Does Organic Food Make Any Difference?

“Food is your body’s fuel. Without fuel, your body wants to shut down.” Ken Hill

Organic food means that it was produced by using sustainable, environmentally friendly agricultural practices. “Various organic agricultural technologies have been used for about 6000 years to make agriculture more sustainable while conserving soil, water, energy, and biological resources” (1). Organic farmers cultivate their vegetables, fruits and grains without pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, and GMO seeds; organic livestock is produced without genetic engineering, antibiotics, added growth hormones, or other prohibited feed ingredients such as urea, manure, or arsenic compounds (2).

Organically produced food is free of artificial food additives and fillers; it is not exposed to chemical ripening and food irradiation – all dubious processes and methods that are designed to speed up food production, minimize short-term costs and maximize corporate profits at the detriment of human health, animal welfare and environment.

  • Nutritional Value & Taste

Organically produced crops and dairy products are packed with highly concentrated, bio-available minerals, vitamins and antioxidants essential for human health and well-being.

 Comparative studies of organic vs. non-organic foods found that organic vegetables “had on an average over 90% more of the nutritional elements than similar commercial food” (3).  Specifically, a study comparing organically and conventionally grown apples, pears, potatoes, wheat, and sweet corn over a two year period showed that the organically grown foods were: 63% higher in calcium; 59% higher in iron; 138% higher in magnesium; 91% higher in phosphorus; 125% higher in potassium and 60% higher in zinc. Low levels of these minerals in a human diet are correlated with many health conditions.

A higher mineral content of organic food crops can be explained by soil management and fertilization practices. First, organic farmers preserve a rich diversity of soil microorganisms that produce substances that make minerals more available to plant roots.  Second, they don’t use chemical fertilizers (e.g., nitrogen, potassium) that interfere with plants’ capacity to absorb other minerals from the soil (4).

Two 10-year comparative studies of organic and conventional crop management practices revealed that organic tomatoes were 79-97% richer in flavonoids (5) and had higher average α-tomatine content than their conventional counterpart . α-Tomatine has numerous potential health benefits including the ability to inhibit cancer cell growth in in vitro studies (6).  Another study found that that organically and sustainably grown berries and corn contained a significantly higher level of polyphenols and vitamin C than those conventionally grown (7).

The bioactive phytochemicals such as flavonoids are “generally responsible for colour, taste, prevention of fat oxidation, and protection of vitamins and enzymes” in plants (8). Moreover, flavonoids in fruit and vegetables are responsible for their potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anticancer activities. Researchers argue that the most of the antioxidant power of fruits and vegetables may come from polyphenols and flavonoids present in whole organic food. This complex mixture of phytochemicals and their synergistic effects are the most beneficial for human health, not isolated elements or dietary supplements (9).  In fact, dietary supplements of purified flavonoids cannot replace their natural source (fruits, vegetables, tea, cocoa) and can be even toxic in high doses (10).

Organic dairy and meat products are also healthier and tastier than its conventional counterparts. As compared to non-organic versions, organic milk and meat contain significantly higher concentrations of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids thanks to the high grazing/forage-based diets prescribed by organic farming (11). The health benefits of Omega-3s include improved fetal brain development, delayed decline in cognitive function in elderly men and reduced risk of dementia (especially Alzheimer’s disease). They are also known to reduce the risks of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory autoimmune diseases.

  • Food safety

The health benefits of organic food are not only attributed to its natural package of minerals, vitamins and antioxidants but also to its lower exposure to toxic chemicals, heavy metals and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Meta-analyses of 343 peer-reviewed studies comparing organically grown crops with conventionally grown crops indicate that conventional crops have a four time higher incidence of pesticide residue and contain significantly higher concentrations of the toxic metal Cadmium (12).

As researchers explain: “The heavy metal Cadmium (Cd) is a major cause of vascular disorders, various common cancers, kidney disease, osteoporosis and other health disorders, even in populations that do not have occupational exposure to this toxin.. Cd exposure may be responsible for 27–68 % of the breast cancer cases; 16% of the coronary disease, 23% for stroke and 28% for heart failure. Although tobacco smoke is a major source of Cd exposure, Cd is also found in the diet; green vegetables, root vegetables, tubers, grains, organ meats and shellfish often contain reasonable amounts of this toxin. Once Cd gets into the body, there is no physiological mechanism for excreting it; hence, the half-life of Cd in the body has been estimated to be 10–30 years”.

According to some estimations, “if non-smokers were to consume only organically produced foods throughout life, their body burdens of Cd would be approximately half as high as those of non-smokers who ate foods raised with conventional agriculture” (13).

The lower Cd concentrations in organic food are linked to specific agronomic practices (e.g. non-use of mineral N and P fertilizers, respectively) prescribed in organic farming systems. Similarly, another comparative study concluded that “organically grown foods consistently had about one-third as many residues as conventionally grown foods, and conventionally grown samples were also far more likely to contain multiple pesticide residues than were organically grown samples”(14).

Given that conventional vegetables and fruits are packed with a large variety of pesticides and herbicides, it is not surprising that people who mostly consume a plant-based diet (vegetarians and vegans) are more vulnerable to these toxic chemicals impact. A recent study comparing French vegetarians and the general population showed that “vegetarians are critically exposed to a higher number of pesticides than subjects of the general population” as they consume larger amounts of plant-origin products to meet their energy requirements (15). Another study revealed that vegans tend to have a higher level of Cadmium concentration in their blood than omnivores (16).

However, animal-based food contain other harmful substances, to which vegetarians are less exposed, such as organochlorine compounds – persistent organic pollutants that move up through the food chain. They are responsible for endocrine disruption, thyroid diseases and diabetes (17). Moreover, conventional meat (chicken and pork) represents a higher risk for antibiotic-resistant bacteria than organic versions (18).

Therefore, researchers suggest that “consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria” (12). Moreover, organic fruits and vegetables are full of antioxidants that “have potential for attenuating the adverse health impacts of toxic chemicals” (13).

  • Fertility, Child Health & Development

Because organic diet provides a human body with all essential micro- and macronutrients while protecting from harmful environmental substances, it is indispensable for fertility, healthy pregnancy and child development.

Several studies suggest that eating conventional fruits and vegetables with high levels of pesticides may impair spermatogenesis and semen quality. Studies found that non-organic diets were associated with poorer semen quality  and a lower percentage of morphologically normal sperm among men (19). A total of 37 studies documented the adverse effects of environmental and occupational exposures to pesticides on male reproductive capacities. Researchers explain that “pesticides may act as endocrine disrupting chemicals through hormonal or gonadotrophic pathways that affect male reproduction” (20).

Pregnant women who consume non-organic food with a high concentration of pesticides expose their developing babies to a host of health and cognitive problems. Because of its small size, rapid growth and limited ability to detoxify harmful substances, the developing fetus is disproportionately impacted by detrimental effects of toxic chemicals (21). Several studies have observed that women’s exposure to pesticides or insecticides during pregnancy is linked to a shortened gestation period, a child’s smaller birth weight and length (22, 23). This deficit in fetal growth or premature birth can potentially have long-term effects on child health, cognitive development and well-being.

Moreover, maternal exposure to pesticides during pregnancy may be linked to a wide variety of neurodevelopment disorders in children that have exploded in the last two decades. These developmental disabilities include specific learning and intellectual disabilities, autism, and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorders. For example, epidemiological studies found that pesticide exposure during pregnancy may result in a smaller head circumference (24), reduced cognitive abilities (25-27), and ADHD and attention problems (25, 28).

Organic diet is particularly critical for young children who “are still developing and have greater intake of food and fluids relative to their body weight.” A study comparing dietary exposure for eleven toxic chemicals in California found that young children are more vulnerable to toxic exposure than adults; they exceed safety levels by a greater margin than adults for all examined compounds. These toxic compounds are potential endocrine disruptors, that is, “they exhibit high potency in very small amounts and are capable of disrupting reproductive, developmental, and other hormonally mediated physiological functions. Pediatric problems that have been linked to preventable environmental toxin exposures include cancer, asthma, lead poisoning, neurobehavioral disorders, learning and developmental disabilities, and birth defects” (29).

The top contributors to pesticide intake among fruits and vegetables were tomatoes, peaches, apples, peppers, grapes, lettuce, broccoli, strawberries, spinach, pears, green beans, and celery. Poultry, salmon, tuna, and mushrooms were top contributors to arsenic in all age groups. Chronic arsenic exposure by ingestion has been related to various types of cancer. Fried potatoes, chips, cereal, and crackers were top contributors to acrylamide, a carcinogen formed in heated carbohydrate-rich foods (30).

Researchers  recommend to consume organically produced dairy, fruits and vegetables to reduce pesticide intake; less animal foods (meat, dairy, and fish) to reduce intake of persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals, which bioaccumulate up the food chain, especially in animal fat, and to consume lower quantities of chips, cereals, crackers and other processed carbohydrate foods to reduce acrylamyde intake (29).

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