What Are the Benefits of Organic?

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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 just a few generations ago, all food was organic. 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. In my video, Are Organic Foods Safer?, I talked about some of the test tube studies comparing health-related properties of organic versus conventional foods. Organic produce was found to have higher antioxidant and antimutagenic activity combined with better inhibition of cancer cell proliferation, but in terms of studies on actual people rather than petri dishes, there isn't much science either way.

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 they also tend to eat more plant foods in general and less soda and alcohol, processed meat, or milk, and just eat healthier in general. 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 the Million Women Study in the UK, which was 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, a study undertaken because farmworkers have been found to have 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. 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 that choose organic have other related healthy behaviors, or it could be that high-fat foods like dairy products bioamplify the fat-soluble toxins in our environment.

In my video, Are Organic Foods Healthier?, you can see two other general population pesticide studies that have raised concerns. One study found about a 50 to 70% increase in the odds of ADHD among children with pesticide levels in their urine, and another that found triple the odds of testicular cancer among men with higher levels of organochlorine pesticides in their blood. 90% of such pollutants come 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 showing organically grown food provides health benefits to fruit flies raised on diets of conventional versus organic produce when 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!

For how to best get pesticides off of conventional produce, see my video How to Make Your Own Fruit and Vegetable Wash.

Pesticides are one thing, but Are Organic Foods More Nutritious?

Overall, Are the Benefits of Organic Food Underrated or Overrated?

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

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:

Image Credit: Sally Plank / Flickr. This image has been modified.

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