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

Dietary Estrogens and Male Fertility

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In my video, The Role of Diet in Declining Sperm Counts, I discussed the association between high saturated fat intake and reduced semen quality. But what's the connection? One of the most recent papers on the topic found that a significant percentage of the saturated fat intake in the study was derived from dairy products. Residues of industrial chemicals may bioaccumulate up the food chain into animal fat, and some of these lipophilic (fat-loving) chemicals may have hormone-disrupting abilities.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency performed a national survey of persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic pollutants in the U.S. milk supply (highlighted in my video, Dairy Estrogen and Male Fertility). The EPA team noted that since milk fat is likely to be among the highest dietary sources of exposure to these pollutants, it's important to understand the levels in the dairy supply. The team tested milk from all over the country and found a veritable witches brew of chemicals. They estimate that dairy products alone contribute about 30% to 50% of our dioxin exposure. And "like dioxin, other toxic pollutants tend to be widely dispersed in the environment, bioaccumulated through the food chain and ultimately result in low-level contamination in most animal fats."

This may explain higher pollutant concentrations in fish eaters. Xenoestrogens like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are associated with the fats of fish or animal flesh and cannot be fully removed by washing and cooking, and so can accumulate in our fat, too. Xenoestrogens are chemicals with demasculinizing or feminizing effects. But even in a non-polluted world, animal foods also have actual estrogen, which are unavoidable constituents of animal products. All foodstuff of animal origin contains estradiol, which is at least 10,000-fold more potent than most xenoestrogens. Dietary exposure--meat, dairy products and eggs--to these natural sex steroids is therefore highly relevant, as the hormones in these animals are identical to our own.

Estrogens are present in meat and eggs, but the major sources are milk and dairy products. By drinking a glass of milk, a child's intake of estradiol is 4,000 times the intake of xenoestrogens in terms of hormone activity. Modern genetically-improved dairy cows can lactate throughout their pregnancy. The problem is that during pregnancy, estrogen levels can jump as much as 30-fold.

Cheese intake has specifically been associated with lower sperm concentration, whereas dairy food intake in general has been associated with abnormal sperm shape and movement. Lower sperm concentrations by themselves may just represent a potential suppression of sperm production due to higher estrogen levels, but abnormal shape and movement suggests that dairy intake may be implicated in actual direct testicular damage.

While milk products supply most of our ingested female sex steroids, eggs are a considerable source as well, contributing about as much as meat and fish. This could be expected, as eggs are produced directly in the hens' ovaries.

Meat may also contain added hormones. In the U.S. anabolic sex steroids may be administered to animals for growth promotion, a practice banned in Europe twenty-five years ago. A study in New York found progressively lower sperm counts associated with processed meat consumption. However, similar studies in Europe after the ban found the same thing, so it may not be the implanted hormones, but rather a consequence of other meat components, such as the saturated fat raising cholesterol levels.

We've known for decades that men with high cholesterol levels show abnormalities in their "spermiograms": decreased sperm concentration, about a third of the normal sperm movement, and half the normal sperm shape. Twenty-five years later, we're finding the same thing. In the largest study to date, higher blood cholesterol levels were associated with a significantly lower percentage of normal sperm. Cholesterol was also associated with reductions in semen volume and live sperm count. These results highlight the role of fats in the blood in male fertility, and should be of concern given the rising prevalence of obesity and cholesterol problems. Although a healthier diet may be associated with healthier sperm counts, cholesterol-lowering statin drugs do not seem to help.

What about the phytoestrogens in soy? See The Effect of Soy on Precocious Puberty.

More on hormones in dairy in:

Neurotoxic chemicals in the dairy supply have been blamed for neurological conditions as well. See my video Preventing Parkinson's Disease with Diet.

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: Taber Andrew Bain / Flickr

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