ORGANIC: THE TRUTH…THE SCIENCE
I was recently catching up with a friend and our conversation drifted to the topic of ensuring our kids eat the right stuff… because yes, that’s what 40-something moms talk about these days. Anyway, the topic of organic food came up. People (not my friend, just people in general) have STRONG feelings about organic. Really strong. Like Biden versus Trump strong. I have gotten into my fair of heated conversations on the topic. Organic, not politics. I know better than that! I decided to pull the research together so that the next time someone asks, I will have the science at my fingertips to support the facts… and so will you.
WHY PEOPLE PREFER ORGANIC
Many people choose organic for a few reasons. It is perceived to:
Have fewer pesticides, nasty cancer-causing chemicals and weird genetic mutations
Be nutritionally superior
Trust me, I get it! There is no way I want to feed my kids something that will harm them, but does organic truly deliver on these claims?
According to the USDA, organic is defined as produce, meat and processed food “grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing, among many factors, soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives.” Yep for those who choose organic because they don’t trust the government to regulate our food supply, they govern the organic claim.
LET’S TALK PESTICIDES AND FERTILIZERS
People often glom on to the fact that farmers are not allowed to use fertilizers or pesticides as a reason to buy organic. But, did you know that there are natural fertilizers and pesticides that organic farmers can and do use? Here’s the list – and guess what? It includes some synthetic chemicals too! What it comes down to is this: natural does not always equal safe. At the end of the day a chemical is a chemical whether it’s man-made or nature-made.
Arsenic. Cyanide. Botulinum.
These are actually the most toxic chemicals known to man and they are natural. Among the chemicals identified as human carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, 62% occur naturally.
Remember that, ‘The dose makes the poison’ applies to every single chemical.
Now everyone is probably thinking, “Great – so everything is COVERED in harmful chemicals?! We’re screwed!” Fear not friends, the amount of toxic chemicals, synthetic or natural, is negligible and highly regulated by the USDA for both organic AND traditionally farmed foods. By law, they must be less than a clearly prescribed amount. In reality, pesticide residues are usually much less than that regulatory standard. For a little perspective, here is a calculator you can use to see how many servings you could consume and still not have any adverse effects from pesticide residues.
NON-GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS(NON-GMO)
I could write another blog JUST on this topic but in brief, the overwhelming consensus within the scientific community is that GMO foods are not harmful to human health.
Organic foods, by definition, are not genetically modified, however product identified as non-GMO don't necessarily have to be organic. GMO means that an organism’s genetic material, aka DNA, has been altered in some way that does not occur naturally. GMOs are designed to:
Provide a higher nutritional value to food
Protect crops against pests (If we can modify a crop to be resistant to a pest, we don’t have to spray as many chemicals. Just sayin!)
Reduce tilling which helps maintain soil health (yay, environment!)
Reduce food waste
Improve international staple crops (which helps the worldwide hunger problem and supports local economies globally)
Wow, sounds like GMO is actually good for us and the planet! Pause for a second and imagine a world without GMOs. There would probably be no oranges, papayas, corn, tomatoes, soy, canola, potatoes, squash, apples, beets.
GMOs are actually much more regulated than their non-GMO counterparts. It takes an average of $130 million and 13 years to bring a new GMO to market, which involves a comprehensive safety and environmental review by regulatory bodies around the world. In the United States, The FDA, USDA and EPA all work together to regulate GMOs. What I think few people recognize is that there are actually a number of genetic engineering techniques used in non-GMO and organic farming. Check out the infographic below.
You might be asking yourself, “Then where did we get the impression that GMO’s were bad for us?” Great question! It’s a combination of:
Flawed research, one study in particular that got a lot of press
Activist groups like EWG publishing misleading info like the Dirty Dozen List
Marketers knowing that non-GMO makes people feel safer and that sells product
Let’s start with the research. In 2012, the Séralini research group published a study in a peer reviewed scholarly journal that linked GMO, herbicides and tumors in rats. A year later that article was retracted by the journal because it was so flawed. In fact, three other studies were subsequently published, each refuting claims that genetically modified corn causes rat tumors. But that’s not where this story ends. When the study was first published, the head researchers made deals with certain media platforms that included exclusive rights to the study. Along with those rights were non disclosure agreements that included the media not be allowed to interview other experts in the field (to verify the validity of the study). Suffice it to say; it was a real soap opera and you can read the play by play here.
And that Dirty Dozen List? You know, the one that tells you which foods to avoid because they harbor more harmful chemicals? That has been discredited as well. Recent USDA and FDA reports show both organic and conventional food is safe and that the notorious “Dirty Dozen” list is doing more harm than good for Americans. According to the sampling data:
98% of residues on fruits and veggies, when present at all, are well below safety levels set by the EPA
50% of the foods sampled had no detectable residues at all
IS ORGANIC FOOD MORE NUTRIENT DENSE?
Again, the research overwhelming says no. There are a few studies that shows higher antioxidant activity in organic food, but that has not been correlated to better health in humans. Another study that did more damage than good and made headlines showed a link between organic food and reduced cancer risk. Not surprisingly, the media left out major limitations of the study that even the researchers disclosed:
The volunteers were noted to be health-conscious, well-educated and exhibited healthier behaviors compared with the general population.
Data was collected via questionnaire – which has many innate inaccuracies.
The study had a very short follow up time, 4 ½ years, but many cancers take years even decades to evolve.
It’s almost as if we are focusing on the wrong thing here. The majority of Americans, 91% to be exact, don’t eat enough fruits and veggies PERIOD. So, let’s start there. I promise you will see more health benefits from increasing your fruit and veggie consumption than hyper focusing on organic.
GETTING THE MOST OUT OF YOUR PRODUCE
Eat it fresh and seasonal supporting local when possible. Why local? Because the food takes less time to travel from the farm to your table. And yes, over time the nutrient quality of fresh fruits and veggies degrades. That’s why it’s also ok to eat frozen and canned. Produce is picked at its peak ripeness and then through the process of canning or freezing, the nutrients are ‘frozen’ in time preserving all the good stuff in them. Just make sure you grab ‘the no added salt’ veggies and fruits that are canned ‘in water’ or ‘own juices’.
I am not hating on organic farmers or farming. I think the majority of farmers (organic and traditional) take great pride in their land and their product.
Is organic bad? Nope
Is it better? Nope
Is it more expensive? Yep
Let’s all start eating more fruits and veggies. Organic. Conventional. Fresh. Frozen. Canned. JUST DO IT.
Give your produce a wash, throw away the outer layer of leafy veggies and clean your cooking surfaces. It will get of the residual crud… I’m talking dirt, bacteria, pesticides and poo ya’ll.
Here's a recipe that checks all the boxes:
local, seasonal and the whole family will eat it!
*disclaimer - I did not dive into organic animal farming as that is a blog unto itself. Stay tuned for part 2!