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.

Yikes! Are there Antibiotics or Hormones in Your Milk & Dairy Foods?

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milk

Are antibiotics and hormones used in dairy cows contributing to the obesity epidemic, early puberty and antibiotic resistance? Before going down that road, we have to first we have to first ask if there are any antibiotics or hormones in milk and dairy products.

In this blog post I will cover:

  • Why are antibiotics given to cows?
  • Antibiotics are not in milk, here’s why.
  • Why are growth hormones given to cows? Are there any hormones in my milk and dairy food?
  • What are the cows Eating?

Why are Antibiotics given to Cows?

Antibiotics are used on farms to treat animals who are sick just like you would give an antibiotic to your child if he or she gets sick or take one yourself. There is no reason for dairy farmers to give antibiotics to cows who are not sick. Doing so costs additional money,  serves no clear purpose and arbitrarily giving animals antibiotics could contribute to antibiotic resistance. Now imagine you are a farmer and your life depends on the health of your cows – would you want to run the risk of antibiotic resistance and your cows getting sick with fewer treatment options?

Some antibiotics are also used for animal growth. The FDA is phasing out this practice so medically important antimicrobial drugs (antibiotics) will no longer be allowed to enhance growth or feed efficiency. In the future antibiotics will only be allowed to treat, control or prevent disease and of course require a prescription from a licensed veterinarian. Regardless of whether or not the antibiotic is used for growth or treatment of disease, no traces of antibiotic residues are allowed in milk or dairy products.

Antibiotics are Not in Milk, Here’s Why.

Any cow that gets an antibiotic is milked separately from the rest of the herd and the milk is thrown out. That milk will never be sold or consumed. All antibiotics have a different period of time before all traces of the medication leaves the body (whether we are talking about a cow or a human). Once this period is up and the cow is completely healthy again, the farmer tests her milk. Milk cannot be sold until it is completely clear of all drug residues. Whether organic or conventional, all milk is tested several times before making it to market. It is tested on the farm and at the milk processing plant. Any milk that tests positive for any medication residue, including antibiotics, is thrown out (1).

According to national Milk Drug Residue Data Base compiled for the years 2013 to 2014, 0% of milk tested positive for drug residues. In 2015, the FDA’s Center of Veterinary Medicine surveyed 1,918 raw milk samples (before pasteurization) from across the country. Samples were tested for residues of 31 drugs including the antibiotics, NSAIDs (ibuprofen etc.) and an antihistamine. They found 99% of sampled milk was free of any drug residues. Keep in mind the 1% of milk with residues must be thrown out – it cannot be sold (1, 2).

Cheese and yogurt are made from milk and therefore, there are no antibiotics in your cheese or yogurt either.

If you want to learn more about what farmers are doing about antibiotic resistance, Minnesota Farmer Wanda Patsche wrote an excellent blog on this topic.

Growth Hormones in Dairy Cows

Growth hormones are approved for use in dairy cows to improve milk production. Greater milk production means fewer environmental resources used to raise cows for milk. Bovine somatotropin (bST; also called bovine growth hormone or rBGH) is perhaps the most well recognized growth hormone used on dairy farms. bST is “a protein hormone produced in the pituitary gland of animals, including humans, and is essential for normal growth, development, and health maintenance.” Very little bST is used in dairy cows and there is no test that can distinguish between cows treated with bST and naturally occurring bST (3). Humans do not have receptors for bST and therefore it is passed through your body intact without being absorbed (4). As a result, there are no known side effects or health issues associated with consuming dairy from cows treated with bST. IGF-1 (insulin like growth factor 1) concentrations are slightly higher in cows treated with bST. However, the human body synthesizes IGF-I and drinking 1.5 L of milk is equivalent to an estimated 0.09% of the IGF-I produced by adults each day (5, 6, 7, 8).

USDA organic dairy products are “produced without antibiotics fed or administered to the animal at any point in its life” (9). There are no meaningful nutrition differences between organic and conventional dairy products. I covered that topic in this post.

What are the Cows Eating?

Cows’ diets also vary depending on many of the same factors that influence your food choices. However, unlike humans, all cows have the benefit of seeing a nutrition expert (like dietitians, animal nutrition experts are specialists). Many consumers also have questions about how cows are fed. Cows are fed nutritious diet to ensure health of cow and nutrition of milk. Typical feed mixtures may include haylage (grass with a higher water content), corn silage, sugar beet pulp and a protein mineral mix.

Rest assured, your dairy products are safe. In fact, the dairy product that says it is made with cows not treated with antibiotics is the exact same as the one from a cow that may have been treated with antibiotics. Both contain no antibiotic residues. Growth hormones used in dairy also pose no known threat to human health. The human body does not even recognize the main hormone used in cows. So, regardless of what milk, yogurt, or cheese you choose, all have been produced and extensively tested to ensure they are safe for human consumption.

This post was written as part of my ongoing sponsored partnership with U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance. All opinions expressed are my own and per the usual, took me hours to research and double check my facts.References (if not cited via a hyperlink in the text of this post)

References

1 Questions and Answers: 2012 Milk Drug Residue Sampling Survey. FDA.

2 NATIONAL MILK DRUG RESIDUE DATA BASE FISCAL YEAR 2014 ANNUAL REPORT October 1, 2013 – September 30, 2014 http://www.fda.gov/downloads/food/guidanceregulation/guidancedocumentsregulatoryinformation/milk/ucm434757.pdf

3 Bovine Somatotropin (BST) http://www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary/SafetyHealth/ProductSafetyInformation/ucm055435.htm

4 Bovine Somatotropin. National Institutes of Health, Technology Assessment Conference Statement. December 5-7, 1990. https://consensus.nih.gov/1990/1990BovineSomatotropinta007html.htm

5 Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA). 1998. Toxicological evaluation of certain veterinary drug residues in food; Summary and conclusions. 50th report of the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives. World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland.

6 Collier RJ, Bauman DE. Update on human health concerns of recombinant bovine somatotropin use in dairy cows. J Animal Sci 2013; 92(4): 1800 – 1807. https://www.animalsciencepublications.org/publications/jas/articles/92/4/1800

7 Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancercauses/othercarcinogens/athome/recombinant-bovine-growth-hormone                  

8 Report on the Food and Drug Administration’s Review of the Safety of Recombinant Bovine Somatotropin. Food and Drug Administration. http://www.fda.gov/animalveterinary/safetyhealth/productsafetyinformation/ucm130321.htm

9 Stacy Sneeringer, James MacDonald, Nigel Key, William McBride, and Ken Mathews. Economics of Antibiotic Use in U.S. Livestock Production, ERR-200, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, November 2015. http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/1950577/err200.pdf

 

 

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!