Are Organic Foods Healthier?

Are Organic Foods Healthier?
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Test tube studies show advantages of organic produce, such as better cancer cell growth suppression, but what about in people, not Petri dishes?

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The medical literature has been historically hostile to organic foods, blaming, in part, erroneous information supplied by the health food movement for our ignorance of nutrition, but until a few generations ago, all food was organic. So it’s kind of ironic that what we now call conventional food really isn’t very conventional for our species.

By eating organic we can reduce our exposure to pesticides, but it remains unclear whether such a reduction in exposure is clinically relevant. I talked about some of the test tube studies comparing health-related properties of organic vs. conventional foods—higher antioxidative and antimutagenic activity as well as better inhibition of cancer cell proliferation, but in terms of studies on actual people rather than Petri dishes, there isn’t much out there.

Why can’t you just compare the health of those who buy organic to those who don’t? Organic consumers do report being significantly healthier than conventional consumers, but organic consumers also tend to eat more plant foods in general, and less soda and alcohol, processed meat or milk, and just eat healthier in general, so no wonder they feel so much better.

Therefore, there is an urgent need for interventional trials, or studies following cohorts of people eating organic over time, like this one, the Million Women Study in the UK, the first to examine the association between the consumption of organic food and subsequent risk of cancer. The only significant risk reduction they found, though, was for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This is consistent with data showing a higher risk of developing lymphoma in those who have higher levels of pesticides stored in their butt fat, which they looked at only because studies on farmworkers found higher rates of lymphoma.

Parental farmworker exposure is also associated with a birth defect of the penis called hypospadias, and so researchers decided to see if moms who failed to choose organic were at increased risk. And indeed, they found that frequent consumption of conventional high-fat dairy products was associated with about double the odds of the birth defect. This could just be because those who choose organic have other related healthy behaviors, or it could be that high-fat foods, like dairy products, bio-amplify the fat-soluble toxicants in our environment.

There are two other general population studies that have raised concerns: one that found about a 50% to 70% increase in the odds of ADHD among children with pesticide levels in their urine common among US children, and another that found triple the odds of testicular cancer among men with higher levels of organochlorine pesticides in their blood–90% of which comes from fish, meat, and dairy, which may help explain rising testicular cancer rates in many Western countries since World War II.

What about interventional trials? All we have in the medical literature so far are studies like this, showing organically grown food provides health benefits to fruit flies, raised on diets of conventional versus organic produce then subjected to a variety of tests designed to assess overall fly health. And what do you know, flies raised on diets made from organically grown produce lived longer. Hmm, insects eating insecticides don’t do as well. Not exactly much of a breakthrough.

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.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to heather_on3 / Flickr.

The medical literature has been historically hostile to organic foods, blaming, in part, erroneous information supplied by the health food movement for our ignorance of nutrition, but until a few generations ago, all food was organic. So it’s kind of ironic that what we now call conventional food really isn’t very conventional for our species.

By eating organic we can reduce our exposure to pesticides, but it remains unclear whether such a reduction in exposure is clinically relevant. I talked about some of the test tube studies comparing health-related properties of organic vs. conventional foods—higher antioxidative and antimutagenic activity as well as better inhibition of cancer cell proliferation, but in terms of studies on actual people rather than Petri dishes, there isn’t much out there.

Why can’t you just compare the health of those who buy organic to those who don’t? Organic consumers do report being significantly healthier than conventional consumers, but organic consumers also tend to eat more plant foods in general, and less soda and alcohol, processed meat or milk, and just eat healthier in general, so no wonder they feel so much better.

Therefore, there is an urgent need for interventional trials, or studies following cohorts of people eating organic over time, like this one, the Million Women Study in the UK, the first to examine the association between the consumption of organic food and subsequent risk of cancer. The only significant risk reduction they found, though, was for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This is consistent with data showing a higher risk of developing lymphoma in those who have higher levels of pesticides stored in their butt fat, which they looked at only because studies on farmworkers found higher rates of lymphoma.

Parental farmworker exposure is also associated with a birth defect of the penis called hypospadias, and so researchers decided to see if moms who failed to choose organic were at increased risk. And indeed, they found that frequent consumption of conventional high-fat dairy products was associated with about double the odds of the birth defect. This could just be because those who choose organic have other related healthy behaviors, or it could be that high-fat foods, like dairy products, bio-amplify the fat-soluble toxicants in our environment.

There are two other general population studies that have raised concerns: one that found about a 50% to 70% increase in the odds of ADHD among children with pesticide levels in their urine common among US children, and another that found triple the odds of testicular cancer among men with higher levels of organochlorine pesticides in their blood–90% of which comes from fish, meat, and dairy, which may help explain rising testicular cancer rates in many Western countries since World War II.

What about interventional trials? All we have in the medical literature so far are studies like this, showing organically grown food provides health benefits to fruit flies, raised on diets of conventional versus organic produce then subjected to a variety of tests designed to assess overall fly health. And what do you know, flies raised on diets made from organically grown produce lived longer. Hmm, insects eating insecticides don’t do as well. Not exactly much of a breakthrough.

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.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to heather_on3 / Flickr.

Doctor's Note

For more on pesticide residues on produce, see my recent video Are Organic Foods Safer? For how to best get them off, see How to Make Your Own Fruit and Vegetable Wash. Pesticides are one thing, but Are Organic Foods More Nutritious?

That was the first in my five-part video series on organic foods, which ends tomorrow with the wrap-up: Are the Benefits of Organic Food Underrated or Overrated?

For more on the impact of food contaminants during pregnancy, see:

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

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