It’s better for you

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016 | crankit

Organic food is good for you

By nutritionist, researcher and Farm Fresh Organics co-founder Shane Heaton

As a clinical nutritionist I have a keen interest in food quality and how it affects health. You should too. In your lifetime you’ll consume 100 tonnes of food and drink, representing an enormous interaction with your environment and a huge influence on your health.

As part of a nutritional programme to help individuals protect and improve their health I recommend reducing your exposure to toxins and optimising your intake of nutrients. But this is becoming hard work. Food composition tables around the world have revealed that since the 1940’s the mineral levels in fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy have declined substantially. Combine this with earlier picking, longer storage and more processing, and it’s clear we’re getting fewer nutrients in our food than we were 60 years ago. Furthermore, monitoring programs in the UK, US and Australia consistently find that around one third to one half of all food samples contains residues of a variety of pesticides. More than 500 additives are permitted in conventional processed foods and we all eat up to 2kgs of them every year. The American Chemical Society has recently registered the 10 millionth man-made chemical, and Dr Vyvyan Howard, toxicologist from the University of Liverpool finds we each have some 500 toxins in our systems that our grandparents didn’t have because they didn’t exist 50 years ago. 95% of them come from our diet.

It is against this background of declining nutrients and increasing toxins in food, coupled with markers indicating declines in public health like increased cancer incidence and declining fertility that we address the question ‘Is organic food better for you?’ A belief that organic food is healthier is a key motivation for organic consumers, and if the growing global organic sector wants to begin (or continue) making claims to this effect it must respond to calls for scientific validation of this belief.

My review of the evidence supersedes several other inconclusive surveys of the existing literature, uniquely introducing exacting criteria to establish the validity of the studies reviewed. Looking only at validated comparative research I found that collectively, the available evidence supports the belief that organic produce is safer, more nutritious and better for you than non-organic produce.

Enhanced food safety

Far lower levels of pesticide residues are found in and on organic produce. While regulators assert that rigorous safety assessments have confirmed that pesticide residues are no threat to human health, consumers intuitively know this is a false assurance. No rigorous safety assessment has or can be made of the infinite number of mixtures they are exposed to. Dietary exposures to pesticide residues have been linked to stomach upsets, headaches, breast milk contamination and reductions in sperm quality, though long-term occupational or environmental exposures have revealed more serious consequences including Parkinson’s disease and cancer. A recent study showed how a combination of environmental, household and dietary exposure has caused developmental deficits in children in Mexico. Similar routes of exposure are not uncommon in Australia via council pest control programs, household and garden insecticides and agricultural residues in food.

“Organic food contains fewer residues of pesticides used in conventional agriculture, so buying organic is one way to reduce the chances that your food contains these pesticides”
– Sir John Krebs, Chair of UK Food Standards Agency

Food additives are strictly limited in organic food processing, allowed only when they’re essential to the production of the food. Specific additives implicated in various health problems, such as hydrogenated fats and heart disease, phosphoric acid and osteoporosis, MSG and asthma, aspartame and migraines, are prohibited.

Various bodies including the World Health Organisation have called for a reduction in the amount of antibiotics used in agriculture due to the risks to human health from the development of antibiotic resistance. Antibiotics are used extensively in conventional animal farming to promote growth and prevent disease – but they can only be used in organic farming when absolutely necessary, with farmers relying instead on better animal welfare standards to reduce the need for antibiotics.

BSE – mad-cow disease – has never been recorded in any cattle born and reared organically, and until we know more about the link with the human form of BSE, new-variant-CJD, organic beef represents a safer choice for consumers in the growing number of countries with documented cases of BSE and those they export to.

Nitrate is suspected of being linked with various cancers and is found in much higher levels in conventional produce than organic as a direct result of the method of fertilisation.

Despite recurrent accusations, food poisoning risks from contaminants like E.coli or aflatoxins are no greater in organic food, a view shared by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, and there is good reason to believe that the risks are actually lower in organic food due to better manure handling procedures.

Genetic modification is prohibited in organic food and farming as there is considerable uncertainty over the long-term safety of consumption of GM foods given they’ve not been tested sufficiently and some animal trials have revealed unexpected toxicities.

Less water, more nutrients

The scientific evidence also shows that organic food is, on average, more nutritious than non-organic food. Because artificial fertilisation produces lush growth and swells conventional plants and produce with more water, there is more ‘dry matter’ (i.e. food), weight for weight, in organic food. Partly because of this and for other reasons too, there are higher levels of minerals and vitamin C in organic produce. Research by American nutritionist Virginia Worthington has confirmed that based on current dietary patterns, the differences can be enough to help you achieve the recommended daily allowances for certain nutrients that you otherwise may not have.

More phytonutrients

Then there’s secondary or ‘phyto’ nutrients – the thousands of plant compounds that are not yet known to be essential for human health but are increasingly being found to have protective antioxidant capabilities. We can expect these phytonutrients, many of which are involved in the plants own defence system, to be higher in organic produce because the plants rely more on their own defences in the absence of regular pesticide applications, and evidence is emerging that supports and confirms this expectation. Higher levels have so far been confirmed for lycopene in organic tomatoes, polyphenols in organic potatoes, flavonols in organic apples, and resveratrol in organic red wine. A recent review of the subject estimated that organic produce will tend to contain 10-50% higher phytonutrients than conventional produce.

Better health outcomes

So are there observable health benefits from the consumption of organic food? Animal feeding trials have revealed significant improvements in reproductive health, infant mortality, recovery from illness, and growth rates of those animals fed organic feed compared to those fed non-organic feed. In humans it is almost impossible to control the many other influences that affect our health to run meaningful feeding trials, though observational studies have shown better general health, improved fertility and better recovery from cancer in those eating organic food.

More research coming

Recognising that there has now been sufficient analysis of the existing data and answering calls for more primary research, various bodies around the world are now conducting or planning major new research projects comparing organic and conventional foods, most notably two new initiatives – the US-based Centre for Organic Education and Promotion and the European International Research Association for Organic Food Quality and Health.

The bottom line

For consumers who want to know what is and is not in their food, organic standards give them a very clear statement. In my opinion, organic food offers those interested in protecting, maintaining or improving their health an important safe haven in today’s polluted and processed world. Organic food is not a luxury. It is how food is supposed to be.

But don’t take my word for it! See the evidence for yourself. The full 87 page report containing over 400 scientific references, written by Farm Fresh Organics founder and nutritionist Shane Heaton can be downloaded for free here.