Whither organic food?

Masha asked, “What is your opinion on feeding my child ‘Organic Foods’ vs. ‘Non-Organic Foods’? For instance- I started giving my one year old organic milk and my husband wonders what the benefit is?”

In my opinion organic products are not worth the extra cost. I don’t buy them.

It’s often unclear what “organic” means. You’d think that would be a promise that the food had no chemicals, additives, or other artificial things; but these standards have historically been set by voluntary panels from industry groups, and the definition may vary depending on what kind of food it is. Some organizations are more picky about the organic label than others, and in many cases enforcement is entirely voluntary.

Even if a product really is “organic,” is that a guarantee that it’s safer or more nutritionally sound? Nope. Organic products have been linked to outbreaks of disease, as have conventional foods. And the nutrition content of organics is just about identical to that of conventional foods—and in some cases, it’s inferior.

What about pesticides? Organic produce that’s tested at independent labs does have less pesticide residue. What’s unclear is if the small amount of residue on conventional foods is harmful to people or to the farm environment. There really isn’t any data that has shown ill effects from the chemicals in conventional foods, but I would agree that eating chemical residues is probably not a good thing. So rinse and peel your produce—even organically grown produce—to remove both chemicals and microbial contaminants. The amount of pesticide residue varies considerably depending on the kind of produce; for instance, even conventional asparagus, broccoli, and corn rarely have any detectable chemical residues. Consumer Reports published a table of fruits and veggies explaining which are most likely to contain pesticides.

Some people are concerned about hormones given to some dairy cattle to increase milk production, called “BGH” (sometimes abbreviated rBGH, BST, or bST.) I am unconvinced that this is something to worry about. The amounts of hormones in the final milk product are very similar to the milk from untreated cows, and no clinical study or even plausible theory supports any genuine health risk from this.

What’s the downside to organic products? They cost more to produce; or, put another way, you get less food per acre. With food prices increasing throughout the world, careful and judicious use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides is necessary to get enough food to as many people as possible. Though individual consumers should be able to choose organic alternatives, clearly the world food supply would be even more scarce if farmers were unable to take advantage of modern, conventional agricultural techniques.

While I’m skeptical of organic products, that’s not to be confused with “whole foods.” There are tremendous, easily demonstrated benefits of eating a diet rich in fresh whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, and avoiding processed chemicals such as high-fructose corn syrup. In fact, there is much more evidence of the harm of trans-fats and high-fructose corn syrup, both of which are found in organic foods, than of the harm of chemical residues on food.

Choosing organic products may reduce some chemical exposures, but at this time there is no evidence that this is going to lead to better health. With my money, I’d rather buy more fresh fruits and veggies overall than choose the ones from the organic section. Or save the extra money for the college fund, or a Wii Fit!

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6 Comments on “Whither organic food?”

  1. The July 21, 2008, posting by Dr. Roy entitled “Whither organic food?” is filled with misinformation. Here’s the real picture.

    Products labeled as organic must be produced and processed following mandatory practices. Since national organic standards were fully implemented in October 2002, the term ‘organic’ has been clearly defined and federally regulated. What is voluntary is the use of the “USDA Organic” seal on products in which at least 95% percent of the ingredients are organic.

    Taking food safety seriously is important for all food producers and handlers, whether organic or non-organic. There is no data linking organic products per se to outbreaks of disease.

    Despite little money designated for organic research, there is mounting scientific evidence that organic produce contains higher levels of some nutrients than produce grown non-organically. For instance, findings published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry in July 2008 show organic blueberries contain higher levels of antioxidants than non-organically raised blueberries. Studies by scientists at the University of California at Davis found organic tomatoes offer nearly twice the number of health-promoting flavonoids than non-organic tomatoes.

    In addition, there is evidence that exposure to pesticides has serious health implications, particularly for pregnant women and young children. Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle have found organophosphorus (OP) pesticide residues in the urine of children eating non-organic produce. These residue levels disappeared when the children switched to eating organic. Other studies have indicated that chronic low-level exposure to OP pesticide residues may adversely affect neurological function, neurodevelopment, and growth in children.

    Yes, all milk contains hormones. However, organic farmers do not use synthetic growth hormones in organic milk production. There is evidence suggesting that the use of synthetic growth hormones, such as rBGH in dairy cows, can be detrimental both to human and animal health. Many countries in the world ban its use for that very reason.

    Given the wealth of misinformation that is circulated about organic, it is no surprise that people like Dr. Roy question whether its benefits outweigh its costs. For people who really want the facts, visit http://www.ota.com.

    Jennifer Rose
    New Media Manager
    Organic Trade Association


  2. Dr. Roy Says:

    I thank Ms. Rose for her comments. She identifies herself as a representative of organic food producers, and I appreciate her honesty in doing that. I urge everyone to look at the sources of information posted on the internet– this is sometimes difficult to do. I have no industry associations or financial relationships with producers of any kind of food, medicine, or medical advice, and have no “horse in this race.”

    I would like to clarify: some studies have shown individual nutrient differences in some organically v. conventionally grown products, but certainly not in all, and not even in most. Other studies have shown superior nutrient content in conventional foods. Certainly nutrient concentrations vary by season, geography, storage, and preparation method; and just because one nutrient is higher doesn’t mean that the other thousand are higher, lower, or the same. The science does not in any way support the blanket statement that organically grown produce has superior nutrition compared to conventional products.

    There is no credible evidence whatsoever that the use of synthetic hormones in dairy cows is detrimental to human health. Animal health is another question– that may be, I don’t have the expertise to know, and I don’t routinely look at that literature. I would appreciate links to peer-reviewed, non-industry sponsored studies on this issue.

    The only hesitation I have in recommending organic products is the cost. These are lean times for many families, and choices have to be made on how to spend money. Some farm products are raised using a lot of chemicals that are hard to wash off- spinach and raspberries, for instance. Others are easy to peel, or are grown with few chemicals to begin with- like asparagus or bananas. Some organic products have very little difference, if any, from their conventional counterparts. Organic labeling does not make this clear.

    While the health benefits of organic v. conventional products are debatable, there is overwhelmingly positive evidence for the health benefits of eating more fresh fruits and vegetables. So if a family has a fixed grocery budget, there is genuine benefit to their spending their money on conventional produce– they’ll get more for their money, and more fresh produce is a very good thing. If a family has enough money to buy all-organic, and plenty of it, good for them. Many families do not have this luxury. To my mind, the benefit of being able to afford more vegetables outweighs the benefits of buying organic vegetables.


  3. Holly M Says:

    Dr. Roy, a question to add to your original answer. I’ve also heard that some organic foods (milk for one) are thought to be contributing to the early onset of puberty. Should that be any consideration when deciding what to give my children?



  4. Holly M Says:

    Correction to my above comment – what I meant to say was that I’d heard that one of the reasons to switch to organic was to avoid the additives in non-organic milk (and other foods) that could be contributing to early development. Sorry about the confusion.



  5. Dr. Roy Says:

    There’s no evidence that hormones given to cows to increase their milk production causes any ill-effects in humans. The science is summarized nicely in this other blog: http://junkfoodscience.blogspot.com/2007/02/keeping-our-wits-about-us.html.

    Also, epidemiologic studies comparing the timing of puberty in different countries has found no correlation with the use of these hormones. What is driving the age of puberty lower in girls is improving (or, some would say, over-abundant) nutrition. See my earlier post, https://pediatricinsider.wordpress.com/2008/04/05/shes-too-young-is-puberty-starting-early/


  6. cammy Says:

    You know, after buying organic for many years, I moved to an island in which you couldn’t be too picky about the produce on the shelf. So, I tried to eat some non-organic, edible-skin produce and many times found that no matter how long I washed the vegetable I could not get rid of the taste of pesticides. To me, better tasting produce is better for me and my family because we will eat it more. So to avoid feeling like I just took a hit off of mosquito spray, I just stick with organic for produce with the skins that are edible, and BTW skins carry some amazing nutrients… and why should we as consumers be settling for anything than less than edible skins?

    And to offer a side note: Nutrition of our produce is not the only point in purchasing organic fruits, veggies and meat. With run-off from the industrial fields, we get polluted water sources and huge dead zones in our coasts and gulfs (which is messing up our seafood source). Main point is that our food production system is warped and needs to be reined in to re-enter the realm of the natural world if our ecosystems are to remain viable.

    Thanks for the great blog. It’s very informative and it seems many of your readers are too.


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