Is Organic Food Really Better for You?
Is organic food really better for you? What about for your children?
This is a question patients ask me all the time. It is also a question Jane and I ask ourselves every time we see the high price of organic food.
Organic versus conventional foods can be an emotional issue. Many people choose organic because they want to do everything possible for their health and the environment. In this article, I share the latest medical science behind organic versus conventional foods to help you decide if the extra cost is really worth it.
Produce: Organic versus Conventional
Organic blueberries versus conventional blueberries? Which should you put in your basket at the grocery store?
Fortunately, we now have enough medical studies to help us make a more educated decision. The widely recognized “definitive study” on organic versus conventional produce was published in the prestigious British Medical Journal.
This study combined the results of the 343 smaller studies comparing organic to non-organic produce. Here are the three main findings of this study:
1. Organic produce has more antioxidants.
2. Organic produce has 4 times less pesticide residue.
3. Organic produce has less of the toxic metal, cadmium.
Why more antioxidants with organic?
Why are antioxidants so much higher with organic produce? The answer likely has something to do with plant stress.
Organic produce does not get the same megadose of nitrogen that conventional produce gets from synthetic fertilizer. As a result, organic produce tends to grow more slowly.
Also, organic produce has to do battle with more insects. In order to fight off insect attacks, plants have to produce protective compounds like flavonols. The combination of slower growth and extra flavonols gives you an extra boost of antioxidants. In many medical studies, more antioxidants from food may decrease your risk of cancer, heart disease, and dementia.
Does pesticide residue matter?
While some experts claim that the pesticides you are exposed to with conventionally grown produce is too little to matter, other experts disagree. To be honest, we really don’t know how much is too much. What we do know is that children may be more susceptible to pesticides than adults.
For the extra dose of cadmium in conventional produce, the risk is clearly cancer. The unanswered question really comes down to whether there is even enough cadmium in conventional produce to matter.
If funds are tight, then focus your precious food dollars on where the return on investment is highest. When this comes to produce, buy organic whenever possible for the dirty dozen or those foods highest in pesticides and heavy metals. The “dirty dozen” includes apples, peaches, nectarines, strawberries, grapes, celery, spinach, sweet bell peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, imported snap peas, potatoes, hot peppers, and kale.
In contrast, for the clean 15 you are fine saving some money and buying conventional produce. The clean 15 are avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbage, frozen sweet peas, onions, asparagus, mangos, papayas, kiwi, eggplant, grapefruit, cantaloupe, cauliflower, and sweet potato.
How do you remember the dirty dozen and the clean 15?
Can you name off the dirty dozen and the clean 15? I can’t.
To help you remember, there are many free apps you can download to your smartphone to help you remember. Alternatively, you can do what we usually end up doing.
Basically, if you eat the outer portion, like broccoli, strawberries, or grapes, buy organic when possible. In contrast, if you eat the protected food inside, like with nuts, oranges, or onions, we generally buy conventional. Of course, this method is not perfect as pesticides can still be taken up by the root system of the plant.
Should you ever eat something on the dirty dozen list?
As I travel frequently, this is a dilemma I face all of the time. When I am on an airplane, would it be better for me to eat the conventionally grown apple or the organic protein bar?
Even though the conventionally grown apple is number one on the dirty dozen list, the apple is probably a lot better for you than all of the sugar, processed proteins, refined grains, industrial oils, and other chemicals in organic protein bar.
While organic has many advantages, what you choose to eat is far more important than if it is organic or not. As the average American only eats 1.1 fruits and 1.6 vegetables each day, the real question isn’t organic or conventional. Rather, the bigger issue is to eat more produce, regardless of how it is grown.
Is locally grown better than organic food from afar?
Should you buy conventionally grown produce from a farmer’s market or the organic variety shipped in from South America? When it comes to nutrients in food, local trumps organic. In one study, researchers found that freshly picked local broccoli had twice the nutritional benefit than organic broccoli shipped from afar.
As most Americans are deficient in one or more micronutrients, if there was a clear difference in the farm-to-plate time, like the farmer’s market conventional produce versus organic from South America example, conventional may be better for you.
Meat: Organic versus Conventional
When it comes to meat, should you purchase the cheaper conventional meat or opt for the expensive organic cut? To help settle this question, a study was just published in the British Journal of Nutrition. This study, looked at the combined results of 67 studies on this subject.
The main finding of this study was that organic meat had 47% more omega 3 than conventional meat.
Does the extra dose of omega 3 in organic meat matter?
The real question here is why is organic meat so much higher in omega 3? This is because conventionally raised animals are fed grain and organic animals are allowed to go outside and eat natural grasses. Omega 3 is much more common in grass than grains.
To put the finding into perspective, a single serving of organic beef is likely to get you about 50 mg of DHA (omega 3). Thus, you would have to eat about 20 servings of an organic steak to get the same amount of omega 3 as eating a single 3.5 ounce (100 g) serving of salmon.
Don’t get me wrong. Every little bit of natural omega 3 you can get from food helps. Omega 3 clearly has a role in preventing heart disease, depression, dementia, cancer, or arthritis as I discussed in a previous blog.
Dairy: Organic versus Conventional
In a recent study on organic versus conventional milk, researchers came to a similar conclusion. Once again, this study was just published in the British Journal of Nutrition and was a meta-analysis, or a study averaging the results of 170 previously published studies on the subject.
As with organic meat, the main finding of this study was that there was 56% more omega 3 in organic milk compared to conventional milk. When they looked at other nutrients, the data were mixed. For example, they saw more vitamin E and iron in organic milk but less iodine and selenium.
Each glass of organic milk contains 32 mg of DHA (omega 3). Compare this to the more than 1,000 mg of DHA in a single serving of salmon. As with eating the organic meat example above, you would have to drink about two gallons (about 8 liters) of organic milk to get the same dose of omega 3 as eating a single 3.5 ounce (100 g) serving of salmon.
What about all of the antibiotics, hormones, and pesticides that conventional cows are exposed to? Fortunately, by law, every truckload of milk in the U.S. is tested for antibiotics and other drugs. If drug residue is found, the milk is discarded.
When it comes to pesticides, the United States Department of Agriculture tests dairy. Fortunately, pesticides in either conventional or organic milk is low. The main pesticide is a remnant of DDT. Since DDT was banned many years ago, levels of any DDT byproducts will continue to fade over the next 50 years until this chemical is essentially eliminated from the soil.
One other problem with conventional milk is the bovine growth hormone that they are given. While this hormone doesn’t survive pasteurization or digestion in your stomach, a byproduct does. Indeed, IGF-1 is much higher in conventional than organic milk. As discussed in a previous blog, IGF-1 may increase the risk of cancer.
Take Home Message
Should you buy organic or conventional? The simple answer is, it depends on what is available, who is eating it, and your food budget. Here are the five key take home messages of this article.
1. Organic may be more important for children than adults.
2. Organic produce has more antioxidants.
3. Organic produce has less pesticide residue and heavy metals.
4. To save money, only buy organic for the “dirty dozen.”
5. Organic meat and dairy is higher in omega 3.
When do you buy organic? Have you noticed a difference between organic and conventional? Please leave your comments below. Also, I will do my best to answer any questions you have about this article.