Is Organic Really Better For Us?

July 1, 2008

By johnmac

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Is organic food really better for us?

There is much scepticism and confusion regarding organic foods.

This is largely due to the fact that there has been no single, industry-wide standard for the definition of ‘organic’ foods in Canada, even though it is the fastest growing sector in the agricultural industry.

This scenario is about to change. Starting on December 14, 2008, a new logo will appear on food products that are certified organic. What will this logo look like and what does it mean? Keep reading to find out.

While the use of the logo is voluntary, when you see it, it means that the product has organic content that is greater than 95% and that has been certified according to Canadian standards for organic products.

So, what are these standards? A detailed list can be found at http://www.tpsgc-pwgsc.gc.ca/cgsb/on_the_net/organic/index-e.html, but basically, according to a news release from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, foods carrying the new Canada Organic logo are “certified as meeting Canadian standards for organic production such as using natural fertilizers and raising animals in conditions that mimic nature as much as possible.”

In Canada, organic foods are to be produced without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, sewage sludge, ionizing radiation and genetic modification. Animal products labeled as organic are to come from animals raised without the use of antibiotics and growth hormones and that are fed with feed that is free of genetically modified substances, chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.

Organic food sceptics quote studies which claim that the levels of pesticide residues on organic produce are the same as those on conventional produce. As far as I am aware, there are no such studies. Although pesticide residues are sometimes found on a percentage of certain organic crops, the numbers of pesticides used and the residue levels are far lower on organic crops compared with conventional crops. Residues on organic produce are due to the fact that DDT and other pesticides banned decades ago do not easily break down and are therefore still present in soil, rain and ground water (and tap water). In fact, when persistent pesticides such as DDT are excluded, the percentage of organic samples with pesticide residues falls significantly. Source: Food Additives and Contaminants Journal.

Sceptics also argue that no health benefits are derived from eating organic foods compared with conventional foods; however, studies show there is a difference. Forty-one such studies were reviewed and the findings were published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, V7, No2, 2001, pp. 161-173. Some of the key findings were:

organic crops contained significantly higher levels of certain vitamins and minerals
the quality of the protein of organic versus conventional crops is better as measured by the essential amino acid content
organically- fed animals are generally healthier and have healthier sperm, suggesting that reproduction and immune function might be adversely affected by conventional foods (interestingly, the reproductive impacts were also reported in the only human study done at the time regarding the health effects of consuming organic versus non-organic food. It reported that the percentage of normal sperm increased as the percentage of organic food in men’s diets increased)
soil that has been managed organically has more micro-organisms which produce many beneficial compounds that combine with soil minerals and make them more available to the plant roots
the use of certain fertilizers alters a plant’s natural nutrient profile, which impacts the health of the plant and the health of those who eat them
A more recent study conducted by Boulder Colorado’s Organic Centre looked at 97 published studies conducted since 1980 which compared the nutritional quality of organic and non-organic foods. The researchers stated that the difference between organically and conventionally grown foods was not only consistent, but sizable enough to conclude that on average, organically-grown foods are more nutritious. In fact, organically grown crops were 25% more nutrient-dense those that were conventionally-grown. They also contained higher levels of 8 of the 11 nutrients which were measured, including higher levels of important antioxidants. There was also evidence that the nutrients in organically grown foods are often in a more biologically active form. The full report is available at: http://www.organic-center.org/science.nutri.php?action=view&report_id=126

While organic foods are becoming more affordable, most do cost more. Here are some tips on what to buy organic so that you get the most benefit from the dollars you spend:

meat, dairy and wheat products should be organic (most pesticides in food are ingested through meat/animal products); Source: CHLG May 2002
vegetables and fruits with the highest pesticide residues. According to the Environmental Working Group, the 12 fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticide residues (aka “Dirty Dozen”) are: peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, lettuce, grapes (imported), pears, spinach and potatoes. For results on how other fruits and vegetables tested, visit www.foodnews.org. I have handy wallet-sized cards available which list the Dirty Dozen and the 12 ‘cleanest’ fruits and vegetables. If you have not received one, please pick one up next time you are in. They are great to refer to when you are shopping.
blackstrap molasses – if it’s not organic, heavy herbicides have been used to strip the leaves from the sugar cane to simplify harvesting. When sugar crystals and molasses are extracted from the cane, the toxic herbicides become concentrated in high amounts in the molasses.
Eating organic is especially important for both men and women wishing to conceive, pregnant or lactating women, infants and children. Note that children are more sensitive to pesticide residues due to their higher metabolism and many underdeveloped organ systems. Even a single serving of some produce items can deliver unsafe levels of toxic pesticide residues to young children. Source: Consumer Reports March 1999.

Organic or not, it is important to wash ALL produce with a biodegradable cleaner to decrease pesticide residues…and you never know what it may have come in contact with from the time of harvest to the time you buy it. While peeling conventionally grown produce is often noted as a way to eliminate chemical residues (as they are often concentrated on, in or just beneath the skin), it will also remove many important nutrients, including powerful antioxidants, that are often also concentrated in and/or just beneath the skin.

If possible, grow some of your own organic vegetables, especially those that you eat often (make sure the seeds or plants you start out with are not genetically modified). In addition to maximizing your organic food purchases, make an effort to eat fruits and vegetables that are in season and to buy from local farmers. Not only is eating in season more economical, but the fruit or vegetable was likely picked when it was ripe, making it more nutritious than produce that is picked when it was ‘green’ to survive long travel times/distances.

Buying local, organic foods supports your community – and it is better for the environment. In the big picture of things, it really isn’t that much more expensive if you consider the indirect costs of conventional farming, such as cleaning up sludge, replenishing depleted soils, health care expenses for workers and consumers exposed to toxic pesticides, as well as the natural resources consumed and the pollution created in the packaging and transportation. The environmental damage caused by conventional farming is enormous and it compounds itself every year.

A trip to a local, organic farmers market makes for a fantastic outing! You will find a wonderful assortment of fresh produce, grass fed meats, free range poultry and eggs, delicious home-made condiments, baking and more!

A list of local, organic farmers markets for the Ottawa area can be found at: http://www.cog.ca/ottawa/documents/COGdirectory2007.pdf

Enjoy!

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