Why is Organic better for us?
By Patricia Bloj| Writer of the Organic Cookery
My journey to becoming organic?
I have been eating organic for 4 years now. On The Organic Cookery, I mention that my journey to health started when, 6 years ago I really wanted to lose weight, because I felt I lost my fitness, I lost my self esteem as I didn’t take care of myself. 2 years into my ambition to become my fittest I was really struggling because I was not really making any progress. Researching into the potential reason for why I was struggling to lose weight I came across loads of cases of people saying that when they detoxified their bodies they started to lose weight. So, jackpot…I said to myself I need to limit the intake of toxins. At the time there was not as much choice in terms of organic food and felt that going through the traditional retail channel (ie. Supermarket) will be quite expensive. And my path crossed with a small food box delivery service, going by the name of Abel and Cole. I loved the fact that I could get veggies that looked similar to the ones I used to buy in the markets from Romania. I mean veggies that were not polished to death, not in plastic bags and all looking exactly the same.
What does organic mean?
- An organic crop means that farmers are prohibited to use syhthetic chemical fertilisers (like N, KCl, superphosphate) and instead use organic fertilisers (manure, composts), use of legume crops in rotation (to increase soil N levels which is important for the plans to grow). I like to call these the old school of doing things, like my grandma used to do;
- However, organic standards permit the use of certain plant or microbial extract and/or mineral (Cu and S based);
- Organic crops tend to grow more slowly, and produce more of what scientists call secondary plant metabolites (ie. antioxidants, minerals);
- However this also means that it’s not as reliable as conventional farming because if a pest was to hit if the crop is not able to “defend” itself then most likely the crop will be lost…and no mouths to feed;
TRACEABLE & NO BADDIES
- Because of it being a highly regulated industry all organic foods are fully traceable so you will know where every ingredient comes from;
– Hydrogenated fats and controversial artificial food colours and preservatives are banned under organic standards;
NO GM FOODS
- Crops are not modified genetically or animals are not fed GM foods;
- Antibiotics are banned. Farm animals account for almost two-thirds of all antibiotics used in the EU and these are passed down to us through the food chain (Source: Soil Association, 2017);
- Organic animals must have access to pasture (when weather and ground conditions permit) and are truly free range;
- Must have plenty of space – which helps to reduce stress and disease;
- Graze and forage naturally on organic pasture (grasses and other crops) where only natural fertilisers are used and pesticides are severely restricted;
What is the current evidence around the benefits of organic food
There has always been a lot of controversy around the benefits of eating organic but there is a growing body of evidence now to suggest eating organic is beneficial for our health.
The key benefits to organic foods are:
- The higher content of vitamins and minerals in organic food;
- The negative impact of pesticides to health;
- There are ecological and ethical grounds for supporting organic farming, which may be beneficial for supporting organic farming, which may be beneficial for soil health, water quality and the health of farmworkers and their families (Source: Mark F. McCarty, James J. DiNicolantonio, 2014).
1. Higher content of vitamins and minerals
A new study published in the British Journal of Nutrition in February 2017 has shown that both organic milk and meat contain around 50% more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, and a higher concentrations of certain essential minerals and antioxidants than conventionally produced products.
Omega-3s are linked to reductions in cardiovascular disease, improved neurological development and function, and better immune function. Western European diets are recognised as being too low in these fatty acids and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recommends we should double our intake.
Results from several mother and child cohort studies linking organic milk, dairy product and vegetable consumption to a reduced risk of certain diseases. This included reduced risks of eczema in babies.
In another study also published in British Journal of Nutrition in 2014 showed there are up to 60% higher in a number of key antioxidants than conventionally-grown crops, and contained less pesticides and less of the toxic metal cadmium, which is naturally occurring in the soil.
The concentrations of a range of antioxidants were found to be substantially higher in organic crops:
- Phenolic acid 19% higher
- Flavanones 69% higher
- Stilbenes 28% higher
- Flavones 26% higher
- Flavonols 50% Higher
- Anthocyanins 51% higher
These have been linked to a reduced risk of chronic disease (CVD – cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative disease and certain cancers in dietary interventions and epidemiological studies. A recent meta-analysis has reported that a 10mg/d increase in flavonoid intake is associated with a 5% reduction in cardiovascular disease. However the same study did not find that there was a significant increase in certain vitamins and minerals. What you will have to remember is that these are really big studies, done across many years to be able to assess significant differences in accordance with action standards set by researching agencies. This is why sometimes I am frustrated by the constant need to demonstrate something. Some of these studies were conducted in 2009 and at the time the results were not the same. It took another 8 years of researching to be able to then conclude what sometimes for me feels the obvious…food grown properly and taken care of should in theory be better for you…as I always used to say to my mum: “your food tastes a lot better when you make it with passion and love”:).
2. Negative impact of pesticides on health
In the same study the frequency of occurance of pesticides residues was 4 times higher in conventional crops (mainly in fruits vs vegetables) and there were higher concentrations of toxic metal cadmium (48% higher) in conventional crops.
The higher NO3 and NO2 (both synthetic pesticides) concentrations in conventional crops is also nutritionally not desired as they have been described to be risk factors for stomach cancer and methaemoglobinaemia in humans. Greater accumulation of cadmium is associated with reduced fertility in both men and women.
Recent study showing that high level of certain types of pesticides may contribute to the increasing incidence of food allergies in westernised societies (Jerschow E, McGinn AP, de Vos G, et al, 2012, Dichlorophenol containing pesticides and allergies, results from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2005-2006).
There is a growing body of evidence that highlights a positive association between certain types of cancer and exposure to pesticides and contaminants in epidemiological studies (Alavanja MCR, Ross MK & Bonner MR, 2013, Increased cancer burden amongst pesticides applicators and other due to pesticides exposure; Alavanja MCR, Ross MK, 2012, Occupational pesticide exposures and cancer risk: a review; Lebailly P, Niez E & Baldi I, 2007, Epidemiological data on the relationship between cancer and pesticides; Nasterlack M, 2007, Pesticides and childhood cancer: an update).
Top dirty foods
By dirty foods I mean foods that are most frequently found with pesticides. In the UK there is a government body who’s job is to test foods in the UK against pesticides used. They check for residues of pesticides above the reporting level, pesticides above the MRL level (maximum residue level set by the EU) and traces of multiple pesticides residues.
There is still scientific controversy about the safety of some currently permitted pesticides even at levels below MRL and complex mixtures of pesticides as safety testing of pesticide mixtures is currently not required as part of the regulatory pesticide approval process. But again, I will make my point around the frustration of having to have endless data to demonstrate something which for me instinctively feels rights. If all our food is tempered with pesticides, and we live a stressful life in a polluted area, with our bodies less effective to detoxify then why do we need to allow ourselves to eat low quality food. They take samples of different foods from across the UK from British supermarkets to form a representative sample. However, not every year they take all available fruits and veg. Not sure if this driven by money they have available to spend on the research.
According to the latest annual report (2015)Pesticide Residues Monitoring Results in the UK 58.39% of samples contained residues at or below the MRL. 5.05% of samples contained residues over the MRL. I have taken the annual report because it takes into consideration a much wider variety of foods. The list of offenders is below presented in the order of most frequently found with pesticides above the reporting levels. However it is missing some ingredients like strawberries and tomatoes which we frequently consume.
- Wheat (96% of samples have been found to contain pesticides above the reporting level)
- Blackberries (95%)
- Pears (94%)
- Pineapple (92%)
- Brussel sprouts (76%)
- Mango (73%)
- Apples (67%)
- Salad (63%)
- Beans in pods (62%)
- Celery (60%)
- Peppers (60%)
- Chilli (54%)
- Radish (54%)
- Melon 53%
- Potatoes 53%
- Blueberries 46%
- Aubergine/Courgette 44%
- Okra 41%
- Broccoli 32%
- Peas 24%
- Ginger 15%
The committee has also a quarterly reporting and according to the latest report (Q3’16). In this case the Top 10 is:
- Grapes (100%)
- Peaches (98%)
- Apricots (97%)
- Strawberry (96%)
- Apple (92%)
- Pears (83%)
- Beans in pods (58%)
- Tomatoes/Okra (56%)
- Peppers (47%)
- Leek (35%)
Given the big picture, lots of experts say that, from a health perspective, what you eat matters more than whether you choose organic or conventional. However, considering that the current environment where we live we are exposed to stress and pollution which we cannot really avoid and the fact that we don’t always have the time to exercise I believe that at least something we can control is the food we eat and maximise the level of nutrients we get.
One important point to conclude on…not all organic food is great food. You still have fairly processed foods that are organic but contain for example emulsifiers, disguised sugars (brown rice malt, concentrated grape juice). It took a few chemical process to get to these ingredients. Also, just because those blueberries are organic but come from Chile doesn’t make them great. Fresh foods lose a lot of their nutrients from the moment they are picked. Now think about how long they have been transported, how long have they been on shelf before they get into our mouth. I have always been a promoter of eating locally and organic because this means you eat in season and you maximise the level of nutrients you get in a day and age where quality of air, soil and water it’s not at it’s best.