Updated March 29, 2011 to add another voice to the discussion. See link to the article below: Are Fruits and Vegetables Getting Less Nutritious?
Last Memorial Day I was showing a friend my garden and she asked if there was anything that she could sample. At the time the only thing that was ready were my radishes. So I pulled one out of the ground for her, rinsed it off and gave it to her. She bit into it and the expression on her face was sheer bliss! She admitted that this was the very first time that she had ever had a vegetable right from the ground and the taste was fabulous. It tasted far superior to the produce that she typically buys at her local supermarket.
Today, I got a question from a follower that asked if the soil in our community gardens was tested for toxins and chemicals, because she was concerned if the food was fit for human consumption. Of course, I was able to assure her that it was tested and that we have a fine support system that is provided by our own Michigan State University.
To me, these two separate events are somewhat related because they create a forum on the topic of the health care benefits of organically grown food vs. “conventional” food that is readily available almost everywhere.
A growing number of consumers and especially those dealing with chronic illness are switching to organic food. My garden is 100% organic and because of my diabetes and other health concerns, I believe that it is better for me. There have been many discussions on the topic at several levels and food agencies around the world universally claim that there is no evidence of a nutritional difference. I came upon an article by Shane Heaton (Organic Food News Quarterly) that more than suggests that a “more careful and thorough review of the science comparing organic and non-organic food reveals that, collectively, the available evidence does indeed support the consumer belief and claims by the organic industry that their food is safer, more nutritious, and better for you than non-organic food”.
Do organic crops, on average contain higher levels of trace minerals, vitamin C, and antioxidant phytonutrients?
Official food consumption tables, including data compiled by the US Department of Agriculture, reveal that since the 1940s the mineral levels in fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy have declined substantially in conventional foods. Combine this with earlier (pre-ripened) picking, longer storage, and more processing of crops, it should not be surprising that we may be getting fewer nutrients in our food than we were 60 years ago.
The artificial fertilization associated with conventional crops produces lush growth by swelling produce with more water. On a pound-for-pound basis, organic food has more “dry matter” (i.e. food). Partly because of this (and for other reasons too), there are higher levels of nutrients in organic produce. By eating organic food it may be easier to achieve the recommended daily allowances for certain nutrients that you may not get otherwise.
We can expect also that phytonutrients, many of which are antioxidants involved in the plant’s own defense system, will be higher in organic produce because crops rely more on their own defenses in the absence of regular applications of chemical pesticides. Higher levels have so far been found of lycopene in organic tomatoes, polyphenois in organic potatoes, flavonols in organic apples, and resveratrol in organic red wines. At the time Mr. Heaton’s article was published a recent review of the subject estimated that organic produce will tend to contain 10% to 50% higher phytonutrients than conventional produce.
What about pesticide residue?
It is regularly claimed by the mainstream food industry that pesticide residues in foods are known to be safe on the basis of total diet surveys that supposedly find the levels of pesticide residues in our foods to be very low and within acceptable safety limits. But monitoring programs consistently show that around one in three non-organic food examples tested contains a variety of pesticide residues, with far lower levels being found in and on organic produce. Conventional food proponents also claim that rigorous safety assessments show that pesticide residues are no threat to human health. Yet consumers intuitively know this is false.
Many pesticide-residue safety levels are set for individual pesticides, but many samples of fresh produce carry multiple pesticide residues. Rules often do not take into account the “cocktail effect” of combinations of pesticides in and on foods. Research is emerging confirming the potential for such synergistic increases in toxicity of up to 100-fold, resulting in reproductive, immune and nervous system effects not expected from individual compounds acting alone.
How does this affect our children?
Children’s immature and developing organs, brains and detoxification and immune systems, plus their larger intake of food per kilo of body weight, combine to make them even more susceptible to toxins than adults. American toddlers eating mostly organic foods have been found to have less than one sixth the pesticide residues in their urine compared to children eating conventional foods, lowering their exposure from above to below recognized safety levels.
The 1998 landmark study, written by Elizabeth Gillette and published in the journal “Environmental Health Perspectives” showed how a combination of low-level environmental, household and dietary exposures caused subtle yet measurable developmental deficits in children. The study found significant differences between two groups in both mental and motor abilities (with the children who were exposed to pesticides scoring at a much lower level), as well as an increase in aggressive behavior.
And if you are a breast-feeding mother, you should know that a 1995 Australian study of breast milk found that infants are regularly exposed to several pesticides at levels greater than maximum recommended exposures. In Canada, a study showed a direct correlation has been observed between pesticide contamination of breast milk and the increased risk of otitis media (middle ear infection) in Inuit infants.
What about food additives?
Mr. Heaton’s article points out that artificial colorings and preservatives in food and drink are thought to contribute to hyperactivity in pre-school children, and while many still contest this issue, a study done at that time in the United Kingdom found that the proportion of hyperactive children was halved when additives were removed from their diets. Many additives – such as preservatives, artificial sweeteners, colors and flavorings, MSG, hydrogenated fat, and phosphoric acid – are prohibited in organic food production.
So will you be healthier if you eat organic food?
A recent review of controlled animal feeding trials found significant improvements in the health of animals given organic feed and concluded:
“Reproductive health (and) incidence and recovery from illness are sensitive measures of health status and should be given appropriate weight. Taking all of this into account, the available data are very strong with regard to the health benefits of organic feed and food.”
Similar tests with humans are problematic, though evidence is emerging here too! An early observational study revealed that boarding-school students eating predominately organically for three years experienced a “very marked decline” in colds and influenza, more rapid convalescence, excellent health generally, fewer sports injuries, a greater resilience to fractures and sprains, clear and healthy skin, and improved dental health.
Summing it up!
So is organic food better for you? In my opinion, as well as the author Mr. Heaton, the answer is yes. Decreasing one’s toxin burden and increasing one’s intake of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants can have a significant impact on health, especially when trying to improve or restore health.
Personally, since I have been growing organically and preserving the food for consumption during the winter months, I have never felt better. Like the studies suggest, I have fewer colds and in general, fewer health issues to contend with. Eating organic is not the “silver bullet” though. I have to make sure that I also get plenty of exercise, rest and maintain a healthy diet too. I limit the amount of red meat that I consume and watch my daily sodium level. I consciously try to make healthy choices throughout the day.
Yes, growing my own makes it somewhat easy for me to accomplish this, but non-growers can do it too. First you have to move away from the notion that eating “smart” has to cost more. Studies have shown that the average family spends five times more on junk food, take-out food, alcohol, and tobacco than on fruits and vegetables. To make healthier choices they need encouragement and education (see my blog “Are You Fighting For Your Children’s Future” 2/14/2011).
The fact is that organic food is not a luxury. It’s how food’s supposed to be, and a valuable part of any regimen intended to maintain, improve, or restore health
Update: Are Fruits and Vegetables Getting Less Nutritious? (courtesy of Nutrition Diva)
For more information on organic food and organic gardening please go to the following websites:
Michigan State University http://www.css.msu.edu./SPNL/
Grinning Planet www.grinningplanet.com
National Home Gardening Club www.gardeningclub.com
Organic Gardening www.organicgardening.com
Urban Farm Magazine www.urbanfarmonline.com
Christina Pirello “Living the Well Life” www.christinacooks.com
The Garden Resource Program www.DetroitAgriculture.Org.
Project Sweet Tomato www.projectsweettomato.com
Photo Credits: John Adams (1, 2); Jenni-ann Littsey (3, 4, 5, 6)