3 Major Myths About Organic & Conventional Food

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organic blueberries, raspberries and blackberries

 

There is very little that distinguishes organic food from conventional food. In an attempt to follow the pervasive “good food vs. bad food” storyline, many people have grossly exaggerated the differences between organic and conventional foods leaving readers with few facts grounded in scientific evidence. Don’t let the top three misperceptions about organic and conventional food influence your food choices.

This post covers:

  • Pesticide residues on food and human safety
  • Organic foods, conventional foods and the environment
  • Nutrition differences between organic and conventional foods

This post does not cover worker safety or in-depth environmental issues.

#1 Myth: Organic Foods are Grown Without Pesticides

Both organic and conventional crops are sprayed with pesticides, compounds that control a variety of pests (1, 2). In fact there is a long list of substances, including pesticides, allowed for use on organic farms. The differentiating factor between organic and conventional farming is the source of pesticides. Organic farmers primarily use naturally occurring pesticides in addition to a small number of man-made pesticides while conventional farmers primarily use man-made pesticides.

In some instances there is a man-made form of a compound identical to the one found in nature. For instance, methyl bromide, a fumigant gas used to kill fungi, nematodes and weeds, is found in nature and also made in a lab. Both conventional and organic farmers can use methyl bromide on strawberry plants. Bacillus thuringienis, the most commonly used organic pesticide, is both naturally occurring and man-made; incorporated into some genetically engineered foods. One is natural, one is man-made yet there is no detectable difference between the two (3).

#2 Myth: Organic Foods are Safer for Human Consumption and Better for the Environment

Compounds found in nature are not automatically safe and non-toxic, or safer than man-made compounds (4, 5). Both naturally occurring compounds and man-made chemicals are completely harmless, extremely toxic at a certain dose, or fall somewhere in between these two extremes. You’ve probably heard the saying “the dose makes the poison.” Many compounds we consume every day, from vitamin A to water, can be lethal if consumed in extremely high doses. The same is true for pesticides. Dose and length of exposure determine toxicity. Our government has several safeguards in place for the use of pesticides. First, the EPA evaluates all pesticides. Prior to use in the United States pesticides must be free from unreasonable risk to human health or the environment. Regardless of the type of pesticide used, whether organic or man-made, the Environmental Protection Agency limits the amount of pesticide residues allowed in food and water. The USDA Pesticide Data Program routinely monitors pesticide residues in foods and has found pesticide residues, whether organic or conventional, “pose no safety concern” (8, 9).

Organic pesticides are also not necessarily better for the environment, though they are considered safe in the amounts used (just like man-made pesticides). As an example, rotenone, a naturally occurring compound used in fisheries and can be fatal if inhaled (staff spraying this pesticide must be protected from risk of inhalation) and kills fish within an hour of spraying. Waters treated with rotenone are closed for public swimming for several months after treatment allowing dead fish time to decompose. When used according to instructions, rotenone poses “no overall risk to human health” or the environment (6). In addition, a study in soybeans found organic pesticides did not control aphids (plant lice) as effectively as man-made pesticides and they were more detrimental to the environment (partly due to the amount that needed to be used) (7).

There are environmental effects, both good and bad, from conventional and organic farming. Organic farming has advanced nonchemical methods of pest control and in some instances improved soil quality while decreasing soil erosion. However, organic farming also produces a lower yield, which means more environmental resources are used to produce the same total amount of food.

Can’t we farm without any pesticides?

Sure. Some conventional and organic farms do not use pesticides. A conventional farm may choose not to get organic certification, even if they don’t use any pesticides, because of the cost of certification. Keep in mind pesticides help get rid of pests and, can therefore help make food safer by the decreasing the likelihood of pathogens such as E. coli through use of anti-microbial compounds (10, 11).

What about the “Dirty Dozen”, Should I Steer Clear of the Foods that have the Most Pesticide Residues?

Some groups rank foods based on total pesticide residues – foods that are the “most contaminated.” Though some foods may have more pesticide residues on them than others, a study from the University of California Davis found all 12 commodities identified in the Dirty Dozen contained pesticide residues well below the established safe level (called the chronic reference doses or RfDs for short). In fact, only one pesticide residue, found on bell peppers, exceeded 1% of the RfD, coming in at 2%. So the largest total “dose” of a pesticide residue found was still 50 times lower than the established safe dose. Three quarters of the pesticides detected were at levels 1,000 times below the RfD. Therefore, the 12 foods listed on the Dirty Dozen “most contaminated” foods pose “negligible risks” for consumers. Choosing organic over conventional to avoid the fruits and vegetables on the Dirty Dozen will not completely negate your exposure to pesticides (because some organic produce has pesticide residues as well) or lower your risk from exposure to pesticides because your risk is negligible to begin with (12). Given the low amount of pesticide residues found on conventional and organic produce, there’s little appreciable difference in total pesticide exposure, whether you eat conventional or organic.

Though some studies, as well as pesticide monitoring programs have found conventional produce contains significantly more total pesticide residues then organic produce, significantly more than a miniscule amount is still a miniscule amount. Here’s an analogy: if I give you one penny and give your friend 2 pennies, your friend has 100% more money than you do – that’s a statistically significant difference. However, the financial impact of two pennies vs. one penny is meaningless.

If you want to add up your total exposure, check out the Alliance for Food and Farming developed a pesticide calculator and research behind the calculator:

http://safefruitsandveggies.com/pesticide-calculator

#3 Myth: Organic Food is More Nutritious

Several studies have examined nutrient differences between organic and conventionally produced foods. Most of this research shows no appreciable difference in vitamin or mineral content or health effects. What about plant compounds including antioxidants? In some cases organic farming may improve antioxidant content while in others man-made pesticides actually increase concentrations of certain beneficial plant-based compounds (13, 14).

In a world where we have many food choices and an overabundance of incorrect nutrition information, it’s easy to grasp onto a concept that isn’t evidence-based. Don’t get caught up in the hype and instead look for the scientific details. When it comes to organic and conventional foods, you’re not stuck choosing sides but instead can enjoy both – there is no appreciable difference in pesticide residues or nutrition content between the two.

Disclosure: I am an advisor for USFRA. All opinions expressed are my own after taking my typical nosedive into the scientific literature and government regulations on this subject.

References

1 Types of pesticide ingredients. US Environmental Protection Agency.
https://www.epa.gov/ingredients-used-pesticide-products/types-pesticide-ingredients

2 Food and Pesticides. US Environmental Protection Agency
https://www.epa.gov/safepestcontrol/food-and-pesticides

3 Koch MS, Ward JM, Levine SL, Baum JA, Vicini JL, Hammond BG. The food and environmental safety of Bt crops. Front Plant Sci 2015; 6: 283.

4 Pesticides – What’s my risk? National Pesticide Information Center.

5 Contaminants Found in Groundwater. The USGS Water Science School. http://water.usgs.gov/edu/groundwater-contaminants.html

6 Lake and stream rehabilitation: rotenone use and health risks. Washington department of fish and wildlife. http://wdfw.wa.gov/licensing/sepa/2016/16041_2002_fseis.pdf

7 Bahlai CA, Xue Y, McCreary CM, Schaafsma AW, Hallett RH. Choosing Organic Pesticides over Synthetic Pesticides May Not Effectively Mitigate Environmental Risk in Soybeans. PLoS One 2010; 5(6): e11250.

8 What Consumers Should Know. 2014 Pesticide Data Program Annual Summary. United States Department of Agriculture. https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/PDP%202014%20Annual%20Summary%20Consumers.pdf

9 Pesticide Program Residue Monitoring. US. Food and Drug Administration. http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/Pesticides/ucm2006797.htm

10 Mukheriee A, Speh D, Dyck E, Diez-Gonzalez F. Preharvest evaluation of coliforms, Escherichia coli, Salmonella, and Escherichia coli O157:H7 in organic and conventional produce grown by Minnesota farmers. J Food Prot 2004;67(5):894-900.

11 Johannessen GS, Bengtsson GB, Heier BT, Bredholt S, Wasteson Y, Rørvik LM. Potential uptake of Escherichia coli O157:H7 from organic manure into crisphead lettuce. Appl Environ Microbiol 2005;71(5):2221-5.

12 Winter CK, Katz JM. Dietary Exposure to Pesticide Residues from Commodities Alleged to Contain the Highest Contamination Levels. J Toxicol 2011; 589674.

13 Dangour AD, Lock K, Hayter A, Aikenhead A, Allen E, Uauy R. Nutrition-related health effects of organic foods: a systematic review. Am J Clin Nutr 2010; 92(1):203-210.

14 Rosen J. A Review of the Nutrition Claims Made by Proponents of Organic Food, Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety 2010;9(3): 270-277.

Grass Fed Lies: The Truth about Organic Milk & Grass Fed Beef

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Grass fed meat

If you’ve been sucking up the extra cost of organic dairy products and grass fed beef, comforted by the fact that you’re doing what’s good for your body, I have some news for you: you’ve gained little more than peace of mind grounded in a marketing scam. There is no meaningful nutrition difference in organic milk, grass fed beef and their conventional (non organic / grass fed) counterparts.

The Truth about Organic Dairy

Organic milk is packed with omega-3 fatty acids, iron and vitamin D, according to an article published Feb. 16 in the British Journal of Nutrition. This meta-analysis examined the results from 170 published studies comparing the nutrient content of organic milk with conventional milk. They suggest organic milk wins by a landslide: it’s nutritionally superior to its conventional counterparts. Though there were no significant differences in saturated fat and monounsaturated fat in organic vs. conventional milk, organic milk has 56% more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, 41% more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), significantly more vitamin E and iron than conventional milk. Statistically speaking, they are scientifically correct. Nutritionally speaking, these differences are meaningless.

Organic milk contains 56% more omega-3 fats than regular (conventional) milk (56% more based on the total fat content). However, statistically more than a little bit is still a little bit. Milk is not considered a major source of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet, regardless of milk type. In fact, according to one study, 1 cup of organic whole milk has about 8.2 mg of the omega-3 fatty acid eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and 11 mg of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) compared to 6.2 mg of EPA and 9.1 mg of DHA. That’s a far cry from the 250 – 500 mg of EPA + DHA we should get, on average, each day. Fatty fish are the best way to get EPA and DHA.

milk jug
Organic Milk:
19 mg EPA + DHA

Conventional Milk:
15 mg EPA + DHA

 

 

 

Salmon

Herring, Wild
Salmon, Farmed (Atlantic)
Salmon, Wild (King)
Mackerel, Wild

1,200 mg EPA + DHA

 

 

  • EPA and DHA are heart smart – they lower blood fats (triglycerides) and blood pressure. Plus they’re good for your brain and eyes.

What about CLA? CLA is group of polyunsaturated fatty acids found in meat and milk. There are many proposed benefits associated with CLA including changes in body fat with ultra high supplemental doses of CLA. However, the difference in CLA content is also biologically meaningless – 56 mg in a glass of organic whole milk and 47 mg in a class of conventional whole milk.

The British Journal of Nutrition research also showed slightly higher beta carotene and vitamin E in organic milk. These very small differences may be due to a host of reasons including seasonal variation and breed. Milk is not a major source of these nutrients, so this has no biological impact on human health. If you want iron, eat more red meat, fish and poultry or plant-based sources including beans, lentils and peas (eat these with a vitamin C rich food to increase the absorption of plant-based iron). For vitamin E your best bets are oils, nuts and seeds.

  • Key point: statistical significance ≠ biological relevance.

What about antibiotics and hormones in dairy? I covered that in another blog post. You can read more about it here.

Is Grass Fed Beef Better?

If you’re one of many Americans paying a premium for grass fed beef because it contains more omega-3s and less saturated fat than it’s unassuming conventional counterparts, it may be time to reconsider where you’re spending your grocery money.

The omega-3s in grass fed beef are different than the kind in fatty fish. Fatty fish and algae contain EPA and DHA. There’s a third omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), found in plants including walnuts, soybeans, pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds and chia seeds. Grass fed beef contains ALA because flaxseeds are added to their feed. While EPA and DHA lower blood fats (triglycerides) and are tied to heart benefits, ALA does not lower blood fats and is not associated with the same heart health benefits. ALA rich foods also contain a variety of other bioactive compounds that may act independently or synergistically to improve cardiovascular disease risk factors (eat the whole food not just ALA). The human body can convert ALA to EPA and DHA but this conversion process is inefficient. Less than 4% of ALA is converted to EPA and less than 1% makes its way to DHA. ALA ≠EPA + DHA. A 5-ounce serving of grass fed beef contains a whopping 20 to 30 mg of ALA (slight variations in brands of grass fed beef based on the cow’s diet). The Adequate Intake for ALA is 1,600 and 1,100 grams per day for adult men and women, respectively. Eat grass fed beef and you’ll get 2 – 3% of the AI for ALA for men and 1-2% for women.

Grass fed beef and conventional beef have the same amount of saturated fat with some differences in the types of saturated fatty acids. The difference in CLA content of grass fed and conventional beef is tiny. According to a review from Dave et al. (Nutr J 2010;9:10), it ranges from 0.13 – 2.65 (grams CLA/100 grams of fat in the meat) in conventional meat and 0.43 – 5.14 (grams CLA/100 grams of fat in the meat) in grass fed beef depending on the cow and feed. So, you could be getting less total CLA in certain cuts of grass fed beef than conventional beef. 

What about the Bacteria in Conventional Beef?
You cook your beef right? Bacteria is killed during cooking. Moot point.

Is Grass Fed More Sustainable? What about Hormones and Antibiotics?
I will address this and other issues in the next post. Stay tuned….

Organic dairy products and grass fed beef come in beautiful, higher end packaging with natural hues of green and brown outlining their superiority to modest looking products that sit beside them on store shelves. If you love the taste, stick with your organic milk and grass fed beef. But don’t buy into the marketing hype.

References

Circulation 2011;123(20):2292-333.
British Journal of Nutrition 2016;115:1043–1060.
PLoS One 2013; 8(12): e82429.
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2001;74:612–9.
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1999;69:890–7.
British Medical Journal 1996;313:84–90.
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2009;89(5):1649S-56S.
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2006;83(6):S1526-1535.
PLoS One. 2013; 8(12): e82429.
Nutrition Journal 2010, 9:10.

 

 

 

 

Is Organic Food Better for You (nutrition, fewer pesticides)?

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If you saw the recent press about organic food (MSNBC’s headline: “Organic food no more nutritious than non-organic”), you may be left wondering if conventional is best after all. But,  you’ll want to take a close look at this debate before making up your mind. A recent review of the published research on organic and non-organic foods (including veggies, fruit, meat, poultry, eggs and milk), out of Stanford University and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, found that organic options may not vary from their conventional counterparts when it comes to nutrition. However, they found consuming organic may lower your exposure to pesticides (though your risk for exceeding allowed government limits, even in conventional foods, is small). E coli contamination risk didn’t differ between organic or conventional chicken and bacterial contamination of chicken and pork was common regardless of farming method (organic or conventional). However, they found the risk of picking up antibiotic-resistant bacteria in your pork or chicken was higher if you chose the conventional kind vs. organic. And finally, some studies didn’t define the criteria they used to determine what foods qualified as organic (strange! – check this link for more about organic labeling).

Two more things to keep in mind. “Natural” does not mean organic. And, organic does not always mean pesticide and chemical free. It means the food is free from synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Organic farmers can use pesticides derived from natural sources. If you really want to become an informed consumer, you’ll go straight to the source on organic farming. And if you want to know what’s in your food, buy local and ask the farmer what they use to keep the pests away or better yet, get out there and start planting your own garden.

Here’s my bottom line on organics:

  • It’s a personal choice
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables, regardless of whether or not they are organic
  • Wash your produce regardless of whether it is organic or conventional (do you know how many unclean hands may have touched that piece of fruit?)
  • If it comes down to price, choose better quality food overall – weigh the nutrition value of the food, your feelings on pesticides and how far you need to stretch your food dollar

If you have a strong opinion on this subject, leave a comment and let me know!