Are the Benefits of Organic Food Underrated or Overrated?

Image Credit: Sally Plank

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 cancers through a variety of mechanisms, including genetic damage—direct hits to our DNA or chromosomes—and epigenetic modification, changes in the way our genes are expressed. These effects have been documented in workers who are spraying the pesticides, but exposure to pesticide residues that remain on food is much smaller.

More recently, higher cancer rates have also been noted in people who live in areas where pesticides are heavily sprayed, but what about 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 regulatory limits, however, given the possible additive effects of the mixture of pesticides to which we’re exposed. The pesticide approval process also doesn’t take into account toxic breakdown products, such as 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. Cadmium is one of three highly toxic heavy metals (along with lead and mercury) found in the food supply. Cadmium accumulates in the body; so, we should try to keep intake as low as possible. Organic crops only have about half the cadmium, which 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, and they didn’t get that way just selling carrots. We can now buy pesticide-free potato chips and organic jelly beans. Organic foods can be even worse because, for example, people falsely judge organic Oreo cookies to have fewer calories than conventional Oreos, and so may eat more. Forgoing exercise was deemed more acceptable when the person had just chosen an organic dessert rather than a conventional one. In fact, leniency toward forgoing exercise was slightly greater after choosing an organic dessert than after eating no dessert at all—organic cookies were effectively viewed as having negative calories! 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. Surveys have found 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 of 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 burden from those extra fruits and vegetables might result in 10 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, that 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 we may get from the pesticides. Why not reap the benefits without the risk and choose organic? Great! But we should never let concern about pesticides stop us from stuffing our face with as many fruits and vegetables as possible.

My video, Are the Benefits of Organic Food Underrated or Overrated?, was the final installment of a 5-part series on organics. The first four videos are:

I’ve covered the issue of cadmium in our diet before in Cadmium and Cancer: Plant vs. Animal Foods and Male Fertility and Diet. Heavy metals are found concentrated in seafood and organ meats, but can also be found in certain supplements and protein powders.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Discuss

Michael Greger M.D., FACLM

Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial.


33 responses to “Are the Benefits of Organic Food Underrated or Overrated?

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  1. People surely need more education . People were educated on smoking , however until they really increased the tobacco tax , most people continued to smoke.
    I really believe we need to tax unhealthy food and subsidize healthy foods , then I think you will see a difference.




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    1. I am not sure what the answer is Ignatious, though I recall the uk had vigorous debate around implementing a sugar tax.. perhaps some UK residents can tell us how that went.

      On another note, though I am grateful for all the info that NF puts out there, I find that this series on organic foods has me looking warily at every fruit and veg. I am feeling quite negative about what I’m eating, organic or not, thinking about some of the persistant chemicals we are ingesting.




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      1. Then go to the health topics index and pick any other topic. Study the information. You will then understand the unbelievable power of whole plant foods and forget any worries about pesticide residue.




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      2. If you’re feeling quite negative about what you’re eating, organic or not, because of some of the persistent chemicals you’re ingesting, you might want to make sure you don’t consume animal products where the toxic chemicals in the plants THEY eat concentrate in the animal food. I found Will Tuttle’s book, (https://www.amazon.com/World-Peace-Diet-Spiritual-Harmony/dp/B001RMWAXA), very influential in my thinking despite my initial reluctance to read it. The section on fish was especially galling.




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        1. Thank you Liisa for your comments and the book suggestion – I bookmarked it. I have been enjoying eating a wfpb diet for the past two years and I’m doing well on it. I am a little overwhelmed this week with all the info on pesticides, fertilizers, contamination of fish (I dont eat fish anyway) , heavy metals etc. Between great info from Dr Greger and comment section posters, lists of the clean fifteen from EWG, choosing organic when I can, it will be ok. Vote with my dollars whenever possible. Gardening season is coming up too. Lots to be thankful for.




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  2. I’m excited for organic produce to penetrate the market enough for prices to be equal to conventional, or even just slightly higher. Its awesome that, already, some individuals are able to source organic at almost equal price to conventional.
    The more produce ones diet contains, the more of an affect the higher prices have.




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    1. Thanks for your question.

      Dr Greger has created a video on the best cooking method before (see here).

      According to the World Health Organisation & I quote:

      “When used according to manufacturers’ instructions, microwave ovens are safe and convenient for heating and cooking a variety of foods. However, several precautions need to be taken, specifically with regards to potential exposure to microwaves, thermal burns and food handling.”

      To see the article in more detail, I highly recommend you to read the in depth version here.

      Hope this answer helps.




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  3. Do You , Dr Greger , can help me find an article about Atherosclerosis of bloodvessels by fetuses whose mothers eat as an omnivores in period of own pregnancy . Thanks. Regards




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  4. So very glad you made this point about conventional produce and encouraging its consumption. It would be great if everyone could afford organic, but that’s not possible right now. But, stressing the benefits of a plant-based diet should always outweigh the message to buy only organic. If given the choice, I would readily choose a conventional apple over an organic Oreo cookie. To me, that is the healthier choice. People need to hear this message and internalize it. Choose nature in whatever form you can afford.




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  5. I would love to hear more talk about the health effects of fermented vegetable food such as sauerkraut (One video done by Gregor a while back found Kimchi to be harmful, but it was unclear why) and healthy jaw formation similar to the old studies done by Weston A. Price.




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    1. Thanks for your question Matt.

      According to a 2014 review & I quote:

      “Although sauerkraut has a variety of claimed beneficial health effects, they need to be interpreted with caution as it can also cause some unwanted or even allergic reactions, in particular in high-risk populations, such as depressive or allergic patients.”

      Another review, has also found that:

      “Sauerkraut could potentially be a probiotic superfood. Sauerkraut does not require the use of a starter culture to cultivate these beneficial bacteria. All that is needed is a measure of salt and the cabbage. Naturally made, unprocessed sauerkraut contains probiotic microorganisms called Lactic Acid Bacteria (LAB). LAB is one of the most significant organisms and has established benefits. For example, Lactic Acid Bacteria has established benefits with the treatment of diarrhea, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, infections (urogenital, urinary and candida). LAB have also been shown to enhance immune system function to help prevent various illnesses and promote lactose digestion. Nevertheless, there is very little conclusive evidence on how much LAB is in sauerkraut and if there is enough present to confer benefits.”

      Hope this answer helps.




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  6. Organic produce used to have bug holes, and other imperfections in markets 40 years ago (only found back then in mom and pop ‘health food stores’). Having been introduced to Adele Davis and the ‘health food movement’ in 1971, I find an enormous difference between organic produce today and back then, as do my long time friends who had similar health food beliefs. Only at farmers’ markets today, do I find what I think is true organic produce, where (only some of) the organic farmers peddle bug-attacked produce. I have been told by these and the alternative minimal spray farmers that the organic picture perfect produce is really sprayed heavily by pesticides not listed in the official forbidden list. As long as a farmer does not use pesticides on this list, they can be considered organic no matter what other chemicals they spray. And I was told by an apple farm owner in Northampton, MA, that her family had to give up being organic farmers, because they had to use alternative chemicals at such high volumes, that they felt they were threatening their lives more than if using standard pesticides in less quantity.
    So, the tests that compare produce and look for residues in blood and urine samples of consumers, are testing for limited, specific pesticides. These tests, I presume, are not finding these alternative chemicals that could be just as questionable and dangerous as the ‘standard’ pesticides simply because they are not looking for them. Is my reasoning accurate, or is there a more scientific explanation that I am missing?
    I fear that I am being duped into paying more for, which I do, organic produce that is only organic in the nature of the fertilizer. This can account for higher antioxidants, and may be worth the cost for that alone. However, I would love to hear from Dr. Gregor or any assistant, as to why this produce does not display one bug bite, and why no one talks about not only the limited definition of ‘organic’ as well as the potentially prejudicial oversight by the organizations (whose members are organic farmers) who officially label produce as USDA or what ever organic label. I realize the latter is a second topic, but I cannot help feeling at the mercy of the double talk of the mega-industry that organic produce now is.
    Thanks for any feedback..




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    1. All of what you said is why I switched back to conventional during the summer of 2015. I came across data showing that there really is not much residue on the produce and some of the chemicals used in Organic Ag are more toxic than those used in conventional, as you mentioned. I have felt zero side effects of the ‘increased’ pesticide load, and I eat 20+ servings of fruit/veggies each day. I think of myself as very aware of my body. I feel way better these days but that’s not all because of the food. But it does help the situation that I can buy all the fruit and veg I want and spend less than $500/month. For the area I live, organic would be close to double that and an extra 3hrs of travel every month. Too stressful.

      Ultimately, organic and others processes such as bio-dynamic are better. But each individual/family needs to find a balance :)




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      1. Ryan, do you have any links to that data? I would love to go back to conventional for the obvious savings, but I have never heard anything about conventional being as safe… I understand the gigantic industry that is “Organic”, and know what to avoid, but I didn’t think it extended to fresh produce… Thanks




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        1. Just believe me bro….lol. Joking.
          I can’t recall if I have any papers bookmarked, I’ll do a thorough check in the next week for you and produce a better reply.

          I know that greger put out a few videos which influenced my decision. As well as Andrew Perlot on YouTube; he shares screenshots in his video, of the data.

          Ultimately, I decided to just test it out and pay attention to how my body responds. I encourage everyone to do the same, regardless of what the data shows.

          To reiterate, I will follow up with links the best I can. Let me know if you find gregers videos and/or Andrew Perlots, just so I can remove them from the list of things to search for.




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          1. Hi Ryan,

            Thanks for the reply… I agree 100% that people should try a new diet and see if it works… I found Perlot’s videos, and a quick search didn’t find any clues that he is working for conventional Big Ag, and will have to look at the names of the scientists in the abstracts he posts as well… I’ll look for Dr. Greger’s videos as well, but I’m still locked into Organic is best, so that will take some research

            I’m also locked into Beer and Ribs and Steak and Chicken and Beer and Beef Brisket and etc. is the best… That’s where I am, but every time I see a Greger video, I think about what it would be like to be a Veggie-Tablearian

            Don’t worry about posting those links unless you want to for others




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            1. Good to hear. Yeah. Ill save the email and see if I have time to add links, for whoever, this next week. But seeing you found mostly what you were looking for, the priority level dropped significantly.

              I also agree that organic is ultimately best, or even further with systems such as bio-dynamic and permaculture. Its symbolic of society moving forward. Every dollar that is spent on organic is showing it has value. But at the same time, every dollar spent on conventional produce versus packaged goods show that the produce has value.




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  7. Discussions of toxins exposure seems to most often center on cancer risks. What about other health risks such as organ damage, neurological effects, other diseases, etc?




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  8. Hi A Clark,
    Thanks for your question. I am one of the volunteer moderators at Dr. Greger website. When we hear high degree of toxicity for example from, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, and mercury rank among the priority metals that are of public health significance. These metallic elements are considered systemic toxicants that are known to induce multiple organ damage, even at lower levels of exposure. They are also classified as human carcinogens (known or probable) according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
    the heavy metals confined in plants finally enter the human body and may disturb the normal functions of central nervous system, liver, lungs, heart, kidney and brain, leading to hypertension, abdominal pain, skin eruptions, intestinal ulcer and different types of cancers (Khan et al., 2008). I hope this explanation can provide answer to your query.

    Impact of toxic heavy metals and pesticide residues in herbal products
    Heavy Metals Toxicity and the Environment




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  9. Regarding cadmium contamination in fresh fruits, vegetables, and grains harvested from organic vs. conventional farms, wouldn’t it be more instructive to discuss the actual concentrations reported in the meta analysis and the associated risk, based on the accepted maximum permitted concentration in
    parts per million ? For example: 0.1 ppm Cd for cereals and vegetables. The meta analysis’ use of % higher in conventional is pretty lazy ! https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24968103




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  10. While statistically we may be better off eating more fruits and vegetables, rather than avoiding them due to concerns about pesticides on our own health, that seems a bit too self-centered. Farm workers have some of the highest cancer rates in the U.S., and many of the pesticides and farm chemicals end up in our rivers and waterways. So while you could for one’s personal health argue statistically not to sweat the pesticides, from a point of view of concern for the environment and the well-being of the people who labor in the fields to provide our food, I think we still need to make a concerted effort to promote organic.




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  11. We tend to equate organic with pesticide-free, but is that the case? Organic pesticides, which are permitted under the organic rubric, are among the nastiest. Hopefully, organic farmers treat not prophylactically, but only when faced with an infestation, but how is the consumer to know?




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    1. Good point. Conventional agriculture and organic share some of the most widely used pesticides, including copper sulfate, lime-sulfur, and elemental sulfur. Because organic agriculture has so few options they must use almost exclusively contact-type materials with short residual action, requiring spraying every 5-7 days. In the case with copper sulfate this can lead to a significant environmental load of copper in the soil. Other materials like pyrethrin and neem are not very efficacious, so require many applications as well.




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