Organic Foods and Health - Are They Really Better?
by Sarah Penney, ND
Hamilton Health & Wellness Centre
865 Upper James St.
There is no denying that organics have taken many communities of North America by storm. With the rise in their popularity, you can find organic options in everything from veggies to baking supplies in most major supermarkets in city centres. The organic label tends to come with a higher price tag, and often produce may be less attractive in appearance than its conventionally grown counterparts, which may influence choices that shoppers make. Those who are going the extra step to search out and invest in organic do so with the opinion that it is helping contribute to their good health, but is organic really better? Some confusion exists about what organic really means in Canada and what the health benefits are, so lets have a look at what the evidence says.
When you are looking at organic foods in a Canadian grocery store, you can be confident that they are in fact organic. This is thanks to several rigorous certifying bodies that regulate organic products in Canada, requiring a product to gain approval from these organizations to claim that it is organic. Products are evaluated for various requirements and held to several standards during production in order to become certified. As an overview, organic foods must be produced:
- Without the use of synthetic pesticides.
- Using seeds that are free of genetic modification.
- While complying with a certain standard of animal welfare, without administration of hormones or antibiotics.
- Containing at least 95% organic ingredients in packaged products.
The most attractive benefit of organics for many shoppers may be the standards surrounding pesticide use. Pesticides are of course routinely used to prevent the invasion of insects and fungus that may damage crops or cosmetic features of food, but many of us would happily take spots on our apples to help prevent harm for the birds and the bees. A fact that is not commonly known is that organic farmers are actually permitted to use certain pesticides too. This select list is comprised of substances that are naturally derived as opposed to synthetic chemicals, and may include certain herbal extracts or bacteria that help defend crops from potential threats. While you may assume that this would be much less harmful to the environment in which organics are grown,
it is important to consider that “natural” may not always be the safest choice. This was demonstrated in a study published in 2010, reporting that these natural pesticides may be less selective for pest control compared to their synthetic counterparts, and have a wider environmental impact on other insects. Another helpful tool that many organic farmers focus on instead of turning to any pesticides is the use of a variety of techniques to ward off pests, including the practice of maintaining healthy soil, rotating the type of crops that grow on their field, and providing the proper environment for natural predators of pests to live. It is, however, still important to wash and prepare organic produce with the same precautions as conventional products, due to potential use of natural pesticides.
The continued use of any type of pesticide paves they way for the development of resistant insects and fungi, and many believe the chronic exposure of conventional pesticides in our food may have an impact on our long-term health. One useful tool to reduce your pesticide exposure is a guide produced by a nonprofit organization called the Environmental Working Group. Each year, they evaluate nonorganic fruits and vegetables to identify which ones contain the most pesticide residue when they arrive in grocery stores, creating a list they call the “Dirty Dozen.” Selecting the organic counterpart of these foods may give you the most bang for your buck to reduce pesticide exposure. Visit their site at www.ewg.org to get a copy of this year’s list.
Another reason that many shoppers choose organic is to avoid genetically modified foods. Genetic modification has truly changed the way that both plants and animals can be grown and the cosmetic standard that growers can achieve. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are made by altering an organism’s DNA in a way that could not occur in nature, such as inserting a gene from one species into another or by inserting a synthetic gene. This technique has been applied since 1994 to plant foods to increase crop yield, decrease the chance of plant disease, and help prevent crops from being damaged by pesticides that are applied. Some of the most common foods that have undergone genetic modification in our grocery stores are corn, soy products, and canola oil, which mean that genetically modified ingredients can be found in almost all packaged products that are not certified organic. GMOs are investigated for safety using a 90-day animal study model before they reach our grocery store shelves, and many shoppers have extensive concerns about their widespread use in foods. Although the overarching opinion of researchers and regulatory bodies seems to be that GMOs are safe due to a lack of scientifically rigorous studies to show otherwise, some question whether this opinion may be biased. These concerns are not, however, heavily supported by the available research about the impact of GMOs on health.
Looking at the potential influence of nonorganic production of food on the environment, GMOs may start to become a concern by changing the genetic landscape of our plants.
Plants with artificial genetics can change environments through the natural spread of seeds, which could impair the survival of wild unmodified plants through competition and cross-breeding. Certified-organic crops must be grown a certain distance away from conventional crops for this reason, as these fields must be free of GMO contamination. The extent to which our crops involve genetic modification at this point seems almost irreversible, although the debate about safety in the public rages on. One interesting solution currently being requested by consumers is the labeling of foods that contain GMOs. This would allow consumers to make an educated choice about GMO consumption, although choosing organic food products also guarantees the avoidance of GMOs. This means that buying organic is also a way to help support farmers that are not using genetic modification to enhance crops.
Another reason that some of us choose organic is because we think it tastes better, or we believe it has more nutrients. The research on taste generally shows that if a subject is told that a food is organic, they will think it tastes better, while subjects often think that these foods taste the same as their conventionally grown counterparts when the organic status is not revealed. As for the debate about whether organic is more nutritious, the answer is still not clear. Some studies suggest that organic foods contain higher amounts of vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and other nutrients, although nutrition in any food varies between different years and different production sites. A review of these studies published in 2012 suggests that overall, any differences in nutrient levels between organic and nonorganic foods are not consistent and not clinically significant. Variety in growing practices and environments certainly poses problems when comparing nutrient levels in any two foods grown in different areas.
Organic versions of the large majority of foods are now available, including fruits and vegetables, meats, grains, and most packaged products. Large sections of mainstream grocery stores are dedicated to organics, and health-oriented stores selling only organic are popping up around every corner. Consumers truly have the choice to buy all their products certified organic if they desire, which can pose a dilemma when deciding what is best for your health. If you are looking for organic, make sure to pick a certified product by looking for an organic symbol recognized in your area. Do not get confused by the term “natural”—this term is not regulated, and therefore any product can use it without necessarily upholding any certain standards of production. The most important nutritional choice is a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods which has multiple benefits for long-term health, whether organic or not.