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Is organic food worth considering?

By Dr. Gulshan Harjee Email By Dr. Gulshan Harjee
December 2012
Is organic food worth considering?

Organic food sales jumped from $3.6 billion in 1997 to $26.7 billion in 2010. What is driving this trend? Are organic foods healthier than conventional?

Stores have benefited hand over fist offering clients organic foods, from olive oils to fruits, vegetables, and meats. If you are willing to pay the price, they have it, even organic wines. Prices may be almost 400% higher for organic products. For example, apples on the shelf maybe the same size, but organic ones may sell for $3/pound while the regular maybe as low as $1/pound. Economics is about supply and demand. So, is the organics craze just to make money?

Many families are trying to decide about eating organic food. Those who switch usually do so for environmental and health concerns about pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, sewage sludge, ionizing radiation, antibiotics, growth hormones, and bioengineering or genetically modified organisms (GMOs); for better taste; and sometimes for better nutritional value.

For farm crops, a sustainable, “green” environment is healthier for soil, plants, animals, and many believe, people, too. Organic food is usually free from synthetic insecticides or pesticides, but depends on birds, traps, mating disruption, beneficial insects, and pesticides from natural sources. Weeds at organic farms are generally removed by hand weeding or soil tilling or prevented by mulching or natural plant-killing compounds, whereas conventional crops may be sprayed with synthetic herbicides. Crops grown organically waste less water and keep pollution low. Crop rotation, compost, and manure conserve soil quality and increase nutritional value naturally instead of using chemical fertilizers as additives. And there is no radiation or chemical contamination of foods. Organic farmers try to avoid cross-contamination from GMOs that are in most commercial crops, so they are fighting to protect their right to use organic seeds. They also avoid GMOs in fertilizers.

For farm animals, a humanitarian environment is also healthier. Animals on organic farms eat a balanced diet with organic feed and rotational grazing, graze outdoors, are cleaner, and do not need or receive growth hormones or extra antibiotics.

Experimentation: With seeds, plants, and animals not genetically altered, organic food has no ethically questionable cross-species experimentation.

Contaminants: Non-organic foods have been shown to have slightly more pesticide; however, levels are lower than prescribed by the FDA as safe. While there is no data to say that these amounts pose health problems, the possibility is being researched: e.g., higher levels of pesticide metabolites were found in the urine of children with ADHD, according to a report in the journal Pediatrics (2010). Different types of foods have different levels of contamination: Consumer Reports (February 2006) outlined which foods had more contaminants (“When it Pays to Buy Organic”).

Bacteria studies also give mixed messages. One study reported higher bacterial infestation with Ecoli and campylobacter from use of manure for fertilizer for organic plants. However, conventionally raised chicken and pork have drug resistant Ecoli due to frequent usage of antibiotics. Whether this is related to drug resistant pathogens in humans is debatable.

Food Additives: Beyond the farm, in food manufacture, organic regulations ban or severely restrict using food additives, processing aids (used during processing, but not added directly to food) and fortifying agents, including preservatives, artificial sweeteners, colorings, flavorings, and monosodium glutamate (MSG).

Taste: Many consumers say that organic tomatoes, carrots, and beef, for example, taste much better than conventional, but this has not been proven.

Nutrition: It is unclear whether organics are more nutritious. They have slightly higher phosphorus content, but this is deemed of no clinical significance. Omega 3 oils are also slightly higher—again insignificant. A recent study found them comparable, but since there are many variables to consider, it is difficult to design good studies, so research continues. Studies on children with multiple food allergies did not produce results favoring organic foods.

Disadvantages: Higher prices of organics are due to more expensive farming practices, and to supply and demand: they are less readily available.

Because organic fruits and vegetables aren’t treated with waxes, animal products, films, or preservatives, they may spoil faster. Organic produce may look less appealing because of odd shape, color, or size. However, they meet the same quality and safety standards as for conventional foods. Note that internationally grown organic products may not follow the rules laid out by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture).

Halal meats are not necessarily organic, healthier, fresher, or more “natural.” Halal is only a style of slaughtering and sacrificing an animal by religious guidelines and has no organic connotation.

In sum, while it may be difficult to prove that organics are healthier, it may be reasonable to say that they are better for the planet and maybe better for people—as long as the diet is also nutritious and reasonable. For example, you can’t live on organic fried chicken and organic cookies and call it healthy! If you choose organics, look for the round green and white label saying “USDA organic.”

[Gulshan Harjee, M.D., is a board certified internist in private practice with an emphasis on prevention. Please email your health and medical questions for consideration in this column to: gharjee@comcast.net. The material in this column is of a general nature, and must not be construed as specific medical advice. This column rotates monthly along with the Fitness Lifestyle column by Aarti Patel.]


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