Organic Foods - Are They Worth It?

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A new app hopefully launching at the end of 2017 may be able to detect chemical residues in fruit and vegetables (56). This would be extremely useful for consumers to determine what to purchase. There are other apps on the market that can be useful as well:

 

Dirty Dozen 

  • Shows the dirty dozen and clean fifteen

 

Farmstand 

  • Shows farmer markets in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and more

  • Connects you with locally grown food

 

Harvest. $1.99 

  • Tells you what is in season

  • Pesticide levels so you know when to buy organic

  • Teaches you the best mean of storage

 

Veggie Base $1.99 

  • Shows what fruits and vegetables are in season

  • Dirty dozen list

  • Recommends when to buy conventional

  • Information about produce

  • Shows local produce

 

There are more apps here 

Numerous factors can influence the nutritional content (macronutrients, vitamins, phytochemicals, and so on) of animals and crops.

 

Milk

  • Genetic variability

  • Cattle breed

  • the diet which differs throughout the year

 

Crops

  • Weather

  • specific environmental conditions (microclimates)

  • soil quality

  • season

  • pollutants

The demand for organic food has dramatically increased in many developed countries due to the perceived benefits such as environmental sustainability, animal welfare, food quality and food safety when compared to conventional farming (1).

 

With the current uncertainty of evidence on the nutrient composition of foods produced under different regimens, consumers seem to be willing to pay a higher price for organic produce based on their underlying belief that organic food is virtually free of hazards (2).

 

Organic foodstuffs are produced according to specified standards without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers (potassium chloride and superphosphate) in crop production and antibiotics and hormones in animal production (3). However, these regulations governing organic production vary across countries and certifiers.

 

This can be misleading for consumers who wish to avoid pesticides all together as the truth is, organic farmers can still use pesticides and fungicides as long as they are derived from natural sources to prevent pests from destroying their crops. This is due to the fact that mass production of crops without any pesticides will lead to inefficiency, wasted food and malnutrition worldwide (4, 5).

 

There are 20 chemicals approved for organic use in the US which are all derived from plants but studies have shown that some natural pesticides are even more detrimental to health and environment than synthetic ones (6). For example, rotenone was commonly used by organic growers in the past (discontinued after 2005) and ingesting it produces effects ranging from mild irritation to vomiting (7, 8).

Labelling

In some cases, the organic label is the most important characteristic that consumers value in food with nutritional contents far less appreciated.

 

Just because a bag of chips has organic on the label does not make them healthy. Organic chips are still deep-fried carbohydrates with very little nutritional value.

Below are some terms labels that you will see on products:

Confounding Factors

  • 100% organic: PURE 100% organic

  • Organic: 95% organic ingredients

  • Made with organic ingredients70% organic ingredients

  • Natural: no artificial ingredient or added colour and minimally processed

  • Containing organic ingredients: 50% organic ingredients

  • Free-range: access to outdoors for a minimum of 5 minutes a day

  • Certified: evaluated meat product (9)

 

The Evidence

The debate about organic and conventional food has been going on for decades and many convincing studies have concluded that organic food is more nutritious than conventional foods (10, 11) though results are not consistent (12, 13).

 

These studies do generally agree that consumption of organic produce reduces exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria (14, 15).

 

However, studies with long-term consumption of purely organic diet are difficult as most people eat a mixture of both organic and non-organic ingredients. 

Apps

Why?

The multi-billion organic food industry makes it appealing for companies. Thanks to very effective and easy marketing, many people believe organic is the best: it is more nutritious, pesticide-free and protects the environment. What could be wrong with this?

 

The infamous Monsanto (16) pesticide producers make over 4.5 billion dollars yearly and spend an average of 5 million dollars a year on public lobbying. People have been lobbying for or against organic food.

 

One of the most cited Stanford review from 2012 concluded that there is a lack of strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods but it may limit exposure to pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. However, this study received millions of dollars from Cargill which has been linked to Monsanto the pesticide company (17).

 

Some pro-organic arguments seem compelling such as the meta-analysis published by the British Journal of Nutrition which reported that organic food can boost a person’s antioxidant intake by up to 40%. It is worth mentioning that this study was funded by an organic farming charity (18).

 

The difference in nutrient content

Milk

Organic milk apparently has a more desirable fatty acid composition (19).

Nutrients higher in organic milk

  • n-3 PUFA

  • α -linolenic acid (ALA)

  • n-3 fatty acids (EPA, DPA, DHA)

  • conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)

  • α-tocopherol

  • Iron (Fe)

Linoleic acid (LA), α -linolenic acid (ALA), omega-3 fatty acids (EPA, DPA, and DHA) have been shown to induce protective effects against heart disease. Linoleic acid (LA) is known to reduce LDL production (bad cholesterol) and enhance its clearance whereas EPA and DHA can reduce arrhythmia, blood pressure, inflammation and triglyceride levels (20).

Very long-chain n-3 fatty acids are linked to other health benefits such as improved fetal brain development and delayed decline in cognitive function and reduced risk of dementia (21).

 

Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is linked to fat loss (22) and is one of the most popular weight loss supplements in the world. In addition, several studies have shown people have a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, various cancers and heart disease (23, 24, 25, 26).

Nutrients lower in organic milk

  • n-6 : n-3 ratio

  • LA : ALA ratio

  • iodine

  • selenium

n-6: n-3 ratio (omega-6 fatty acid: omega-3 fatty acid ratio)

Humans have evolved to eat a balanced omega-6: omega-3 ratio of 1:1 but the typical Western diet constitutes a ratio of about 16:1 to 20:1.

 

A high omega-6: omega-3 diet promotes the development of chronic diseases such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, atherosclerosis, autoimmune diseases, certain cancers, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma and so forth.

LA : ALA ratio (Linoleic acid : alpha-linolenic acid ratio)

Linoleic acid (LA), an omega-6 fatty acid and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid can be elongated to form arachidonic acid (AA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), respectively. This process is shown below (27).

 

Conversion of linoleic acid (LA) to arachidonic acid (AA) occurs more readily than of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) to docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) though very inefficient. It is recommended to obtain EPA and DHA from additional sources.

Omega-6 fatty acids

Vegetable oils

Safflower oil

Linoleic acid (LA)

γ-Linolenic acid (GLA)

Omega-3 fatty acids

α-Linoleic acid (ALA)

Green vegetables

Flax, chia seeds​

Walnut

Soybean oils

Oily fish

Algae oil

Krill oil

Meat

Poultry

Eggs

Arachidonic acid (AA)

Oily fish

Krill oil

Algae oil

In typical westernized diets, daily alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) uptake averages 1.5 g whereas linoleic acid (LA) is 10 times higher (28). The lower the LA: ALA ratios are means that the presence of alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) is higher.

 

In a study, it suggested that the ratio of 1:3 may prevent neurodevelopment syndromes, cognitive decline during ageing, and psychiatric disorders (29).

 

In another study, it indicated that the ratio of 1:1 resulted in the highest formation of Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) (30).

Higher antioxidant (α-tocopherol) and Iron (Fe) concentrations

Increased antioxidant intake decreases oxidative stress reducing the risk of heart disease and certain cancers (31).

 

However, milk is not a major source of α-tocopherol and iron (Fe) so it is unlikely that it would cause a significant impact on health.

Lower iodine and selenium concentrations

Organic milk was estimated to have a lower level of iodine and selenium. Milk is a major source of iodine and there may be a concern that pregnant women are prone to iodine deficiency which may have a negative impact on foetal development (32, 33).

Conventional milk?

Conventional milk had lower bacterial counts than organic milk though not clinically significant. Oestrodiol and progesterone levels were also lower in conventional milk. Macronutrient compositions were similar in both whereas organic milk had 0.1% more protein than conventional milk (34).

No significant difference:

  • saturated fatty acids (SFA)

  • monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA)

  • n-6 PUFA

  • linoleic acid (LA)

 

Meat

Organic meat has a similar saturated fatty acid (SFA), a lower monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFA), higher total polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) and n-3 PUFA concentrations compared with conventional meat.

Higher in organic:

n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (n-3 PUFA)

MUFA such as Myristic acid (14:0), palmitic acid (16:0), and lauric acid (12:0) affect the relative proportions of HDL and LDL cholesterol and can increase the risk of heart disease (36).

 

PUFA (LA, ALA, VLC) has been linked to the reduction in the risk of heart disease (37). Organic meat, milk, and dairy products have approximately higher concentrations of nutritionally-desirable omega-3 fatty acids. This may be due to the use of grass and alfalfa for cattle (38).

No significant difference:

saturated fatty acids (SFA)

Lower in organic:

monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA)

Pesticides and hormones

The EPA reports that most of the pesticide consumption comes from meat, fish, poultry and dairy products.

 

As most pesticides are found accumulated in the fat, lower fat products are safer for consumption.

 

As for hormones, they cannot be broken down even at high temperatures and hence, are passed directly to our plates for consumption (39).

Hormones

Growth hormone (GH)

GH is injected into cattle to increase milk yield. Fortunately, GH is species-specific meaning that it is biologically inactive in humans and hence, there is no physiologic effect on humans even when absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract. In addition, 90% of the GH is destroyed by pasteurization in milk (40).

Sex steroids

Sex steroids, oestrogens, accelerate growth and development in cattle to increase meat yield. Unfortunately, these are not species-specific and not degraded in the stomach in humans. FAO and WHO reported that concentrations were safe in meat residues but then again, the biological effects in humans are unidentified.

 

It has been postulated that consuming oestrogen derived from animal products may lead to earlier development of puberty and breast cancer but studies have yet confirmed these hypotheses (41).

Antibiotics

Organic livestock can reduce exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria which can have significant public health benefits. Usage of antibiotics such as penicillin and tetracycline promotes the development of antibiotic-resistant organisms which can colonise in our body and initiate an epidemic that existing medicine cannot fight against.

 

Organic farming refrains from the practice and reduces the threat of disease caused by these organisms (42).

 

Crops

  • Organic crops have higher antioxidant activity between 18-69% higher concentrations of a range of individual antioxidants. Antioxidants are crucial to inhibit the oxidation of free radicals that can damage the body and reduce the process of ageing.

  • Polyphenolics and antioxidants linked to reduced risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and certain cancers.

  • Carotenoid lycopene reduces cancer risk.

  • Anthocyanin, a flavonoid, improves cardiovascular disorders, neuronal and cognitive brain functions and ocular health and protect genomic DNA integrity (45).

Higher in organic:

  • carotenoids**(lycopene)

  • polyphenols**

  • flavonoids **(anthocyanin)

  • antioxidants**

  • vitamin C & E**

  • iron

  • phosphorus

  • magnesium

Lower in organic:

  • protein

  • nitrogen

  • nitrite

  • nitrate

**Differences are clinically insignificant

In the last 50 years, nutrition content such as protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin and ascorbic acid has been declining in conventional foodstuff and hence, organic foods appear to provide better nutrition (46).

 

Conventional crops

have higher concentrations of protein, nitrogen, nitrate, nitrite. Increased intake of compounds is linked to positive and negative health impacts (47).

 

Nitrates are inert until they are converted into nitrites by bacteria in our body. Nitrites are then converted into nitric oxide in our body to relax blood vessels and increase blood flow lowering blood pressure.

 

However, nitrites exposed to high heat especially in red meat are converted into nitrosamines which are carcinogenic.

 

Reduce pesticides ingested

While chemicals used in the past were highly toxic (arsenic and cyanide), the newer versions of pesticides used today are synthetic compounds that are supposed to be safer. However, these chemicals have to be at least somewhat questioned based on our past experience. DDT was once considered to be safe until it has been revealed to be highly carcinogenic to humans.

 

Organophosphate pesticides, including chlorpyrifos and diazinon, are one of the most commonly used pesticides used in agriculture. As expected, organic foods contain fewer agrochemical residues than in conventionally grown foods which might indirectly decrease the risk of illnesses (49).

 

Children who were placed on organic diets have lowered levels of organophosphates in their urine, in which at higher concentrations are associated with neurological problems, but conventional diets are lower than the amount needed to cause clinical harm (50, 51). In addition, pesticide exposure is linked to ADHD and developmental problems resulting in lower IQ scores in children (52, 53).

 

Although the prohibition of synthetic pesticides, organic farms are also subject to exposure from pesticide drift from neighbouring farms and during transport of chemicals (54).

 

In addition, data from the USDA reported that organically raised foods had one-third as many chemical residues as conventionally raised foods and one-half as many in integrated pest management samples (55).

 

Toxic Metals

Moreover, conventional crops may have levels of 400% higher of the toxic metal cadmium than organic. There are general recommendations to minimise the intake of cadmium to avoid potential negative health impacts in nearly all systems in the body. It has been to affect blood pressure, prostate function, testosterone levels, bone mineralisation and renal and dopaminergic systems in children. To make it worse, the body retains cadmium and builds up over time (57, 58).

 

Environment

Livestock especially ruminant animals have the highest emissions as they constantly generate methane via enteric fermentation.

 

Methane (CH4) is a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2) contributing to global warming (60). In addition, ruminant animals require more energy-intensive feed and generate more manure than other livestock.

 

Animal waste releases nitrous dioxide and methane generating pollution in the water and air. Fertilisers can also result in higher levels of nitrous oxide having 300 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide.

 

Emissions from various food sources (59).

Downsides

Organic food has a high incidence of being dangerous.

Several flavours of CLIF BAR® were recalled from stores early June 2016 due to organic sunflower kernels that were potentially contaminated with listeria, a bacterium that kills hundreds in the US each year (61).

 

Another study found E. coli in 10% of organic products compared to 2% in conventional ones. Levels of salmonella were also found in organic farms at a low prevalence rate (62).

 

The use of manure instead of conventional fertilisers may have contributed to this as pathogens can easily be transferred in faecal matter.

Price

Organic products typically cost 10% to 40% more than conventional products (63). It may be ideal to consume organic daily, it is not realistic nor affordable 100% of the time. However, remember that frozen organic food is always cheaper.

 

Tips

1. Animal products are more important to buy organic than vegetables because prolonged exposure to both antibiotics and hormones may be harmful to our health

While the American Heart Association maintain that eating saturated fat from any source increases the risk of heart disease, eating organic products may not carry the same risk. The unnatural diet of an industrially-raised animal can cause long-term negative impacts on health (64).

 

According to Animal Feed, conventionally raised animals in the U.S. can be given: antibiotics, pig and chicken by-products, steroids, growth hormones, hormones, pesticides, sewage sludge, arsenic-based drugs

2. Buy the clean 15 and dirty dozen for fruits and vegetables.

Some fruits and vegetables require more pesticides to grow than others. Data from the pesticide data program reveals conventional produce with the highest percentages of pesticide residue are​ (65):

On the opposite end of the contamination spectrum is the Clean 15. These produce items are less likely to be sprayed with chemicals. You can safely buy these from the conventional produce section for a lesser cost.

3. Buy seasonal fruits and vegetables as they have more nutrients than out of season.

Broccoli had only half the vitamin C when picked out of season (66). This may due to the instability of vitamin C as it degrades more easily than other vitamins.

 

Check what is in season right now

4. For conventional produce, remember to wash and scrub fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running water (67)

  • Washing removes bacteria and traces of residues but not all can be removed by washing.

  • Removing the outer layer of vegetables or peeling fruits can remove the contaminants but may reduce nutrient content (68)

Take home message

References


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Eating organic foods may have potential benefits for health and the environment. It is important to be wary of the organic labels and the credibility of companies that sell them. The production methods differ from one farm to another. It is likely that the combination of both organic and conventional produce the best results for health and the environment.

 

To be better safe than sorry for your health, buying organic versions of the Dirty Dozen and animal products is a better way to avoid plenty of pesticides and hormones. Although the levels fall below the safety guidelines, long-term repeated exposure may be detrimental to health.

 

Organic farming reduces pollution but uses more land with lower yields between 19-60% less than conventional farming. Until this can be on par in terms of volume with conventional farming, it cannot be a viable option worldwide as the decreased production could lead to alarmingly high rates of food insecurity.