it actually healthier?
Stanford University has found that produce isn’t any healthier if you buy it organic. There aren’t any more vitamins or minerals in organic fruits and vegetables than in conventional.
Plus, your meat and dairy are going to have the same amount of fat and protein. BUT, they’ll have about 47% more omega-three fatty acids than conventionally produced meat and dairy… those good little molecules that are anti-inflammatory, cardio-protective, and that help protect against cognitive decline!
I’d say that’s a huge plus right there.
To sum up…
Yes, buying organic means avoiding pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones, GMOs, and supporting better working and living environments for workers and animals. But everything has been rigorously tested to make sure that it’s super-safe for human consumption.
So if you can’t afford to buy organic, don’t just cut fruits and veggies out of your diet! If we all start to eat more fruits and veggies, whether conventional or organic, it will help prevent up to 20,000 new cases of cancer each year. In contrast, only about 10 cases of cancer might be related to consuming pesticide residue on conventionally raised produce each year.
So eat your fruits and vegetables, people! They give you a much better chance of avoiding cancer.
If you’re somewhere in the middle, food-budget-wise, there’s this awesome little organization called the Environmental Working Group who tests produce for pesticide residue and puts out these handy little lists of the fruits and vegetables with the most pesticides (the Dirty Dozen) and least pesticides (the Clean Fifteen) each year. The EWG is not-for-profit and nonpartisan, so they’re pretty trustworthy. (They also have guides to cosmetics, sunscreen, seafood, home cleaning products… all sorts of good stuff.)
So if you want to buy organic, spend the money on:
- bell peppers
- cherry tomatoes
But you can save your money and buy conventional versions of these:
- sweet peas
Or I have my own general rule that I go by at the store: If I’m going to eat the skin or it’s a leafy green – I buy it organic. If I’m going to peel it before I eat it, I save my money and buy whatever the cheaper option is.
Additional reading, if you want more:
- Consumer Reports Special Report: Pesticides in Produce
- Chris Kresser: Is Organic Meat Better?
- EWG 2016 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce
- Washington Post: Is Organic Better for Your Health?
- WHO FAQs on GMOs
Hey, you made it to the end! I told you it might get a little long-winded. But what about you guys? Do you have any guidelines that you use when choosing your food at the grocery store? I’d love to hear what kinds of things you factor in or worry about!