There is an ongoing debate about whether organic foods are really better for you than conventionally grown foods. As it is more expensive, it is important to know whether it is worth the money or not.
For a product to become certified organic it must pass several criteria including being free from synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, antibiotics and food additives. These products are then labeled with the logo of the certifying body. These organizations include the USDA, Australian Certified Organic, Canada Organic, or EU Organic Farming. Some products aim to deceive by putting the word organic in their name, but this does not necessarily mean it is organic. In Australia, several ‘organic water’ bottlers have been forced to remove the word organic from their name. Water cannot be organic or otherwise. Also, organic does not necessarily mean it is free from genetic modification, but these often go together.
Pesticides are made to kill bugs on plants. Although they are allowed in low amounts on food, it only makes sense that if they can kill big bugs, that they could kill the small bugs in your gut. Dr. Mark Donohoe is a GP in Sydney who previously thought there was no reason to eat organic, has recently discovered that pesticides can have a big effect on your normal gut bacteria. Good gut bacteria are needed to keep the bad bacteria at bay. An overgrowth of bad gut bacteria has been connected to everything from IBS and headaches, to arthritis and weight gain. With almost every health complaint, I start by making sure a patient’s gut is functioning properly. To learn more about the importance of your gut bacteria, read my article 10% Human.
It is still unknown the extent of the health problems that could be caused by pesticides but it is hard to believe they can kill bugs without affecting us. The use of neonicotinoid insecticides has been banned in the EU due to its effects on bee health. Beekeepers in Australia are calling for a ban on them too.
A study published in 2013 found that fruit flies fed organic produce had greater fertility and lived longer. These flies were also more active and showed more resistance to stress. Another study published in 2015 found that tomatoes that were grown organically were subjected to more stress. This stress caused them to be smaller, but higher in vitamin C and phenols. Phenols can act as antioxidants that may help lower cholesterol.
Several studies have shown the effects pesticides can have on our health. Organophosphates have been banned in Europe and restricted in the US but are still widely used in Australia. These pesticides are linked to reduced IQ, weight gain, Type II diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Children under 7 years old do not have the enzyme required to excrete these chemicals from their little bodies so it just builds up. It impairs the development of the prefrontal cortex in the brain decreasing cognitive skills and short term memory. Children with higher levels of metabolites in their urine are more likely to develop ADHD as well as asthma.
A mother’s exposure to dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene (DDE), a breakdown product of DDT, during pregnancy is associated with a higher risk of asthma and wheezing in young children. Children with higher levels in their blood are also more likely to have asthma. Exposure to permethrin, an insecticide commonly used to kills lice and often used on cotton, corn, wheat and alfalfa, is also associated with a higher risk of wheezing and asthma.
A 2012 study found a higher risk of being exposed to antibiotic resistant bacteria after eating conventional chicken or pork as well as higher concentrations of pesticides in the urine of children eating conventionally grown foods.
Lowering your pesticide concentration isn’t hard. It can take as little as 2 weeks of eating organic food to lower the levels of many of these chemicals in your body. Check out this video about a family who ate only organic food for 2 weeks.
To keep the cost of buying organic down, you can pick and choose some foods to buy organic and other conventional. Pesticides bioaccumulate in animals so eating organic meat and dairy is the most important first step. In Australia the foods with the highest pesticide residues are, in order, apples, wheat, strawberries, pears, grapes, lettuce, nectarines and peaches. If you eat apples every day, but only have pears once in awhile, then you want to buy organic apples but could let the pears slide. The foods with the lowest pesticide residues are onions, sweet corn, pineapple, asparagus, sweet peas, mango, eggplant, kiwi and cabbage. These foods are safer to eat conventional. Buying seasonal, local food is also cheaper. When you do buy conventional produce, make sure that you wash it well. Studies have found that washing with baking soda gets off the most pesticide residue but you can also use a 10% salt solution. Here are some instructions for washing your fruits and vegetables. Remember though, just because it is organic, doesn’t mean it is good for you. Organic sugar is still sugar!
If you have any questions about organic produce, talk to your local naturopath. Next week I’ll talk about the preservatives found in many processed foods and why you need to avoid them for your health.