Organic food: Is it better for you?

Picture this: you walk into your favorite grocery store, straight to the produce section. You go to pick up your usual fruits and veggies for the week, but you stop, noticing an “Organic” sign above some select produce at the next aisle. You walk over and look at the prices of the produce, finding them significantly higher than your conventional produce. The produce doesn’t look much better, so why does it cost so much more? In addition, is it worth the 10% – 100% extra?

There seems to be a lot of confusion out in the marketplace these days pertaining to what food you should eat. Organic food is becoming more socially accepted, and more and more crops are transitioning to organic specifications. As organic food becomes more popular, more and more studies are being conducted to see if it is really all that it is thought to be.  Is organic food more nutritious? Do pesticides have a negative effect on our health when we eat foods that have been conventionally treated?

I have grown up eating mostly organic food. You could say that my parents were a little ahead of the curve when it came to eating organic. For example, my breakfast usually consisted of a 100% organic meal. I would usually have freshly “squeezed” carrot/apple/celery juice, and hot cereal (oatmeal, wheat or rice) with brown sugar and milk. I can’t help but feel that there really is a positive difference between organic and conventional foods. But is my opinion correct? The objective of this essay is to review the differences between organic and conventional food, review the positive and negative aspects and research of both, and finally take a side on which one is better.

So first of all, what is “organic”? According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), food that is “grown without the use of most conventional pesticides, petroleum- or sewage-based fertilizers, genetic engineering, or radiation” is considered organic in the US (Harvard 2). The USDA also has specific guidelines on what they accept as organic. The only way for the UDSA ORGANIC seal to be put on foods is if at least 95% of the ingredients are organic. Foods that are 70% organic or higher can be labeled as “Made with organic ingredients”, but will not receive the USDA seal (Schardt 4). So how does this differ from conventional foods? Conventional foods may contain some, if not all, of the properties listed above that organic does not. Conventional foods also contain a certain percentage of pesticide residue left on the plant when it reaches the consumer. According to Schardt, “about three-quarters of conventionally grown fruits and vegetables contain tiny amounts of pesticides -often more than one” (4).

Furthermore, only about one in four organic produce contains pesticides, and the amount is usually significantly lower than conventionally grown produce (Schardt 4). In another study, it was found that there could be more pesticides in produce than grains and meat. Cropper states, “While 47% of the produce sampled by the USDA in 2002 had detectable pesticide residues, only 16% of grains and 15% of meat tested did”. Organic foods have little to no traces of pesticides in them, but when they do it is usually because of conventional farmers. Organic farms that are more isolated generally tend to have no pesticide residue, since they are not around any conventional pesticides. Baker states that organic foods grown near conventional crops are “more likely to be exposed to aerial spraying and other applications that disperse pesticides much greater distances… Some foods labeled “organic” could contain pesticides. They’re not really organic” (qtd. in Schardt 6).

From this evidence we can gather that there are indeed more pesticides found in conventionally grown foods, according to these studies. There is also recent evidence that these pesticides found in food can adversely affect the applier of such pesticides in the field, as well as the consumer at home. Schardt states “People who work with pesticides… appear to have higher rates of asthma, Parkinson’s disease, leukemia, myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and cancers of the lip, stomach, skin, brain, and prostate” (3). Furthermore, studies show that farm workers don’t even know that they are being exposed, or harmed by exposure. Snipes et al. find, through ethnography of farm workers, that “Farm workers in this study indicated having allergic reactions to powdery pesticide residues, which were often perceived as mere dirt… Because some farm workers perceived powder to be virtually harmless, they may have chosen to wear less protective gear when working around these substances.” (S619). So according to this study, farm workers today are not even aware that they are being harmed, or even being exposed to these pesticides.

Those exposed to pesticides in the home can relate to this recent study, where Gilden, Huffling, and Sattler find that “There are many reproductive health outcomes that can be affected by exposures to pesticides” (109). This, of course, only applies to women and infants, and the article was focused on pesticides as a whole, not just pesticides in food. Cropper writes:

High doses of pesticides can cause neurological or reproductive damage. With infant reproductive organs still forming and the brain developing through age 12, and with young livers and immune systems less able to rid bodies of contaminants, eating organic is more important for children and pregnant or breast-feeding women.

Cropper, although she urges women and children to eat organic, fails to describe what “high doses of pesticides” are.  Furthermore, another source states, “A number of studies suggest that, at high doses, organophosphate chemicals used in pesticides can cause acute poisoning, and even at somewhat lower doses may impair nervous system development in children and animals” (Foreman). Once again, what are “high doses”? There seems to be no apparent definition.

Can we get high doses of pesticides just by eating food treated with pesticides? Foreman notes, “Keeping herbicide and pesticide levels as low as possible does make sense, although there is no clear evidence that these increase health risks at the levels consumed currently in the US”. Furthermore, Cropper notes that some fruits and vegetables, such as peaches and apples (produce that is hard to peel) are more likely to have pesticide residues than others (avocado, bananas, pineapples. etc.)  Schardt explains that you can lower your pesticide exposure by almost 90 percent if you avoid the certain fruits or vegetables that have been found to contain the highest level of pesticides and eat the least contaminated instead. However, I think that this poses a question. Are you still getting the nutrients you need just by eating the less contaminated produce, or are there specific nutrients that you can only obtain by eating the produce found to me most contaminated? I was not able to find the answer to this question, but last time I checked, there are definitely different levels of nutrients in different types of fruits and vegetables.

From the evidence found above, I find it hard to come to a conclusion as to whether or not eating foods contaminated with pesticides is bad for you. There is currently a lot of controversy pertaining to this, as scientists get different evidence and want to support their own conclusions. I think it is safe to say that if you want to play it safe, eat organic foods, but since there is still no hard scientifically proven evidence as to whether or not pesticide traces in food are bad for your health, I cannot assume that they are inherently bad for you. Nevertheless, large conventional food companies, such as Monsanto, who patent new genetically modified seeds that will not die when sprayed with Round-up (known as “round-up ready” seeds) allow the farmer to spray round-up directly on the crops without killing them, making it easier and faster to apply pesticides. This sounds like a pretty good idea, except for the fact that round-up is sprayed directly on the food we eat and quite possibly remains on the food when the consumer reaches it. I find this quite disturbing.

So where does organic food come in to play? Various studies have shown positive results when replacing a conventional diet with an organic one. In a 2006 study, Chensheng measured dietary organophosphorus pesticide exposure in a group of 23 children of elementary age for 5 consecutive days. Immediately after the introduction of organic diets, malathion and chlorpyrifos decreased to levels below detection. The concentrations of other pesticide metabolites were also lower, but not frequent enough for statistical significance. So eating organic food can possibly reverse the content of pesticides in the body? That’s pretty enlightening. Other studies show that “organic foods…decrease the likelihood of pesticide residue exposures” (Gilden, Huffling, and Sattler 6). From this, we can gather that multiple studies prove eating organic foods can reduce and reverse the amount of pesticide exposure in our bodies. Furthermore, dated studies have shown that organic foods may help reduce cancer. Magkos, Arvaniti, and Zampelas find that in 1989 “five patients, who had metastasized cancers (cancers that have spread to other parts of the body, not just the original tumor) during their lifetimes, and who subsequently begun to eat organically grown food showed no evidence of previous malignancy at autopsy after their deaths, many years later and from unrelated causes (358). However, medical experts have questioned the validity of this assertion, since it was discovered over 20 years ago.

However, I would also like to point out that organic foods are not as easy to grow or maintain. Organically grown foods can be more susceptible to diseases and pests, seeing that the organic fertilizer may not be as strong as conventionally used fertilizer, and since pesticides are not used, bugs and diseases can get into the crops, losing money for the farmers. Other natural methods are required in order to maintain a disease and pest-free crop. An example of a health incident happened in California when a central farm was switching their spinach from conventional to organic. The spinach was not marked as organic in the stores, but was grown using organic techniques. Because the spinach was grown on conventionally treated soil organically, it became susceptible to disease, and was contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, killing four people and sickening nearly 200 (Schardt 6). I think this shows that organic foods are definitely more vulnerable to nature and man-made substances than conventional foods, especially when introducing them in treated soil. Since organic foods are generally more difficult to grow, I think that they are probably more expensive because of this.

There is also a lot of dispute as to whether or not organic foods are more nutritious than conventional foods. A large-scale survey took place in 2001, obtaining existing studies and comparing nutrient content of organic and conventional crops using statistical methods to identify significant differences and trends within the data found. Worthington writes:

Organic crops contained significantly more vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus and significantly less nitrates than conventional crops. There were nonsignificant trends showing less protein but of a better quality and a higher content of nutritionally significant minerals with lower amounts of some heavy metals in organic crops compared to conventional ones… There appear to be genuine differences in the nutrient content of organic and conventional crops.

Furthermore, there was a study done to see if there were major differences in mineral concentrations between commercially organic and conventional crops. The study found significant differences in tomatoes, but not very much in lettuces. This was a very in-depth review, and there were many minerals tested and discussed. In short, tomatoes were found to have higher mineral concentrations than conventional tomatoes (Kelly and Bateman 738). Furthermore, Benbrook states that although conventionally grown food tends to have more protein, organic food is about 25 percent higher in vitamin C and other antioxidants (qtd. in Foreman).

However, Brandt & Molgaard state that “Whether a difference indeed exists in the nutritional value of organic and conventional food products is a crucial question but with no definitive answer” (qtd. in Magkos, Arvaniti, and Zampelas 364). Magkos, Arvaniti, and Zapelas also state that “many claims concerning the properties of organic food products have arisen, but no hard evidence has ever been provided and scientific basis for such anecdotal reports is lacking” (358). Other sources, such as Health Canada, conclude that “The scientific evidence cannot support or refute the perception that organic foods are more nutritious than conventional foods” (qtd. in Schardt 7), as well as Benbrook, who states that “For the average healthy adult who eats a pretty good, varied diet, and who is getting adequate servings of fresh fruits and vegetables, any extra nutrients in organic food may not alter their health to any significant extent” (qtd. in Schardt 7). With all of this disputation going on, it is hard to find a rock-solid answer. One thing that I noticed was that through all of the sources I went through, I found that there was no scientifically proven evidence that conventional food can be more nutritious than organic food. Some only stated that there appear to be no significant differences between the two. Now, I’m not saying we can conclude that organic food is indeed more nutritious, but I thought it was interesting that there were no sources stating that conventional is more nutritious. To sum it up, Forman states, “If you can afford it, common sense, though not necessarily science, would seem to favor the organics”.

So what can we take from all of these findings? I noticed that a lot of my sources came to the conclusion that there has yet to be more scientific research and rock-solid evidence that organic food is better than conventional food, but we are better off eating organic as a measure of common sense. I would conclude that eating organic is indeed better. I think that there has been enough research to prove that organic food is better overall than conventional food. I think it just makes sense. Furthermore, the various sources that prove organic food has more nutrients seem to me very scientifically accurate, and it seems like the opposing sources only try and discredit these types of research, instead of actually analyzing the data. I believe that this data is accurate, and organic food can indeed be more healthy than conventional foods. I also think that eating too many foods infected with pesticides can cause health problems, and advise pregnant women and young children to eat organic whenever possible. I still agree that more research needs to be conducted to help prove these conclusions even more, and am excited to see what the future holds for organic foods and the health of the American people.

References:

Chensheng, Lu, et al. “Organic Diets Significantly Lower Children’s Dietary Exposure to          Organophosphorus Pesticides.” Environmental Health Perspectives 114.2 (2006): 260.

Health Source: Nursing/Academic Edition. EBSCO. Web.

Cropper, Carol Marie.  “Does It Pay To Buy Organic?” Business Week 6 Sep. 2004: ProQuest   Central, ProQuest. Web.

Foreman, Judy.  “COMPARING TO ORGANIC.” Boston Globe  10  Nov. 2008: ProQuest   National Newspapers Premier, ProQuest. Web.

Gilden, Robyn C., Katie Huffling, and Barbara Sattler. “Pesticides and Health Risks.” JOGNN:    Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic & Neonatal Nursing 39.1 (2010): 103-110. Health        Source: Nursing/Academic Edition. EBSCO. Web.

“Is organic better?” Harvard Women’s Health Watch 10.10 (2003): 2. Health Source:

Nursing/Academic Edition. EBSCO. Web.

Kelly, S. D., and A. S. Bateman. “Comparison of Mineral Concentrations in Commercially      Grown Organic and Conventional Crops – Tomatoes (Lycopersicon Esculentum) and Lettuces (Lactuca Sativa).” Food Chemistry. 119. 2 (2010): 738-745.

Magkos, Faidon, Fotini Arvaniti, and Antonis Zampelas. “Organic food: nutritious food or food       for thought? A review of the evidence.” International Journal of Food Sciences &      Nutrition 54.5 (2003): 357. EBSCO. Web.

Schardt, David.  “ORGANIC FOOD. ” Nutrition Action Health Letter 1 Jul 2007: ProQuest   Central, ProQuest. Web.

Snipes, Shedra Amy, et al. “Pesticides Protect the Fruit, but Not the People.” American Journal       of Public Health 99.S3 (2009): S616-S621. Health Source: Nursing/Academic Edition.      EBSCO. Web.

Worthington, Virginia. “Nutritional Quality of Organic Versus Conventional Fruits, Vegetables,          and Grains.” Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine 7.2 (2001): 161-173.          Health Source: Nursing/Academic Edition. EBSCO. Web.

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