Transcript: Are the Benefits of Organic Food Underrated or Overrated?
Pesticides have been classified as probable carcinogens for 25 years. Different pesticides have been associated with different kinds of cancers through a variety of mechanisms of both genetic damage, directly to our DNA or chromosomes, or epigenetic modification, changing the way our genes are expressed–but that’s for workers who are spraying them. Exposures to pesticide residues that remain on the food are at much lower levels.
More recently, higher cancer rates have been noted in those who live in areas where they spray a lot, but what about just the food we buy at the store? Organic fruits and vegetables have fewer pesticides but even the levels on conventional produce are generally well below acceptable limits. There is still scientific controversy about the safety of some pesticides even under the limit, given the possible additive effects of the mixture of pesticides we’re exposed to–something that isn’t necessarily taken into account in the pesticide approval process. They also don’t take into account toxic breakdown products like dioxins that can form once pesticides are released into the environment.
Cadmium is another issue. In the largest review to date, involving hundreds of studies, not only did organic foods have more antioxidant phytonutrients, but lower concentrations of cadmium. That's a good thing. Cadmium is one of three highly toxic heavy metals found in the food supply. It accumulates in the body, and so we should try to keep intake as low as possible. Thus the fact that organic crops have only about half the cadmium is therefore desirable. The cadmium is thought to come from the phosphate fertilizers that are added to conventional crops.
Of course not all organic foods are healthy. The organic food industry is now worth tens of billions of dollars. They didn’t get that way just selling carrots. We can now buy pesticide-free potato chips and organic jelly beans. Organic foods aren’t necessarily healthy foods, and in fact can be even worse because people, for example, falsely judge organic Oreo cookies to have fewer calories that conventional Oreos, and so may eat more. Forgoing exercise was deemed more acceptable when the person had just chosen an organic rather than conventional dessert. In fact, leniency toward forgoing exercise was slightly greater after choosing an organic dessert than after eating no dessert at all—organic cookies were viewed as having negative calories. But organic junk food is still junk food.
Not only do people tend to overestimate the nutritional benefits of organic foods; they also overestimate the risks of pesticides. People think that as many people die from pesticide residues on conventional food as die in motor vehicle accidents in the United States. Organic food buyers may think eating conventional produce is almost as bad as smoking a pack of cigarettes. That kind of thinking is dangerous because it could potentially lead to a decrease in overall fruit and vegetable consumption.
If just half the U.S. population were to increase fruit and vegetable consumption by a single serving a day, an estimated 20,000 cancer cases might be avoided each year. That’s how powerful produce may be. But because the model was using conventional fruits and veggies the pesticide residues on those extra fruits and vegetables might result in ten additional cancer cases. So overall, if half of us ate one more serving, we’d just prevent 19,990 cases of cancer a year. Now this was a paper written by scientists-for-hire paid for by the Alliance for Food and Farming, which is a bunch of conventional produce growers, so they probably exaggerated the benefits and minimized the risks, but I think the bottom-line is sound. We get a tremendous benefit from eating conventional fruits and vegetables that far outweighs whatever tiny bump in risk from the pesticides, but hey, why accept any risk at all when you can choose organic? I agree, but we should never let concern about pesticides stop us from stuffing our face with as many fruits and vegetables as possible.
To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Katie Schloer.
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