Organic Food: Is it Safer and More Nutritious?

Do you try to eat organic? All organic? Some organic? If it’s on sale? Why do you eat organic? Or why don’t you? Do you know why your life and the life of the planet might depend on it?

What is organic?

The term “organic” refers to the way agricultural products are grown and processed. While the regulations vary from country to country, in the U.S and Canada, organic crops must be grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides, or insecticides. They can’t plant any bioengineered genes (GMOs), and must pass regular inspections and soil testing.

To become an organic farm the farm must grow using organic methods for at least 3 years while the soil is being regularly tested to see if it is now clear of any residual chemicals used during its time as a conventional farm. Once clear the farmer can apply to be certified. This is an expensive and lengthy process for the farmer.

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For livestock raised for meat, eggs, and dairy products to be certified organic the rules differ widely from Canada and the US. The rules also differ from animal to animal. Animals must have access to the outdoors and be given organic feed. They may not be given antibiotics, growth hormones, or any animal by-products.

If animals become ill, beef and dairy producers are not allowed to withhold medications that might be needed to restore health. However, if antibiotics are used to treat illness, the beef or dairy producer is not longer allowed to label the meat, milk or cheese as organic.

But is it healthier?

There is a growing body of evidence that shows some potential health benefits of organic foods when compared with conventionally grown foods. Potential benefits include the following:

  • Nutrients. Studies have shown small to moderate increases in some nutrients in organic produce. The best evidence of a significant increase is in certain types of flavonoids such as vitamin C, zinc and iron (123, 4).which have antioxidant properties. In fact, antioxidant levels can be up to 69% higher in these foods. One study also found that organically grown berries and corn contained 58% more antioxidants and up to 52% higher amounts of vitamin C (3). What is more evident is the general shrinking nutrient content in our food over the last 60 years as a result of farming practices that don’t care for the soil.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids. The feeding requirements for organic livestock farming, such as the primary use of grass and alfalfa for cattle, result in generally higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids (a more heart healthy fat). These higher omega-3 fatty acids, 50% higher levels, are found in organic meats, dairy and eggs. 
  • Nitrite levels. Organically grown crops have also been shown to have lower levels of nitrate. In fact, studies have shown that nitrate levels are 30% lower in these crops (45). Nitrites can damage cells and high nitrate levels are linked to an increased risk of certain types of cancer including stomach cancer (6). They’re also linked to a condition called methemoglobinemia, a disease in infants that affects the body’s ability to carry oxygen (6). 

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  • Toxic metal. Cadmium is a toxic chemical naturally found in soils and absorbed by plants. Studies have shown significantly lower cadmium levels in organic grains. One study found that levels of cadmium, an extremely toxic metal, were 48% lower in organic produce. The lower cadmium levels in are probably due to the ban on synthetic fertilizers in organic farming. Cadmium exposure is a risk factor associated with a large number of illnesses including kidney disease (7), early atherosclerosis (8), hypertension, and cardiovascular disease(8) And this is just one! 
  • Pesticide residue. Compared with conventionally grown produce, organically grown produce has lower detectable levels of pesticide residue. Organic produce may have residue because of pesticides approved for organic farming or because of airborne pesticides from conventional farms. The differences in the type of pesticides used and their impact on our health is often left out of the debate. But we do know that conventional crop pesticide residue does have measurable effects on the endocrine system, the development of Parkinson’s disease(9); asthma(10); depression and anxiety(11); cancer, including leukaemia(12) and non-Hodgkin lymphoma; and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Bacteria. Meats produced conventionally may have a higher occurrence of bacteria resistant to antibiotic treatment. The overall risk of bacterial contamination of organic foods is the same as conventional foods. Evidence suggests that consuming these foods may reduce your exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria (13).

And all of this is just a drop in the bucket and doesn’t even begin to touch on the environmental reasons to support organic farmers. The impact of conventional farming on the environment and long-term future of being able of feed the growing world’s population is scary. Our soil is more deplete than ever, we are sicker than ever, our children have life spans estimated to be shorter than ours and there isn’t enough being done, politically or at the grass roots levels. One small difference is as a population we can choose to put our money where our mouths are, pun intended, and vote with our dollars.

 

Other Sources

  • Organic Foods: Are they Safer? More Nutritious? Mayoclinic.com
  • Organic Milk and Meat: Higher in Healthful Fatty Acids. NYtimes.com
  • Inspection.gc.ca/food/organic-products/

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