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.

The Truth about Detox Diets

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Detox Diets and Cleanses

Detox diets promise to clean up the mess left behind from daily life so you feel better, more energetic and lose excess body fat. Consider them the Merry Maids for your body. They come with an army of equipment and compounds to attack years of buildup from environmental toxins, pesticides, allergens, waste, and inflammatory substances. This “sewage sludge” is stuck to your gut, interfering with digestion, leaving you bloated, tired, fat and with joints and muscles that feel like they are on fire.

In theory this sounds great. But there’s one glaring issue. The human body doesn’t need to “detox” because it comes equipped with organs designed to remove waste products. Plus, many detox diets are simply very low calorie plans with added laxatives and diuretics (because instant, yet temporary, weight loss might fool you into believing the outrageous claims on detox and cleansing products). Instead of wasting your money, take the top 3 good points about many of these diets and incorporate them into your overall nutrition plan:

Drink More Water

There are a few studies showing that individuals who are obese can lose weight by drinking 2 glasses of water before each meal. Plus, many people don’t get enough water or total fluids each day anyway and dehydration can make you feel sluggish and grouchy. So, grab it from the tap or if it’s more convenient, fill up your stainless steal water bottles and carry them with you at all times.

Eat More Fruits and Vegetables

The average American is falling short on fruit and vegetable intake. According to the National Cancer Institute, people with diets rich in plant foods, such as fruits and vegetables, have a lower risk of getting some types of cancer as well as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. Produce generally has fewer calories than many other foods making it a great addition to a weight loss diet.

Get Friendly with Bacteria

Many detox plans include unfiltered apple cider vinegar – the kind that has a cloudy appearance – is full of probiotics. Probiotics are friendly (beneficial) bacteria – the kind that live in your gut and have a number of important functions in your body. Improving your gut bacteria may support immune functioning, improve the health of your intestinal tract, increase your body’s absorption of certain nutrients and alleviate constipation. Apple cider vinegar is acidic so I don’t recommend drinking it straight. Instead, dilute it in a big glass of water or another beverage. Other great sources of probiotics include kefir, yogurt (check the container for “live and active cultures”), miso soup, tempeh, sauerkraut, kimchi.

Add 2 glasses of water before each meal, load up on vegetables and fruits and make an effort to consume probiotic-rich food daily and you will reap the rewards of better nutrition without wasting money on detox diets and cleanses.

References:
Parvez J et al. J Appl Microbio 2006;100(6):1171-1185.
Parretti HM et al. Obesity 2015, 23(8):1785-1791.
Dennis EA et al. Obesity 2010;18(2):300-307.

 

In Search of the Perfect Diet

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Nutrition pathway to changes

I am running into more and more nutrition purists. People who think their approach to eating is absolutely perfect, free from all harmful substances, and better than any other approach to nutrition. The purist sits across from me, preaching about GMOs, pesticides, carbohydrates, gluten, processed foods and salt, talking at warp speed only to take a breather so they can sip on their organic greens drink (mixed into pH balanced water of course). Meanwhile, deep from within their soul I feel their longing for acceptance, as if they are in a confessional, looking for me to forgive their past nutrition sins – a life full of bread, dairy and fast food grilled chicken – and commend them on becoming a disciple of nutrition purity. Their eyes search, looking away as they ramble and catching mine again as they look for an expression from me. Anything. Even a simple head nod would provide the validation they are looking for.

I’m always happy when people move from less than healthy diets to more healthy diets. The problem with nutrition purists is they believe there is ONE diet for everyone. ONE pattern of eating and everything else is wrong. They aren’t looking for advice or information from me but instead want me to acknowledge they are doing everything right. Forget science because this person is drinking the Kool-Aid (err, powered dehydrated veggies) from internet blogs written by some self-proclaimed nutrition expert who relies on sensationalism and scare tactics. Their mind is closed to learning anything that doesn’t fit within the doctrine of this self-proclaimed nutrition expert (quack). So I sit there with a blank look on my face though in the back of my mind I am wondering things like “if only this 20-something year old fit male knew the research on this subject was conducted in obese postmenopausal women.”

Saying there is one diet that fits all is akin to giving everyone the same workout program. If you’re a strength coach or personal trainer, would you put everyone on the exact same program? Would you give an 82 year-old grandma who has never worked out the same program as a 43 year-old marathoner? No. So why on earth would you give everyone the exact same nutrition guidelines and supplements? Please, throw away those silly one-pagers with nutrition “rules” you aimlessly hand out to everyone that walks through your door.

My job is to move a person from where they are to better so they meet their goals. Everyone has a different starting place, set of beliefs, goals, health history, medications they are on, food likes and dislikes, cooking skills, budget, training program and more. Nutrition is like a road map – there are many routes you can take, some are quicker that others, some have roadblocks, traffic or require a vehicle that can jump a few curbs or possibly even a bike to make it through narrow spaces. Going to a seasoned nutrition profession is like hitting Google Maps and figuring out the best route for you. The alternative is aimlessly driving in a foreign city without street signs (ciao Pescia Italy! I have fond memories of driving in circles, next time I’ll bring a GPS and my Italian will be much better too, I promise).

So, before you drop your jaw and blast me after hearing I told a client he could eat fast food once a week, stop to consider this person’s starting place: fast food everyday. And some clients aren’t willing to give up certain foods or drinks so make substitutions, so I meet them where they are. If I try and switch a junk food eater who binges on alcohol to an all-organic diet without cheeseburgers and fries, chances are they will fail and give up.

Nutrition is a complex science. There isn’t ONE approach that works for everyone or one that every single person is willing to follow. So, if you are that person who is bound to a single nutrition doctrine, please open your ears a little and be willing to consider there are many factors that should be considered before a person goes on a diet or makes drastic dietary changes. And please, read a few research studies or textbooks prior to preaching to others because chances are 90% of what you reading isn’t backed by science or common (biochemistry) sense.

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!