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  • Although I typically write about nutraceuticals, I thought I’d address a different topic for this issue: whether or not organic foods are actually better than conventional foods. It’s a question I’m often asked.

    Statistics & Definition
    Over the past few decades, sales of organic foods have consistently increased. U.S. organic food sales in 2018 were no exception. According to Nielsen Homescan household projected data, organic food sales during the 52 weeks ending November 28, 2018, rose nearly nine percent over the previous period, surpassing $21 billion.1 Clearly, consumers are willing to pay the typical 10 to 40 percent higher price for organic foods over conventionally produced foods. But why? According to one survey2, the main reasons consumers purchased organic foods were for the avoidance of pesticides (70 percent), for freshness (68 percent), for health and nutrition (67 percent), and to avoid genetically modified foods (55 percent).

    Now that we know why consumers buy organic food, let’s define organic food. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

    Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled “organic,” a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.3

    After reading the USDA’s definition of organic and the results of the previously cited consumer survey, one might think that organic foods would be universally accepted as being healthier than conventionally grown foods. However, this is not necessarily the case. For example, the USDA “makes no claims that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food.”4 So, does this mean that the public has been duped and there is really no significant benefit to using organic foods over conventional foods? To answer this question from a scientific perspective, let’s examine the research.

    The Research on Organic Foods

    In a study on the “Nutritional Quality of Organic Versus Conventional Fruits, Vegetables, and Grains,”5 organic crops were found to contain significantly more vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus and significantly fewer nitrates than conventional crops (see chart on following page). There were nonsignificant trends showing less protein but of better quality and a higher content of nutritionally significant minerals with lower amounts of some heavy metals in organic crops compared to conventional ones.

    In a review6 of earlier research, studies showed that organic fertilization practices produce crops that also had higher levels of ascorbic acid, lower levels of nitrate, and improved protein quality compared with conventionally grown crops. In addition, animal studies showed better growth and reproduction in animals fed organically grown feed compared with those fed conventionally grown feed.

    In other research, organic crops contained a significantly higher amount of certain antioxidants (vitamin C, polyphenols and flavonoids) and minerals than conventional ones. Moreover, there was a lower level of pesticide residues, nitrate and some heavy metal contaminations in organic crops compared to conventional ones. A relationship was seen between the different fertilization and plant protection methods of these two plant production systems and the nutritional composition of crops. The conclusion was that organically produced plant-derived food products have a higher nutritional value, including antioxidants than conventional ones.7 Furthermore, due to the lower level of contamination in organic crops, the risk of diseases caused by contaminated food was thought to be significantly reduced.

    organic crops vs conventional crops

    According to Organic farming, food quality and, human health: A review of the evidence8, “A comprehensive review of existing research reveals significant differences between organically and nonorganically grown food. These differences relate to food safety, primary nutrients, secondary nutrients [aka, phytochemicals] and health outcomes demonstrated by feeding trials.” With regard to food safety:

    • Nearly all pesticides are prohibited in organic farming.
    • There is no evidence linking organically produced foods with an increased risk of food poisoning.
    • Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and their derivatives are prohibited in organic production.
    • The routine, growth promoting or prophylactic use of antibiotics is prohibited in organic standards for animal husbandry.
    • No record has been found of any case of BSE, suspected of being linked to new variant CJD in humans, in an animal born and reared organically.
    • More than 500 additives are permitted for use in nonorganically processed foods, compared with around 30 permitted in organic processing.
    • Studies have shown lower levels of potentially harmful nitrate in organically produced crops.
    With regard to primary nutrients:
    • Vitamin C and dry matter contents are higher, on average, in organically grown crops.
    • Mineral contents are also higher, on average, in organically grown crops.
    • Research indicates a clear long-term decline in the trace mineral content of fruit and vegetables, and the influence of farming practices requires further investigation.
    With regard to phytochemicals:
    • Research is beginning to confirm the expectation that organic crops contain an increased range and volume of naturally occurring compounds known variously as secondary plant metabolites or phytochemicals.
    • Phytochemicals increase the capacity of plants to withstand external challenges from pests and diseases, and an increasing number of them are also known to be beneficial to humans.

    Nevertheless, not all studies have shown higher levels of nutrients or phytochemicals in organic goods. In a review9 of eleven studies comparing organic and conventional foods with respect to nutrient/phytochemical levels, nine of the studies demonstrated higher levels while two of the studies found no differences. Of course, nine out of eleven studies are still reasonably impressive.

    Even in research that did not find strong evidence that organic and conventional foods differ in concentrations of various nutrients, other health benefits were still seen in organic foods (e.g., a reduction in nitrate content10), and reasonably consistent findings were still seen for higher nitrate and lower vitamin C contents of conventionally-produced vegetables.11

    On August 22, 2002, Dr. Erik Steen Kristensen of the Danish Research Centre for Organic Farming presented data on food safety from an organic perspective at the 14th International In a presentation given at a European conference on organic food and farming12, the impact of organic foods on health and safety was addressed. The data presented showed overwhelmingly positive results for both health and safety (see table below).

    Health and Safety Impact of Organic Foods

    Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements Congress in Victoria, Canada. Dr. Kristensen offered reasons to consider organic foods, specific reasons associated with the risks of conventionally farmed foods13:

    • Discovery of animals with BSE—Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, aka, mad cow disease
    • Increased occurrence of Salmonella in meat and eggs
    • Increased occurrence of campylobacter in meat
    • Listeria in dairy products
    • Increased occurrence of dioxin in food and fodder
    • Too high amounts of pesticides, antibiotics, additives, etc. in food
    • Toxic fungi in food from stocks

    The Research on Organic Farming

    In addition to nutrition and health, another area of consideration associated with the benefits of organic foods, or more specifically organic farming, is biodiversity. Organic agriculture has been confirmed as environmentally sound and more sustainable than mainstream agriculture. In fact, the World Wildlife Fund supports organic farming because it benefits people and nature:

    It is a system that is essential for conserving biodiversity, especially in the center of fields. It avoids the release of toxic pesticide residues into the environment, and it supports rural development, fair trade, food safety, animal welfare, and market-oriented production. No other farming system encapsulates all these benefits and in a way that the public can easily recognize.15

    A research project conducted by Britain's Soil Association and sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund indicated that in most studies important differences have been found between the biodiversity on the organic and conventional farms, generally with substantially greater levels of both abundance and diversity of species on the organic farms. This includes:16

    • Plants: five times as many wild plants in arable fields, 57 percent more species and several rare and declining wild arable species found only on the organic farms.
    • Birds: 25 percent more birds at the field edge, 44 percent more in-field in autumn/winter; 2.2 times as many breeding skylarks and higher skylark breeding rates.
    • Invertebrates: 1.6 times as many of the arthropods that comprise bird food; three times as many non-pest butterflies in the crop areas; one to five times as many spider numbers and one to two times as many spider species.
    • Crop pests: a significant decrease in aphid numbers; no change in numbers of pest butterflies.
    • Distribution of the biodiversity benefits: though the field boundaries had the highest levels of wildlife, the highest increases were found in the cropped areas of the fields.
    • Quality of the habitats: both the field boundary and crop habitats were more favorable on the organic farms.
    • The field boundaries: they had more trees, larger hedges and no spray drift; the crops were sparser, with no herbicides, allowing more weeds; there was also more grassland and a greater variety of crop types.
    • Organic farming was identified as having many beneficial practices: reversing the trends in conventional farming that have caused the decline in biodiversity: crop rotations with grass leys, mixed spring and autumn sowing, more permanent pasture, no use of herbicides or synthetic pesticides and use of "green manure."

    The general consensus of other research17,18 comparing conventional and organic systems of farming was that organic farming is less damaging to the environment for the following reasons:

    • They don't consume or release synthetic pesticides into the environment. This is significant since some of the pesticides may harm soil, water and local terrestrial and aquatic wildlife.
    • They are better at sustaining diverse ecosystems, including populations of plants and insects, as well as animals.
    • When calculated either per unit area or per unit of yield, they use less energy and produce less waste.

    Further to this last point, one study19 found a 20 percent smaller yield from organic farms using 50 percent less fertilizer and 97 percent less pesticide. In addition, a study20 in 2007 compiled research from 293 different comparisons between organic and conventional farming to assess the overall efficiency of the two agricultural systems. The authors concluded, "Organic methods could produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even larger population, without increasing the agricultural land base."

    One researcher pointed out that, related to the environmentally sound nature of organic farming, the consumers' well-being is based on the certainty "that by purchasing, eating and enjoying organic food, one has contributed to a better future and an improved environment. These effects with their social implications along with improved animal welfare may, in the end, be more important than any measurable contribution of balanced Western diets to individual nutritional health."21

    Conclusion
    To answer the earlier posed question, no the public has not been duped. There really are significant benefits to using organic foods over their conventional counterparts. These include health, nutrition and environmental benefits.

    References
    1. Smith H. Organic Sales Soared in 2018: Nielsen. Food Industry Executive. January 9, 2019. Retrieved May 29, 2019 from https://foodindustryexecutive.com/2019/01/organic-sales-soared-in-2018-nielsen/
    2. Whole Foods Market. 2005 Whole Foods Market organic trend tracker. Austin, Tex.: Whole FoodsMarket; 2005.
    3. Organic Food Standards and Labels: The Facts. National Organic Program. Retrieved June 6, 2006 from http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/Consumers/brochure.html
    4. Organic Food Standards and Labels: The Facts. National Organic Program. Retrieved June 6, 2006 from http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/Consumers/brochure.html.
    5. Worthington V. Nutritional Quality of Organic Versus Conventional Fruits, Vegetables, and Grains. J Alternative Compl Med 2001; (7)2:161–73.
    6. Worthington V. Effect of agricultural methods on nutritional quality: a comparison of organic with conventional crops. Altern Ther Health Med 1998(1):58–69.
    7. Györéné KG, Varga A, Lugasi A. A comparison of chemical composition and nutritional value of organically and conventionally grown plant derived foods. Orv Hetil 2006;147(43):2081–90.
    8. Organic farming, food quality and,human health: A review of the evidence. Bristol, United Kingdom: Soil Association; 2006.
    9. Winter CK, Davis SF. Organic Foods. Journal of Food Science 2006; 71(9):R117–R124.
    10. Bourn D, Prescott J. A comparison of the nutritional value, sensory qualities, and food safety of organically and conventionally produced foods. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr 2002;42(1):1–34.
    11. Williams CM. Nutritional quality of organic food: shades of grey or shades of green? Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 2002; 61:19–24.
    12. O’Doherty Jensen K, Larsen HN, Mølgaard JP, Andersen J-O, Tingstad A, Marckmann P, Astrup A. 2001. Organic foods and human health. Proceedings of the European conference: Organic Food and Farming. Towards Partnership and Action in Europe. Danish Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, Copenhagen 10–11 May 2001, 172–77.
    13. Kristensen ES. Food safety in an organic perspective. 14th IFOAM Congress, Victoria, Canada; August 22nd 2002. Accessed on May 25, 2005 from http://orgprints.org/19/03/Kristensen_IFOAM_2002.ppt
    14. Köpke U. Organic foods: do they have a role? Forum Nutr 2005;(57):62–72.
    15. The Biodiversity Benefits of Organic Farming. Bristol, United Kingdom: Soil Association; 2000.
    16. The Biodiversity Benefits of Organic Farming. Bristol, United Kingdom: Soil Association; 2000.
    17. Stolze M, Piorr A, Häring AM, Dabbert S. 2000. Environmental impacts of organic farming in Europe. Organic Farming in Europe: Economics and Policy Vol. 6. Universität Hohenheim, Stuttgart-Hohenheim.
    18. Hansen B, Alrøe HJ, Kristensen ES. Approaches to assess the environmental impact of organic farming with particular regard to Denmark. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 2001; 83:11–26.
    19. Mäder P, Fliessbach A, Dubois D, Gunst L, Fried P, Niggli U. Soil Fertility and Biodiversity in Organic Farming. Science 2002; 296:1694–7.
    20. Perfecto et al, In Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 2007; 22: 86-108 Cambridge University Press: cited in New Scientist 13:46 12 July 2007.
    21. Köpke U. Organic foods: do they have a role? Forum Nutr 2005;(57):62–72.
  • You may have heard that 'going organic' is a healthy choice for the farmers, the environment, and your own health. But do you really understand why it's such a positive choice?

    This article series explores the benefits of choosing organic.

    Reason: Organic food offers superior health benefits

    Some of my previous articles have highlighted health benefits that can be obtained from choosing organic. These range from helping to protect the body from cancer1 to explaining the profound benefits of nurturing healthy soil2 to sharing some of the potentially toxic processes3 and chemicals4 that conventional food can be subjected to.

    In some ways I was reluctant to straight out claim that organic food is more nutritious because this is not always true. There are organic food products on the market that have been highly processed into something that is quite far removed from the crop they started from. Throughout this process valuable nutrients are lost and the end result becomes less nutritious for our bodies.

    It is also worth mentioning that nutrient levels in the soil can vary a lot within both conventional and organic crops depending on how the farmer or grower approaches soil health.

    Additionally, it is important to compare nutrient levels between the same types of crops because nutrient levels vary between types of plants and specific varieties in both conventional and organic growing.

    As I mentioned in an earlier article5 soil health is of the utmost importance in organic farming. This is a crucial factor in successful organic growing because quick fix solutions such as synthetic chemical fertilizers are not allowed to be used. Nurturing the soil creates a healthy soil microbiome, which grows healthy plants, which in turn help people to be healthy.

    Plants need to use their own inbuilt protection mechanisms to ward off pests because these same protection mechanisms are what provide us with antioxidants for our bodies. If plants are routinely being sprayed with synthetic pesticides the plant loses the requirement to use these amazing natural protection mechanisms. Along with that, the antioxidants that have been linked to optimal health in humans are severely depleted.

    There are always going to be studies that show no difference in antioxidant levels between conventional and organic crops. Some studies are repeated over again until beneficial results are found to support whatever corporate giant is funding the study. However there certainly is evidence out there that organically grown crops have higher nutritional content.

    A large study carried out meta-analyses based on 343 peerreviewed publications that indicate statistically significant and meaningful differences in composition between organic and non-organic crops/crop-based foods. The concentrations of a range of antioxidants such as polyphenolics were found to be substantially higher in organic crops/crop-based foods.6

    The 'look' of some organic produce can sometimes put people off eating it because it doesn't seem as appealing. In my experience, I have often found that our customers are pleasantly surprised by how wonderful their 'ugly' looking fruit tastes, and there is also evidence to suggest that it could contain superior nutritional qualities.

    Studies have found that apples with 'scabs' on the skin or leaves contained higher antioxidants (phenolic compounds) than scab-free apples and apple leaves.7,8 Similarly, higher concentrations of resveratrol (an antioxidant) have been found in grape leaves following fungal infection or exposure to ultraviolet light.9

    These results all connect back to the plant needing to work hard to fight for its survival. The inbuilt protective mechanisms kick in and these same protection mechanisms are what provide us with antioxidants. To remind you once more, a plant that has been sprayed with synthetic pesticides does not require these mechanisms for protection from pests, and therefore is unlikely to have antioxidants in the same concentrations that a plant which has not been subjected to synthetic pesticides will have.

    With this in mind, give that 'ugly' looking fruit a bit of a chance—you might be pleasantly surprised by the taste and it's highly likely that it's better for you too.

    1. https://www.justorganic.co.nz/why-go-organic-reason-7-help-protect-againstcancer/
    2. https://www.justorganic.co.nz/why-go-organic-reason-2-healthy-soil-healthybody/
    3. https://www.justorganic.co.nz/why-choose-organic-reason-4-irradiation/
    4. https://www.justorganic.co.nz/why-go-organic-reason-1-glyphosate/
    5. https://www.justorganic.co.nz/why-go-organic-reason-2-healthy-soil-healthybody/
    6. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/british-journal-of-nutrition/article/higher-antioxidant-and-lower-cadmium-concentrations-and-lower-incidenceof-pesticide-residues-in-organically-grown-crops-a-systematic-literature-review-and-meta-analyses/33F09637EAE6C4ED119E0C4BFFE2D5B1/corereader#
    7. http://publik.tuwien.ac.at/files/PubDat_194363.pdf
    8. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10535-011-0176-6#/page-1
    9. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0048405976900771
  • You may have heard that ‘going organic’ is a healthy choice for the farmers, the environment, and your own health. But do you really understand why it’s such a positive choice? This article series explores the benefits of choosing organic.

    Reason 1: Glyphosate
    You may be aware that organic food and products are produced without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or chemicals. Advocates of conventional farming (the type that does allow use of these artificial substances) argue that recommended levels of these chemicals are not exceeded.

    This statement may be true for one chemical in one product but it does not consider the sheer number of potentially toxic chemicals that we are subjected to in modern society—in our food, our water, in the materials we use to make products and clothing, and in the air we breathe.

    A chemical may be tested and found to be safe at a certain level, but it is unlikely that the full cocktail of chemicals contained in a product have been tested. Molecular biologist Professor Gilles-Eric Seralini has demonstrated that the full formulations of pesticides are much stronger than the declared active ingredient. Additionally, the ‘active’ ingredient may not be the most toxic ingredient in pesticide formulations.1

    Coupled with these issues, there is little consideration for variations in sensitivity between individuals, nor for the consequences of being exposed to so many different chemicals over the course of a day, or a lifetime.

    Glyphosate is a chemical under hot discussion in the farming world. Being on the market in the form of the active ingredient in the widely used herbicide Roundup, virtually all conventional produce and food products contain traces of this chemical. As with all subjects of debate, there are many studies that claim Roundup herbicide poses no risk to humans.2

    However, in March 2015 the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic in humans” (category 2A) based on epidemiological studies, animal studies, and in vitro studies.3,4,5

    Advocates for organic farming believe it is wise to err on the side of caution—who wants to risk a build-up of toxic residue that could lead to serious health problems? It is much safer to ban ‘questionable’ chemical ingredients and to find a proven safe alternative than to live by the mantra of ‘innocent until proven guilty.’

    The links between glyphosate and a wide range of health concerns and conditions are becoming increasingly evident. Dr. Stephanie Seneff, a senior research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has found strong links between glyphosate use, and the rise in celiac disease. She explains that the villi in the gut are destroyed by glyphosate, which reduces the person’s ability to absorb vitamins and minerals and can result in gut problems.6

    Glyphosate has been highlighted as a potential endocrine disruptor7 and has shown a strong correlation with the increased incidence of many diseases, from cancer to dementia, to autism.8,9,10 The World Health organization lists the adverse health effects caused by glyphosate as airway, skin, and mucous membrane irritation, abdominal, pain, nausea, vomiting, shock, dyspnea, respiratory failure.11

    For consumers who are not convinced about the safety of food production methods using synthetic chemicals such as glyphosate, the only ways to currently drastically reduce exposure are by choosing certified organic produce and products, growing your own, or by getting food from a local farmer who you know is not using these chemicals.12,13,14

    For those who are not sure how to start shifting from a conventional to an organic diet, or who have concerns around personal budgeting restraints, a good place to start making changes is by focusing on the ‘dirty dozen’— a list of the twelve foods in New Zealand that have been identified as having the highest pesticide residues.

    Reason 2: Healthy soil, healthy body
    Many people are now choosing organic as one way to help optimize their health and wellbeing. The vitamin and mineral content of fresh produce and other foods will vary based on how the soil is cared for, the environment they are grown in, and how they are processed, among other things.

    In organic farming, caring for the soil is of the utmost importance, because it forms the basis for health, for all life forms. As Sophie Grigson and William Black explain, “Healthy soil encourages healthy plants, plants which are strong and disease resistant, which means there is less need for artificial pesticides in organic production.” Their book “Organic—a new way of eating” highlights the fact that if we feed the soil, the plants will look after themselves.15

    Sally Fallon reiterates this in her book “Nourishing Traditions,” when she explains that nitrogen fertilizers used in conventional (non-organic) farming produce high yields, in part by pulling minerals from the soil. In turn, the food suffers because the vitamin and mineral contents are depleted. She explains that vitamin and mineral content between conventional and organic crops can vary hugely, and that some commercially raised oranges have been found to contain NO vitamin C!16

    The old saying ‘you are what you eat’ really does ring true. If you are consuming food that was once a sickly animal who was fed routine courses of antibiotics and a genetically engineered diet of pesticide sprayed grains that it is unable to digest, how healthy do you think you will be?

    If you are eating food that has been sprayed copious times with a herbicide that has been engineered to kill EVERYTHING around it, except that particular crop, how do you think this affects the health of the soil, and the subsequent health of your body? Similarly, with the skin being the largest organ in the body, and readily absorbing anything you rub on it, have you considered what is entering your system via this method (by way of creams and lotions)?

    Yes, our bodies are amazing, and yes they can process and eliminate a certain degree of ‘rubbish.’ But, when they become overloaded they are unable to summon the resources required to neutralize the onslaught of poisons entering them. Therefore it makes sense to limit our intake of toxins wherever we are able to do so; for example by making organic choices.

    Organic farming helps ensure you are receiving the best quality for your body, allowing your cells to be as healthy and strong as possible. Growth hormones, protein rich feeds and the routine use of antibiotics are not allowed, nor are synthetic chemical fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides or pesticides.

    If you consider health as a holistic word encompassing people, animals, and the planet, then choosing organic is a positive step in this direction.

    Endnotes:

    1. “Food Matters – Life matters!” article. Organic NZ magazine. May/June 2015.
    2. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.3109/10408444.2013.770820.
    3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glyphosate.
    4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Agency_for_Research_on_Cancer#IARC_categories.
    5. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/widely-used-herbicide-linked-to-cancer/.
    6. http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2014/09/14/glyphosate-celiacdisease-connection.aspx.
    7. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1257596/.
    8. http://www.organic-systems.org/journal/92/JOS_Volume-9_Number-2_Nov_2014-Swanson-et-al.pdf.
    9. https://www.organicconsumers.org/news/monsantos-roundup-enough-make-yousick.
    10. https://www.organicconsumers.org/news/monsantos-sealed-documentsreveal-truth-behind-roundups-toxicological-dangers.
    11. http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/86/3/07-041814-table-T1.html.
    12. https://www.organicnz.org.nz/node/120.
    13. Organic – a new way of eating.” Sophie Grigson and William Black. Headline Book Publishing 2001.
    14. Nourishing Traditions." The Cookbook that challenges politically correct nutrition and the diet dictocrats. Revised second edition. Sally Fallon with Mary G. Enig. Ph.D. 1999, 2001 New trends Publishing Inc.
    15. http://www.foodsafety.govt.nz/policy-law/food-monitoring-programmes/foodact-1981/frsp/documents.htm.
    16. http://www.foodsafety.govt.nz/elibrary/industry/2003_04-Analyses_Environmental.pdf