A new review published in the Annals of Internal Medicine comparing organic with conventional foods has received a lot of attention in the media. Headlines have misrepresented the study by saying that there is no advantage to eating organic. In fact, the study shows that it is worth the investment to go organic, especially when choosing meat and dairy. The results actually reinforce the need to choose organic foods for the best long-term health and optimal body composition!
This article will tell you eight things you MUST know about organic foods so that you don’t get confused by media headlines.
#1: The New Analysis is NOT Comprehensive
The analysis, titled “Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Foods?”, is not an all-inclusive review that includes all the previous literature comparing organic and conventional foods. Rather, it is a meta-analysis, in which data from previous findings from 237 studies are analyzed with statistics. A lot of studies are included, but hundreds of studies are excluded for various reasons. This means that the study is a snapshot of general findings that are based on what the researchers decided to analyze.
A principal finding of this review was that, in general, organic produce is not more nutritious. However, the opposite is true for meat and dairy. Plus, many of the studies of fruits and vegetables that were excluded from the comparison concluded the opposite! For example, a 2009 comparison of the nutrients in celery found that organic celery has 70 percent more vitamin K, 48 percent more zinc, and 118 percent more vitamin C than conventional. There were no differences in the content of calcium, magnesium, and iron between the organic and conventional celery, but the conventional contained 47 percent more manganese.
#2: Other Studies Show Organic Produce May Be More Nutritious
In addition to the celery study, independent studies comparing nutritional levels in produce suggest organic options contain more nutrients. Organic cherry tomatoes were found to have 4.5 percent more vitamin K, 130 percent more calcium, and 65 percent more zinc than conventional. There were no differences in magnesium and iron content, but the conventional cherry tomato had 11 percent more manganese. Another study showed that organic strawberries had longer shelf life, higher antioxidant activity and more vitamin C than conventional, which were higher in potassium and phosphorus.
Compare these findings to the outcome of the Annals study that showed similar nutrient levels in conventional and organic produce and you see that nutritional value varies dramatically and there is no simple way of ensuring optimal nutrient content in produce. The reality is that nutritional value of produce is going to vary most based on the season, the soil the produce is grown in, whether it’s a native plant, and other factors. It is impossible to ensure nutritional intake from your diet, which is the reason for high-quality supplementation!
Take note that a rigorous 2008 review from The Organic Center in Boulder, Colorado, found that in matched pairs (when one organic produce item was compared to a conventional produce item), the organic food was more nutritious 61 percent of the time, while the conventional food was more nutritious 37 percent of the time. Conventional food tended to be higher due to greater content of protein, potassium, and phosphorous, whereas organic foods tended to be higher in vitamin C, quercetin, and other antioxidants. Of course, this review comes from an organization with an inherent bias toward organic foods, but it did use a strong analytical method.
#3: There is a Lack of Research Available to Analyze
There is a lack of research available to analyze, meaning that a general review such as the Annals analysis does not provide the final say on organic versus conventional foods. Don’t take it as fact or even science—it’s a summary that provides some insight into what we know about organic and conventional farming around the world.
For example, there are no studies comparing pesticide levels in adult consumers of organic versus conventional foods! Based on published literature, we don’t know anything about how eating one way or the other affects adults toxic load. However, the review did find two studies that examined urinary pesticide exposure in children, which showed significantly lower urinary pesticide levels in children who ate organic diets rather than conventional.
#4: Eating Organic Can Lower Your Toxic Load: Avoid Pesticides
Even though there are no studies on urinary pesticide levels in adults, the Annals study did find that conventional produce has a 30 percent higher risk of pesticide contamination. Researchers consider this to be clinically insignificant because the greater level of pesticide residue is “unlikely to exceed the maximum allowed by the FDA.” The FDA also doesn’t have a problem with BPA either, which has been repeatedly documented to disrupt the endocrine system and is associated with greater body fat percentage in men and women.
The point is that anytime you ingest a chemical, your body has to get rid of it. There’s a point at which the body can’t keep up with the chemical load, which is when cellular health is compromised, leading to cancer. Plus, when the body is in constant detox mode, healing processes will be impaired or shut down completely—protein synthesis and muscle building will be slowed and you’ll be more susceptible to the effects of stress and disease.
For instance, the review found that children who consumed at least 90 percent of their dairy organically had a lower risk of eczema than children who ate at least 50 percent conventional dairy. This is the only health outcome included.
#5: Eating Organic Can Lower Toxic Load Part 2: Avoid Antibiotics & Hormones
Conventional meat contained considerably higher levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria than organic meat. The risk of exposure to bacteria resistant to three or more antibiotics was 33 percent higher among conventional chicken and pork than organic alternatives. Bacteria is generally killed when the meat is cooked, making this point irrelevant, except when the meat is not prepared properly, in which case it is a big problem.
This also points to the underlying problem with conventional meat. In an editorial published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Dr. Sean Lucan wrote that factory-farmed beef “comes from animals raised on mixtures of genetically modified corn, chicken manure, antibiotics, hormones, and ground-up parts of other animals.” The Annals review didn’t address the issue of hormones or the fact that the reason the conventional meat is antibiotic resistant is due to the abysmal conditions in which the animals are raised and the overtreatment with antibiotics.
The take away is to always opt for organic meat and dairy and know that the very best choice is to get your meat and dairy from local farms that have “pastured”, organic animals, where you know your farmer personally.
#6: Eating Organic Can Lower Your Toxic Load Part 3: Get More Antioxidants
The Annals review found that organic produce contained much higher compounds of phenols, which are known to prevent cancer because the improve the body’s ability to produce glutathione. Glutathione is an antioxidant produced by the body that helps eliminate damaging waste products produced internally as well as chemicals taken into the body from outside. Studies show people with higher glutathione have much better health, less risk of disease, and they live longer.
By eating organic you’ll ingest less chemical compounds that the body must eliminate and you’ll have a much higher defense against all the toxins that you’re not able to avoid—like the pesticide residue that IS found on 7 percent of organic produce! Even produce grown organically can be tainted by pesticides wafting over from nearby farms or during processing. Researchers even found that some of the data they reviewed showed children who ate organic produce had pesticide traces in their urine, which highlights the enormous toxic load that we are all facing on a daily basis.
#7: Organic Dairy Contains MUCH More Nutrients
The Annals review found that organic milk contained many more omega-3 fatty acids (the results were “robust”) than conventional, which is supported by the literature. For example, a new analysis of the nutrient comparison of dairy products in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture found that organic diary contains much higher levels of all three omega-3 fats (EPA, DHA, and ALA) and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is a potent anti-cancer fat that has also been found to produce fat loss in subjects who get large amounts in their diet.
Additionally, the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio was much higher (nearly 2 to 1) in the organic dairy, which is more favorable for health and body composition. Generally, omega-3s fight inflammation and omega-6 fats are considered pro-inflammatory, meaning they cause it.
Of interest, this review found that organic dairy had the highest levels of the favorable nutrients during the summer months, which is due to the animals being fed outdoors with fresh forage versus indoors with “conserved forage.” Still, organic dairy had so many more omega-3 fat and CLA that the organic dairy products are able to maintain their favorable “premium” nutritional quality year round.
#8: Organic Meat Also Contains More Nutrients
One of the most valuable benefits of eating organic is that organic grass-fed meat is well known for being more nutritious! The Annals review didn’t include any studies of beef or red meat, which highlights how limited in scope the analysis is. It did find that organic chicken contained much higher levels of omega-3 fats than conventional. Plus, breastfeeding mothers who ate organic meat and dairy had higher levels of CLA and another beneficial fat, vaccenic acid, in their milk.
Other studies provide a wider understanding of the benefit of organic meat. A review in Nutrition Journal found that because animals that are raised organically eat grass and other vegetation that is high in omega-3s and good fats rather grain, byproducts of other animals, and hormonally active industrial chemicals, they contain much higher levels of good fats, vitamins, and antioxidants.
For example, organic beef, goat, and pork were found to be higher in the omega-3 fats, EPA and DHA, and they have substantially more CLA. The organic meat also had more than two times the vitamins E and A as conventional, and provided more glutathione—that antioxidant that protects against cancer. Organic beef and ham have the highest glutathione content of all foods, surpassed only by fresh vegetables such as asparagus.
With all this data, it is common sense to avoid conventional meat and dairy at all costs, while choosing organic produce whenever possible. Best health and body composition results will come from lowering your toxic load and boosting your antioxidant levels. And, a related tip is to choose organic produce that is in-season and locally grown as much as possible in order to ensure higher nutritional content.