Is Organic Better?

Recent reports question their benefits

Is Organic Better?

Are organic foods really better for you? A 2012 study claims they're not nutritionally better for you, but they don't contain harmful pesticides.

Generally considered a healthier eating option, organic foods have come under scrutiny lately, leaving some shoppers wondering, “Are they worth it?”

Examining recent research

Charlene Tsu, an attendee at a recent Canadian health expo, wonders about the value of organics. She makes an effort to support organic and local growers; however, the media reports on recent research questioning organics have left a lasting impression.

A September 2012 report in the Annals of Internal Medicine reviewed evidence comparing the health effects of organic and conventional foods. Investigators looked at data from 17 human studies and 223 studies involving nutrient and contaminant levels. Overall, they concluded that “the published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.”

However, the same study also noted that consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

So perhaps the strongest case in support of organic foods isn’t about what they contain but about what they don’t contain.

Pesticide problem

Agrochemicals are widely used around the world. In our air, food, and water, pesticides and other “-ides” are also burdening our bodies. Tests conducted on Canadian families in 2006 by the Toronto-based watchdog group Environmental Defence found that all parents and children in their study had detectable levels of organochlorine pesticides.

Organochlorine pesticides, used on many food crops, are believed to cause cancer; skeletal abnormalities; and damage to the nervous, reproductive, and immune systems.

Organophosphate insecticides that are a popular choice for lawn care, agricultural crops, and pest control are neurotoxins that affect brain development. Chronic exposure, further notes Environmental Defence, causes reproductive damage and reduced fertility.

Research has also linked pesticide exposure to increased risk of Parkinson’s disease and, perhaps more surprisingly, diabetes.

A cart o’ chemicals

Last June the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a US watchdog group, released its latest version of the Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.

EWG researchers analyzed US pesticide residue data gathered annually between 2000 and 2010. Even after washing and peeling produce samples (to simulate the chemicals likely present on the food when eaten) they found that residues on conventional crops are widespread: 68 percent of food samples had detectable residues.

Back in Canada, meanwhile, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency states that 99.6 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables meet Health Canada’s acceptable standards for pesticide residues. Unfortunately, Canada’s stance on chemicals is routinely criticized by environmental groups including the David Suzuki Foundation and Environmental Defence as weak and antiquated.

And while it’s true that residues have also shown up in organic produce, organic growing means that the chances are far fewer and any residues are likely less.

The principles behind organic production are designed to promote healthy soil and biological biodiversity; to reduce pollution; and to reduce, recycle, and reuse whenever possible. Generally, banned items and processes include

  • genetic modification
  • food irradiation
  • synthetic pesticides
  • sewage sludge
  • synthetic processing aids or ingredients
  • synthetic veterinary drugs
  • cloned animals
  • nanotechnology

More food for thought

A second report released last fall from the American Academy of Pediatrics adds to the organic debate. While it didn’t support a nutritional or disease-protective advantage, it did reiterate that “organic diets have been convincingly demonstrated to expose consumers to fewer pesticides associated with human disease.”

So while the jury is out on whether organic foods are nutritionally superior, eating organic is one way to reduce your chemical exposure—and that of your children. The EWG’s Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen Plus (see sidebar below) offer some contenders for your shopping dollars.

And let’s face it, even if the nutritional debate continues indefinitely, supporting an agricultural system that uses fewer chemicals is also better for our environment—and for future generations—in the long run.

The EWG’s Clean 15

According to the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, these conventional fruits and vegetables have the least pesticide residues:

  • onions
  • sweet corn*
  • pineapples
  • avocado
  • cabbage
  • sweet peas
  • asparagus
  • mangoes
  • eggplant
  • kiwi
  • cantaloupe—domestic
  • sweet potatoes
  • grapefruit
  • watermelon
  • mushrooms

*Choose organic to avoid GMOs, as some sweet corn for human consumption is genetically modified but unlabelled as such.

The Dirty Dozen

The EWG’s Dirty Dozen Plus lists the most contaminated fruits and vegetables:

  • apples
  • celery
  • sweet bell peppers
  • peaches
  • strawberries
  • nectarines—imported
  • grapes
  • spinach
  • lettuce
  • cucumbers
  • blueberries—domestic
  • potatoes

Honourable mentions went to green beans and kale/greens because these veggies were often contaminated with organophosphate insecticides that harm the nervous system.

Revisiting food irradiation

Had you watched the news after last year’s tragic E. coli outbreak and the largest beef recall in Canadian history, you probably would have heard food irradiation bandied about as a possible solution to prevent future outbreaks.

Irradiation involves exposing food to radiation to extend shelf life, prevent spoilage, and kill micro-bugs such as E. coli, Salmonella, and Campylobacter, as well as parasites.

Health Canada approves these foods for irradiation and sale:

  • onions
  • potatoes
  • wheat
  • flour
  • whole wheat flour
  • whole or ground spices
  • dehydrated seasonings

Still, irradiation has created controversy ever since its development in the 1950s and 1960s. In its 2006 report, “Food Irradiation: A Gross Failure,” the American watchdog group Center for Food Safety (CFS) argues that irradiation causes volatile toxic chemicals to form in food, that there was stunted growth in lab animals fed irradiated foods, and that the technology skipped important review steps during the approval process.

Fortunately for opponents, as the CFS report also noted, “Very few irradiated items are actually sold to consumers.”

In Canada, wholly irradiated foods must be labelled and display the international irradiation symbol. However, a regulatory loophole requires labelling in the ingredient list only if a packaged product consists of more than 10 percent of an irradiated ingredient. The best way to avoid them is to shop organically, as irradiation of organic foods is prohibited.

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