What Is All The Hype About Organic Food?

Today’s blog is a guest post from Jamie Hale of MaxCondition.com. Jamie is a super smart guy and a strong advocate for science and reason within the fitness industry. For any fitness professionals or enthusiasts wanting to delve deep into evidence-based practice, critical thinking, research and statistics, and rationality, I can highly recommend purchasing his book In Evidence We Trust.

For his own application of this thought process and experience to training, grab a copy of his book MaxCondition.

Onto the article.

The hype

Organic food proponents often claim they eat organic foods because they feel organic foods are safer and more nutritious.  Common statements from those preferring organic food are “I don’t like chemicals in my foods,” “natural has to be safer than artificial,” or “I prefer pesticide-free food.”  I have spoken with numerous people that prefer organic food just because it is better.  Why it is better is often left unsaid.  “Organic food…is just better” claims the organic food advocate.  Are these claims supported by evidence or are they better described as faith-based beliefs?  No evidence needed!

Over the past two decades the sale of organic foods has increased dramatically.  Today’s organic food system includes a combination of small and large food producers, local and global distribution networks, and a wide variety of products including processed foods, fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy.  Organic agricultural methods are internationally regulated and legally enforced by many nations, based heavily on the standards set by International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements.  Organic food is a multi-billion dollar industry.  Consumers often pay two times the amount of money for organic versus conventional food.  The standards for organic certification of food varies worldwide.  When asking whether or a not a food is organic one is asking about the methods used in production of the food.  When asking about the safety and nutritional content, concerns other than just production method are being addressed.

Development of Organic Farming

According to Lee Silver (author of Challenging Nature, Biologist)Rudolf Steiner built the foundation for what would later be labeled as organic farming.  Rudolf Steiner’s brilliance was recognized when he was a youngster.   He attended the Vienna Institute of Technology and the University of Vienna.  In 1897, he moved to Berlin and entered the world of German High Society.  It appeared he was never comfortable among this group who promoted the idea that technology and science could change the world.  Steiner was  a very spiritual and didn’t adhere to the belief that science and technology could change the world for the better. He was often laughed at and made fun, due to his spirituality, by those of German High Society.  Steiner’s spiritual interests drew him to a religious movement called theosophy. Theosophy combined aspects of Christianity, astrology, and Hinduism. He wasn’t impressed with the fact that theosophists depended on faith to justify their beliefs.  He thought pure reason could explain the universe.  In 1912 Steiner created his own philosophy or “spiritual science” as he referred to it (anthroposophy).

Steiner introduced the world of farming to his “spiritual science”.  Steiner proposed that people should favor the natural and reject the synthetic and artificial.  Every family farm should be recognized as an individual organism that lives within the larger organism that is Mother Earth. Family farms should be entirely self sufficient.  Steiner’s philosophy was given the name Biodynamic agriculture.

J.J. Rodale is credited for coining the term in his magazine Organic Farming and Gardening.  Rodale proclaimed that processes performed by living things are fundamentally different than ones created through chemical laboratory processes.  According to Rodale and many modern day organic farmers the primary difference between organic and nonorganic food is the process in which the foods are produced.  Proponents of organic food  suggest that their more natural form of food production is preferred to  unnatural processes used in conventional food production.    This line of thinking demonstrates a common misperception, which is natural is always better.

Organic vs. Conventional?

Isn’t it logical that if organic foods use more natural methods for production and they don’t use pesticides they are safer? More natural doesn’t necessarily mean safer, and contrary what is often promoted, organic food producers do use pesticides.

Argumentum ad Naturam, is a claim that something is better because it is natural or bad because it is unnatural.  There is a widespread belief that natural substances are inherently superior to synthetic substances in regards to human health.  The characteristics of natural and synthetic substances within these categories show a similar range of favorable and unfavorable characteristics. The molecular structure and dose determine the effect of substances on human health, not whether they are of natural or synthetic origin. Natural compounds and synthetic compounds are, sometimes, complementary.  It is important to point out some substances may be classified as semi-synthetic.  That is, semi-synthetic as they are produced by modifying natural products, so they might be considered intermediate in characteristics. The molecular structure of a compound, which determines its interactions with other molecules in the body, is the primary reason it exhibits desirable and/or undesirable characteristics. “Whether the compound is of natural or synthetic origin is irrelevant. To correlate origin with an expected greater or lesser safety profile or desirable features is unfounded, and can be dangerously misleading” (Topliss et al., 2002, p.1968).  Many of the most toxic chemical substances are natural.

Natural substances display various properties with respect to their relationship to human health. These properties include those needed for regulatory processes needed for human life, medicinal agents to cure disease (single substances or mixtures) or they may produce extreme toxicity. Many have both wanted and unwanted effects, often dose-dependent. Even some vitamins can have negative effects at very high doses. The most potent natural toxin is botulinum; it is used as a drug in small doses to treat some conditions involving non-voluntary muscle contractions.  Natural, but toxic, substances include-  ricin, abrin, and strychnine—highly evolved chemical weapons used by organisms for self-defense and territorial expansion. Every plant and microbe carries a variety of more or less toxic attack chemicals, and synthetic chemicals are no more likely to be toxic than natural ones, says Lee Silver.

Natural substances originate from a variety of living organisms and have different purposes.  In addition to those that are essential for life, some are toxic and act as defense mechanisms against predators. Others may have no obvious purpose but are metabolic end products that possess characteristics ranging from beneficial to harmful. In terms of impact on human health, natural and synthetic substances have a similar influence.  To reiterate, the actions and consequences of ingesting substances are determined by their molecular structures and dose, not by their means of production.

In a survey, published in the Journal of Food Science, it was reported that the top reason (70% of those surveyed) people preferred organic food was they wanted to to avoid pesticides. It may come as a surprise to many organic food proponents that organic farming does permit the use of pesticides.  Rotenone is a potent neurotoxin, used by organic farmers that has long been used to kill fish and has been linked to Parkinson’s disease.  Researchers reported, in Nature Neuroscience,  that chronic exposure to Rotenone could reproduce the anatomical, neurochemical, behavioral and neuropathological features of Parkinson’s disease. Another pesticide used by Organic farmers, Pyrethrin, is sometimes used the day of harvesting, can result in breathing difficulties when inhaled. Winter and Davis, report that other pesticides used in organic farming include hypochlorite, sodium hypochlorite, copper sulfate, boric acid, lime sulfur, elemental sulfur, and oils.

A study, published in the journal Plos One, examined the environmental impact of several new synthetic and certified organic insecticides.  The insecticides were being considered as reduced-risk insecticides for soybean aphid (insects that live on plants by sucking juice) control.
The researchers found that organic insecticides showed a reduced efficacy against aphids compared to novel synthetic insecticides.  In addition, organic approved insecticides had a similar or even greater negative impact on several natural enemy species in lab studies and were more detrimental to biological control organisms in field experiments.  The researchers concluded that “consumers are often willing to pay more for products they believe are produced in the most sustainable way possible, but we have shown that the organic methods available are not always the most sustainable choice.”

 The Institute of Food Technologists issued a “Scientific Status Summary” regarding organic foods (Winter & Davis, 2006). The “Scientific Status Summary” was published in the Journal of Food Science.   Excerpt from that summary:

Organic fruits and vegetables possess fewer pesticide residues and lower nitrate levels than do conventional fruits and vegetables. In some cases, organic foods may have higher levels of plant secondary metabolites; this may be beneficial with respect to suspected antioxidants such as polyphenolic compounds, but also may be of potential health concern when considering naturally occurring toxins.  Some studies have suggested potential increased microbiological hazards from organic produce or animal products due to the prohibition of antimicrobial use, yet other studies have not reached the same conclusion. While many studies demonstrate these qualitative differences between organic and conventional foods, it is premature to conclude that either food system is superior to the other with respect to safety or nutritional composition.

The review shows that tradeoffs exist between organic and conventional food production. Organic fruits and vegetables rely on fewer pesticides than do conventional fruits and vegetables, which result in fewer pesticide residues, but may also stimulate the production of naturally occurring toxins if organic crops are subject to increased pressures from insects, weeds, or plant diseases. Organic fruits and vegetables often synthesize beneficial secondary plant metabolites such as polyphenolic antioxidants, but may also produce naturally occurring toxins.  Animals produced organically may have the potential to possess higher rates of bacterial contamination than those produced conventionally, since organic production generally prohibits antibiotic use.

A review, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, was conducted to investigate the nutritional differences between conventional and organic foods. Eleven crop nutrient categories were analyzed.   Conventionally produced crops had a significantly higher content of nitrogen, and organically produced crops had a significantly higher content of phosphorus and titratable acidity. There was no difference between the two for the remaining 8 of 11 crop nutrient categories analyzed.  Analysis of livestock products indicated no difference in nutrient content between organic and conventional livestock products. After reviewing these studies, the researchers concluded that there was no evidence of a nutritional difference between organic and conventional foods.

Systematic reviews, published in Indian Journal of Medical Research, were conducted to examine the nutritional composition and health benefits of organic foods.  The researchers reported two major conclusions: 1) there is currently no evidence of major differences in nutritional content between organic and conventional foods 2) there is currently no evidence of nutrition-related health benefits in regards to consuming organic foods.

Conclusion

Current evidence does not support the claims that organic food is safer or more nutritious than conventional food.  Whether or not the food is organic should play a minimal role (for most people) in deciding what to eat. A quality diet takes the following into account:

  • Adequate calories. (This matters whether you’re consciously counting calories or not.)
  • Essential nutrients.
  • Individual likes and dislikes.
  • Metabolic abnormalities.
  • Occasional breaks. (You don’t have to stick to the program 100 percent of the time to see the benefits.)
  • Environmental factors and their influence on eating
  • Specific goals

*Note:  This article is concerned with nutritional and safety concerns regarding eating behavior. This article is not about ethical or environmental issues related to organic and conventional farming.  Those are different topics.

 References

Bahlai, C.A., McCreary, C.M., Schaafsma, A.W., & Hallett, R.H. (2010).  Choosing organic pesticides over synthetic pesticides may not effectively mitigate environmental risk in soybeans.  PloS One, 5(6),e11250.

Betarbet, R., Sherer, T.B, MacKenzie, G., Osuna, M.G., Panov, A.V. &  Greenamyre, J.T. (2000).  Chronic Systemic Pesticide Exposure Reproduces Features of Parkinson Disease. Nature Neuroscience, 3, 1301-1306.

Dangour, A., Allen, E., Lock, K., & Uauy, R. (2010).  Nutritional composition & health benefits of organic foods — using systematic reviews to question the available evidence. Indian Journal of Medical Research, 131( 4), 478-480.

Dangour, A., Dodhia, S., Hayter, A., Allen, E., Lock, K., & Uauy, R. (2009).  Nutritional Quality of Organic Foods: A Systematic Review. American  Journal of  Clinincal Nutrition, 90,680-685.

Paull, J. (2010 ). From France to the World: The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM).  Journal of Social Research & Policy, 1(2), 93-102.

Silver, L.M. (2006).  Challenging Nature.  New York, NY:  Harper Collins

Silver, L.M. (2006).  The Environments Best Friend GM or Organic?  Update Magazine.  May / June.

Topliss, J.G., Clark, A.M., Ernst, E., Hufford, C.D., Johnston, G.A.R., Rimoldi, J.M., Weimann, B.J. (2002).  Natural and synthetic substances related to human health (IUPAC Technical Report).  Pure and Applied Chemistry, 74(10), 1957-1985.

Winter, C.K., & Davis, S.F.(2006).  Organic Foods.  Journal of Food Science, 71(9), R117-R124.

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