Organic Living
For A Healthier Life

by Sandra Gordon

THANKS TO A HEALTHY CONSUMER DEMAND, you’ll now find a cornucopia of organic options in mainstream outlets, such as neighborhood supermarkets, mass merchandisers and club stores, not just in natural food markets. According to the Organic Trade Association in Greenfield, MA, Americans spend nearly $14 billion annually on organic food, a segment of the food market that has increased nearly 20 percent yearly over the last decade. But are organics safer or healthier for the environment?

A 2005 study supported by the Environmental Protection Agency measured pesticide levels in the urine of 23 preschool children in Washington State before and after a switch to an organic diet. After five consecutive days on the organic diet, researchers found that pesticide levels had decreased to undetectable levels, and remained that way until their conventional diets were reintroduced. The study concluded that an organic diet provides a dramatic and immediate protective effect against pesticide exposure.

“But that’s only one small study,” cautions Keecha Harris, DrPH, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. “More and larger studies need to be done before any conclusions can be drawn.” To date, the evidence isn’t conclusive that organic foods are safer than conventionally-produced foods, says Harris. And, in general, foods produced organically or conventionally contain the same kinds and amounts of vitamins and minerals. But there are definite advantages to going organic. Here are four good reasons for making the switch if you’re considering it.

Organic is Safer, Especially for Kids

Many consumers take comfort from the idea that organic foods don’t contain certain pesticide residues. In fact, food labeled ‘USDA organic’ must also be at least 95% organic, meaning that all but 5% of the content was produced without most conventional pesticides and fertilizers. It also can’t be irradiated (a one-time exposure to radiation intended to kill pathogens such as salmonella, listeria, or E. coli), genetically modified (a technique that alters a plant’s DNA), or produced with hormones or antibiotics.

Animals used for meat products must be fed organically-grown feed. Other terms can also be found on organic food labels, such as “natural,” “free-range,” and “hormone-free,” but these terms by themselves don’t mean organic. Only food that has been certified to meet the USDA organic standards can say “organic.”

Still, thanks to wind “drift” from neighboring conventional fields or contamination in trucks or warehouses, even organic produce may have some residues, though in considerably smaller amounts. But overall, organic foods contain less pesticide residues. A study in Food Additives and Contaminants showed that organic foods had residues of fewer pesticides that were present at lower levels than those found on conventionally grown foods.

For years, the worry about pesticides was cancer. But government scientists now assert that due to more refined testing methods and environmentally-friendly chemicals, the insect and weed killers sprayed onto conventional crops comply with pesticide safety standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (FDA) and therefore aren’t at dangerous levels.

Still, advocacy groups such as Consumers Union contend that even minimal pesticide residues within legal limits can be a health threat if your exposure is significant. Consumers Union analyzed four years of USDA data from 27,000 produce samples (one sample equaling about five pounds) of 27 different foods. The pesticide residues on most tested produce fell within government legal standards. However, of the produce tested, seven types—peaches, winter squash, apples, green beans, grapes, pears and spinach—had ‘high’ toxicity scores. Translation: If you consumed these foods often and were particularly susceptible to the effects of a compound, you could ingest levels that exceeded those the government deemed safe.

Besides the carcinogenic possibilities of pesticide residues, neurological damage is the latest worry. A group of about 40 pesticides—the organophosphates, which account for half of all the pesticides used in the U.S.—is causing particular concern among government scientists and nutrition experts. At unsafe residue levels due to multiple exposures, organophosphates are thought to overstimulate the nervous system, causing acute and chronic symptoms such as muscle weakness or even paralysis. Sixty million pounds of organophosphates are used on food crops each year, and another 17 million pounds are applied in residential and commercial buildings (such as schools) for pest control and lawn care.

Although organophosphates are a potential health threat for everyone, children are particularly at risk because their nervous systems are developing, says Lynn Goldman, MD, MPH, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Kids also tend to eat a less varied diet and consume more per pound of body weight than adults do. “These factors maximize their cumulative exposure to potentially-toxic levels of organophosphates,” she says. Animal studies suggest that the ill effects of organophosphates may even begin in utero. “Every day, there is some baseline of exposure that might be impacting our cells and creating damage we need to repair,” Goldman says. “If you have it available and can afford it, buy organic.”

Organic is Healthier

In general, foods produced organically or conventionally contain the same kinds and amounts of vitamins and minerals. But when it comes to disease-fighting phytochemicals, organic produce may have the edge. A study in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry found that organically grown tomatoes are higher in levels of flavonoids—nutrients found in abundance in some fruits and vegetables. If picked, processed and marketed close to home, organic produce is typically allowed to ripen longer on the vine. Conventional produce, on the other hand, is often plucked green from the field to ripen en route to distant markets.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), vine ripening may permit a fruit or vegetable to maximize the content of its phytochemicals, a theory currently under USDA investigation. These natural plant chemicals are thought to help ward off diseases such as heart disease, Alzeheimer’s and cancer.

Organic Helps the Environment

In addition to our own health, there is the health of the environment to consider. According to the EPA, agricultural pollution from confined animal facilities—grazing, plowing, irrigation, planting, harvesting, fertilizing and pesticide spraying—is the major source of ground and surface water pollution. The pesticides, herbicides and fungicides used in conventional agriculture are also notorious for robbing the soil of nutrients, thus threatening the longevity of agriculture and the American family farm, which comes closer to extinction daily.

For livestock farmers like George Siemon, the chief executive officer of the CROPP Co-operative in La Farge, Wisconsin, which produces the Organic Valley line of certified organic dairy products, eggs and beef, being an organic farmer means allowing his cows to graze in pastures instead of being confined to a feedlot. It also means allowing them to munch on organic feed and not beefing them up with growth hormones and antibiotics. “Organic farming requires farmers to develop a relationship with their livestock and the land,” says Siemon.

For crop farmers like Fred L. Kirschenmann, an organic farmer in Windsor, North Dakota, farming means creating habitats in his fields that attract predators that control insects instead of using pesticides. Aphids, for example, love to gnaw on Kirschenmann’s wheat crop. To combat them, he woos ladybugs, a natural aphid predator, with a five-year crop-rotation system that alternates a mix of cool and warm-season crops (a common organic farming technique). This scheme also discourages weeds, eliminating the need for noxious herbicides.

All told, burgeoning consumer demand is creating a market for farmers such as Siemon and Kirschenmann, who are mastering the art of growing food that will sustain the soil and the ecosystem rather than erode it. “Organics have the basic premise that healthy soil makes healthy plants, makes healthy animals, makes healthy humans,” Siemon says. “Nature has a lot of wisdom we need to listen to.” Ultimately, with each organic product you buy, you’re doing something good for yourself and your family and giving back to the land.

But don’t just buy organic, try to buy locally as well. Organic products, like conventionally grown-food, tend to travel 1600 miles from field to supermarket. “Is it worth saving the soil and water to produce organics when we have to use fossil fuels to transport them across the country?” says Harris. To make organics truly healthier for the environment, Harris suggests buying locally-grown organic products as often as you can, which don’t have to travel near as far from field to store.

Organic Tastes Better

Many organic food aficionados think organic just tastes better. In general, organic produce is a ‘hot’ item on today’s restaurant menus. But there’s only one way to find out if organic rates higher on the flavor scale: Taste it for yourself and compare. •

from the March-April 2008 issue

Organics have the basic premise that healthy soil makes healthy plants, makes healthy animals, makes healthy humans.