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.

Save Money at the Grocery Store, Improve Health & Save the Earth

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Food: Fruits and vegetables

 

 

Today is Earth Day, a day focused on building a healthy, sustainable environment. Keep the earth healthy, slash your grocery bill and improve your health at the same time. Here’s how:

Avoid Food Waste

In America, food is cheap and always available. This oversupply of food combined with food marketing means we over buy and end up throwing out an average of 31 – 41% of the food we purchase. In addition to throwing your hard earned dollar in the trash can, food waste drains the environment. Rotting fruits and vegetables, the top food wasted, uses fresh water and contributes to ethylene gas, methane and CO2 emissions all of which are harmful for our environment (1). “Food waste now accounts for more than one quarter of the total freshwater consumption and ∼300 million barrels of oil per year” (1). Rotting food produces a large amount of methane gas, a gas that has 25 times the impact of CO2 on global warming (3). Dairy products are second behind fruits and vegetables followed by meat, which has the biggest impact on the environment.
Here’s what you can do to avoid waste:

    1. Use a shopping list to prevent impulse buys. It doesn’t matter if it’s on sale if you will end up throwing it out.
    2. Buy small amounts and only what you need and will realistically use before it goes bad.
    3. Buy frozen and canned versions, which have the same nutrition value and you can use them at your convenience (metal cans are endlessly recyclable)
    4. Keep fruits and vegetables fresh or for longer period of time with products that decrease the production of ethylene gas (find them in your local natural food store in the produce section).
    5. Don’t automatically throw food out when the “use by” date arrives. That date is a measure of quality and not food safety. Assess your food to ensure it is still safe (smell your meat, poultry, fish, dairy, nuts and oils; make sure fruits and vegetables are not molded).
    6. Follow these tips from Reader’s Digest.

Choose Plant Proteins

Plant proteins typically cost less $ than meat, fish and poultry and they cost less in terms of environmental resources to produce – less water, fewer environmental gases produced. Plant proteins also deliver plant-based compounds that protect the body. When choosing plant proteins you may need more, per meal, to get the right amount of muscle building amino acids.  In addition to swapping out some meat-based meals, consider eating smaller amounts of meat and adding a plant protein as a side dish. Here are some excellent choices based on their nutrition profile:

  • Peas, split pea soup
  • Legumes, beans, bean pastas, lentils (I soak lentils for about 45 minutes and add them to a variety of dishes)
  • Soy foods including tofu, tempeh, edamame
  • Nut, bean and other flours –  substitute some of the flour in your  recipe for: pecan, peanut, almond, garbanzo bean, fava bean, black bean and other higher protein flours

Buy Staples in Bulk

Whole Foods, Sprouts, Wegmans and similar stores have a bulk section where you can get everything from black rice to oatmeal. Consider shopping in the bulk isle. You’ll save $ and food packaging!

Effective Strategies for Weight Loss

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Last Friday I spoke at the NSCA’s Personal Trainers meeting in Las, Vegas. They put on one heck of a meeting and I love meeting NSCA members and learning from them as well as the speakers. And one thing I really liked about this meeting was the fact that several speakers challenged commonly held beliefs about nutrition and exercise. Here’s a condensed overview (not all points included) of my talk on Effective Strategies for Weight Loss:

1) Lift Weights or engage in some other type of resistance training, regularly. Muscle tissue doesn’t burn many more calories than fat (despite what people say) – about 4 calories more per day per pound. But, those calories add up over time and more importantly, adults start a gradual slow progression of losing muscle around age 40 (sarcopenia). Less muscle means you can’t exercise as hard which means you won’t burn as many calories while working out (and those activities of daily living like washing your car or lifting groceries will seem tough at some point).

2) Calories Matter. I hate to burst anyone’s bubble who thinks you can eat as much as you want as long as you slash so called “bad calories,” but calories count. If you don’t believe me, check out how nutrition professor Mark Haub lost 27 lbs and significantly improved his blood lipids on a 10-week diet of Twinkies, Doritos, sugary cereals and Hostess cupcakes. Want more evidence published in research journals? Okay, check out the POUNDS LOST trial which found that how much you eat matters more than the proportion of fat, carbohydrate and protein. And, that adherence to a diet determines success (and sticking with extreme diets that cut out food groups sucks so many people don’t last long on them).

3) Calories Matter but Protein is Crucial. Protein preserves muscle during weight loss and the lower your diet is in calories, the more you need protein. How important is protein for preserving muscle? Well, I love the overfeeding study published in JAMA earlier this year in which the study authors overfed participants by 40% more calories than they needed to maintain their weight. The participants were randomized to receive either 5%, 15% or 25% of their calories from protein. Now, 5% may seem low but because of their total daily caloric intake that 5% meant 47 grams per day – that’s 1 gram more than the protein RDA set by our government for women! All groups gained a similar amount of fat and the 15% and 25% group also gained muscle (and therefore more total weight) but, the group consuming 1 gram of protein more than the RDA set for women LOST 0.70 kg lean body mass! Take home points: over consume calories and you’ll gain fat. Make protein a greater proportion of the calories you over consume and you’ll also gain muscle. Follow the RDA and you may lose lean body mass.

4) Change your Environment for Success. Eat off smaller plates and bowls, choose smaller packages, get the food you don’t want to eat out of your house (if it is there, you will eat it at some point). Put healthy food within your line of vision. Avoid constant refills (chip basket at restaurants, bread basket, that never ending tub of beer bottles). And, surround yourself with people who encourage your success vs. those who will get in the way.

5) Keep your stress levels down. For more information on how stress impacts weight, click here.

6) Figure out WHY you are eating. You can have all the nutrition knowledge in the world and weight loss strategies but if you don’t delve into what is making you eat vs. using other coping mechanisms, long term success will elude you.

Now, you are probably wondering “well what about Forks Over Knives, the documentary that covered the supposed evils of animal protein?” I promise I’ll give my uncensored opinion (slashing) of that documentary in my next post in addition to more about protein 🙂

For a hilarious and insightful overview of this conference, check out fitness and nutrition expert Alan Aragon’s post. And, here’s a post from another one of my favorite writers, renowned fitness expert Brad Schoenfeld.