Are the Benefits of Organic Food Underrated or Overrated?

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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:

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

Original Link

Are the Benefits of Organic Food Underrated or Overrated?

Vegsource.jpeg

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:

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

Original Link

How to Reduce Your Dietary Cadmium Absorption

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Cadmium is known as a highly toxic metal that represents a major hazard to human health. It sticks around in our body for decades because our body has no efficient way to get rid of it and may contribute to a variety of illnesses, including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

Most recently, data suggests that cadmium exposure may impair cognitive performance even at levels once thought to be safe. Recent studies also suggest that cadmium exposure may produce other adverse health effects at lower exposure levels than previously predicted, including increased risk of hormonal cancers. For example, researchers on Long Island estimated that as much as a third of breast cancer in the U.S. might be associated with elevated cadmium levels.

Inhalation of cigarette smoke is one of the major routes for human exposure to cadmium. Seafood consumption is another route of human exposure. The highest levels, though, are found in organ meats. But how many horse kidneys do people eat? Since people eat so few organs, grains and vegetables actually end up contributing the largest amount to our collective diets.

However, don't drop the salad from the menu yet.

Whole grains and vegetables are among the major dietary sources of fiber, phytoestrogens, and antioxidants that may protect against breast cancer. Indeed, even though the risk of breast cancer goes up as women consume more and more cadmium, and even though on paper most cadmium comes from grains and vegetables, breast cancer risk goes down the more and more whole grains and vegetables women eat. So are animal sources of cadmium somehow worse, or do the benefits of plant foods just overwhelm any adverse effects of the cadmium?

A study out of the Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand highlighted in my video, Cadmium and Cancer: Plant vs. Animal Foods, may have helped solve the mystery. It's not what we eat, it's what we absorb.

Cadmium bioavailability from animal-based foods may be higher than that from vegetable-based foods. There appears to be something in plants that inhibits cadmium absorption. In fact, researchers found when they added kale to boiled pig kidneys, they could cut down on the toxic exposure. Just one tablespoon of pig kidney, and we may exceed the daily safety limit--unless we add kale, in which case we could eat a whole quarter cup. The pronounced effects of the inhibitory factors in kale point out, as the researchers note, "the importance of vegetable foods in terms of prevention of health hazard from [cadmium] ingested as mixed diets in a real situation."

Reesearchers have concluded: "Even if a vegetarian diet contains more lead and cadmium than a mixed diet, it is not certain that it will give rise to higher uptake of the metals, because the absorption of lead and cadmium is inhibited by plant components such as fiber and phytate." Having whole grains in our stomach up to three hours before we swallow lead can eliminate 90% of absorption, thought to be due to phytates in whole grains, nuts, and beans grabbing onto it.

So vegetarians may have lower levels of lead and cadmium even though they have higher intakes.

In fact, there is a significant decrease in the hair concentrations of lead and cadmium after the change from an omnivorous to a vegetarian diet, indicating a lower absorption of the metals. Researchers took folks eating a standard Swedish diet and put them on a vegetarian diet. The vegetarians were encouraged to eat lots of whole, unrefined plant foods, with no meat, poultry, fish, and eggs. Junk food was also discouraged. Within three months on a vegetarian diet, their levels significantly dropped, and stayed down for the rest of the year-long experiment. The researchers came back three years later, three years after the subjects stopped eating vegetarian, and found that their levels of mercury, cadmium, and lead had shot back up.

Since the cadmium in plants is based on the cadmium in soil, plant-eaters that live in a really polluted area like Slovakia, which has some of the highest levels thanks to the chemical and smelting industries, can indeed build up higher cadmium levels, especially if they eat lots of plants. It's interesting that, "in spite of the significantly higher blood cadmium concentration as a consequence of a greater cadmium intake from polluted plants, all the antioxidants in those same plants were found to help inhibit the harmful effects of higher free radical production caused by the cadmium exposure." Still, though, in highly polluted areas it might be an especially good idea not to smoke or eat too much seafood or organ meats. But even if we live in the Slovak Republic's "black triangle of pollution," the benefits of whole plant foods would outweigh the risks. For people in highly polluted areas, zinc supplements may decrease cadmium absorption, but I'd recommend against multi-mineral supplements, as they have been found to be contaminated with cadmium itself.

There are other toxins in cigarette smoke also found in food. See:

Toxic metals have also been found in dietary supplements. See for example, Get the Lead Out and Heavy Metals in Protein Powder Supplements.

Mercury is also a serious problem. See:

More on pollution in seafood can be found in:

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 Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: Julie / Flickr

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