This essay is part of my ongoing series of essays on Diet and Health but I thought I would also give it its own section here so it does not get lost in the shuffle!
ORGANIC FOOD DIET
A common concern regarding diet is the importance of choosing organic food. While I am a strong supporter of organic food, it is significantly more expensive than conventional food. Also, if one eats at restaurants many of them do not have organic food (or only some of their food is organic). So a common question is “Is organic food really worth the extra expense? What is the risk of eating non-organic foods?” And, like everything related to the complex realm of diet and health, the answers are not black and white.
Many people question whether there are even any benefits to eating organic foods. Indeed, in Sept. of 2012 the media was awash with reports of a major study at Stanford University that claimed that organic food was not substantially different than factory-farm foods in terms of its nutritional content. These results are actually highly questionable (see below) but even if true, totally ignores the main reason most people originally have chosen organic foods, which is to minimize exposure to pesticides. These days, however, I feel there is a much more important reason to eat mostly organic foods, which is to avoid genetically modified (GMO) foods.
While natural substances like sulphur were used as pesticides since about 2500 BC, pretty much all food grown would have met modern organic standards until after World War II, when DDT use became widespread. In the 1960’s DDT was found to cause environmental havoc as it spread through the food chain and its use in the US was curtailed, but by then many other pesticides had come into widespread use.
Over 600 registered pesticides are in use in the US currently. In 2007 877 million pounds of pesticides were used in the US. Also, 150 million pounds of the toxic herbicide Round-Up are used annually in the US. Significant amounts of pesticide and herbicide residues are found in many non-organic foods.
Those who choose organic generally believe that organic foods contain no pesticides, except, perhaps, trace amounts that might have drifted from adjacent fields being sprayed. However, as my favorite nutrition blogger Denise Minger writes in her post The Lowdown on Organic Food,
unknown to most, organic farmers can and do often use pesticides- it is just that the pesticides they use are natural “organic” pesticides like pyrethrum and rotenone. Just because something is natural does not mean it is non-toxic- consider mercury, cyanide and death-cap mushrooms as natural substances that are harmful. Some of the natural pesticides used in growing organic foods can be more hazardous than many of the synthetic pesticides used, some of which break down rapidly and are gone by the time you eat the food!
Despite the findings of the “Stanford Study” ( “Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review”, Crystal Smith-Spangler et. al. Annals of Internal Medicine, 9/4/2012, http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=1355685 ) that purported to find no significant difference in the nutritional content of organic vs. conventional foods, a similar large-scale review of the literature, “Agroecosystem management and nutritional quality of plant foods: The case of organic fruits and vegetables” by Kirsten Brandt et. al. published in Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences 4/29/11 ( http://www.ncl.ac.uk/afrd/research/publication/168871) found a significantly higher level of beneficial nutrients such as flavanols. Quoting from Lynne Peeples’s article “Stanford Organics Study: Have Faulty Methods, Political Motivations Threatened Kids’ Health?” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/13/stanford-organics-study-public-health_n_1880441.html) “Brandt wondered how the Stanford team, led by faculty from the School of Medicine and Center for Health Policy, could have found no difference in total flavanols between organic and conventional foods when her own results showed organics carried far more of the heart-healthy nutrient. Upon further inspection, she noticed that the team had actually calculated the difference in total flavonols, a different nutrient, and reported the result with the swap of an “o” for an “a”.
Many of the other nutrients Brandt analyzed and found to be greater in organics were also missing altogether from the new review, she noted. “The choices they made don’t seem to make sense — they seemed to include ones where the difference was smallest to begin with,” said Brandt. “I’d like to know why they chose these and not others that were just as well-described in the same papers they included.””
Quoting Ms. Peeples more, “Further obscured in the review…are organics’ more important selling points. Organic farming methods encourage soil and water conservation and reduce contamination of air, water, food and human bodies by avoiding antibiotics, hormones, synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Genetic engineering, under increased scrutiny by health experts, is also prohibited for organics.
While the researchers didn’t address many of these health concerns, they did note lower levels of pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria in organic compared to conventional foods. But critics suggest that these points were glossed over or manipulated.
For example, the authors reported that organic produce had a 30 percent lower risk of pesticide contamination compared to conventional fruits and vegetables. Not included in the publicly-available abstract or press release was the fact that pesticide residues were found in 7 percent of organics and 38 percent of conventional foods. In relative terms, that’s a more impressive 81 percent difference.
“Come on, that’s simple math” ”
For more critiques of the Stanford Study see http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/02/that-flawed-stanford-study/ and http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2012/09/five-ways-stanford-study-underestimates-organic-food
Another fascinating though completely unrelated study, done as a 10th Grade Science project, gives strong evidence that an organic diet increases longevity: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/17/is-organic-better-ask-a-fruit-fly/
Another recent meta-analysis of 343 peer-reviewed studies by researchers at Newcastle University University in England published in Sept. of 2014 concluded “the concentrations of a range of antioxidants such as polyphenolics were found to be substantially higher in organic crops/crop-based foods, with those of phenolic acids, flavanones, stilbenes, flavones, flavonols and anthocyanins being an estimated 19%, 69%,28%,26%,50% and 51% higher, respectively. Many of these compounds have previously been linked to a reduced risk of chronic diseases, including CVD and neurodegenerative diseases and certain cancers…Additionally, the frequency of occurrence of pesticide residues was found to be four times higher in conventional crops, which also contained significantly higher concentrations of the toxic metal Cd (cadmium).”
The bottom line is that Organic Foods are more nutritious and have an 81% lower chance of having measurable pesticide residues and even when such residues are present are likely to have much fewer pesticides. Organic meats are less likely to harbor antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Organic farming is also, of course, much better for our environment and for the health of farmworkers.
Not all foods are equally prone to pesticide contamination. The Environmental Working Group has compiled a list of the “Dirty Dozen” foods with the highest level of pesticide contamination, as well as the “Clean Fifteen” that tend to have few if any residues. The worst of the Dirty Dozen are Apples, Strawberries, Grapes, Celery, Peaches & Spinach. The best are Onions, Pineapple, Avocado and Cabbage. For those who can not afford to eat exclusively organic (or for when one is eating at restaurants) this list can be a helpful guide. See http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/list.php
An excellent recent article on the science of how even tiny amounts of pesticide residues well below the levels considered “safe” by the EPA may still cause very serious health problems is “Stealth Attack” in the 10/12 issue of Psychology Today and also here: http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201208/stealth-attack
THE HAZARDS OF GENETICALLY-MODIFIED FOODS (GMO’S)
While I believe it is optimal to eat organically to avoid pesticide exposures both personally and for our planet, these days a far more compelling reason to choose organic produce is to avoid Genetically-Modified Foods, also known as GMO’s. GMO foods have permeated the American food supply. Over 80% of processed foods contain GMO’s. The most common GMO foods are corn, soy, sugar beets, canola & papaya- see http://www.nongmoproject.org/learn-more/what-is-gmo/
Most processed foods contain GMO corn, soy or canola oil- the corn and soy is often present as vegetable oil, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, dextrose, soy sauce, lecithin etc.- even “natural flavoring.” Of great concern to me is that most animal-derived foods- meats, dairy and eggs, comes from animals fed GMO corn and soy. I don’t want to eat cheese from cows fed GMO corn or eggs from chickens fed GMO soy. I don’t care if a chicken is “All-Natural Free-Range Hormone & Antibiotic Free.” If it is not certified organic it has almost certainly been raised on a diet of GMO corn and/or soy! There is an old saying, “You are what you eat.” In the case of dairy, eggs and meats, you are also the food that what you eat eats! I don’t believe that an animal fed GMO corn and soy can possibly be healthy and I certainly don’t want to eat it (or its products like eggs and dairy).
Unfortunately, most restaurant food is cooked with GMO oils.
Thus, the only way to avoid GMO’s is to choose whole foods that are not yet genetically modified, choose foods such as corn, soy and papayas that are certified organic and choose processed foods that are organic or labelled as GMO-free and, besides wild fish, to only have meats, dairy & eggs that are certified organic.
So, given how much an effort it takes to avoid GMO’s, why should we make the effort? Let’s examine the most commonly eaten GMO food, corn. In his superb book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan discusses evidence that most of the carbon in our bodies ultimately comes from corn, either from eating corn directly, high fructose corn syrup, corn oil, or from eating dairy, eggs & meats fed on corn. The way corn is genetically modified is by inserting a gene from soil bacteria called Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) that produces a chemical called Bt-toxin. Bt-toxin is a pesticide; when certain insects eat Bt-toxin it breaks open their stomachs and kills them.
Think about this- normally pesticides are sprayed onto plants. If we are lucky only traces of it remain and perhaps some of the residues can be washed off, but not in this case. Each ear of corn has been turned into a pesticide factory. Pesticides permeate the entire plant; there is no removing them. Thus, it would be nice if there was evidence that Bt toxin was safe for human consumption. Such evidence does not exist. Monsanto claimed that the Bt toxin would be completely destroyed by the human digestive system. However, research in 2011 found that Bt toxin can be found in the blood of 93% of pregnant women and in the umbilical cord blood of 80% of their babies.
Incredibly, there have not been any safety studies done on this powerful toxin that now permeates our food supply, but animal studies show it can trigger allergies and autoimmune disease. See http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2011/10/06/dangerous-toxins-from-gmo-foods.aspx for a more thorough discussion. A recent study found that Bt toxin may cause anemia and be a cause of leukemia. See http://www.greenmedinfo.com/blog/new-study-links-gmo-food-leukemia
For more on the animal studies demonstrating the hazards of ingesting GMO’s see this position paper by the American Academy of Environmental Medicine see http://www.aaemonline.org/gmopost.html
and this recent assessment by the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility: http://www.ensser.org/increasing-public-information/no-scientific-consensus-on-gmo-safety/
Here is an article from 9/24/14 by Thierry Vrain, a former research scientist for Agriculture Canada. Part of his job was to address public groups to assure them that GMO foods were safe. Quoting his essay, “I have in the last 10 years changed my position. I started paying attention to the flow of published studies coming from Europe, some from prestigious labs and published in prestigious scientific journals, that questioned the impact and safety of engineered food.
I refute the claims of the biotechnology companies that their engineered crops yield more, that they require less pesticide applications, that they have no impact on the environment and of course that they are safe to eat.”
Here is a link to the second edition of GMO Myths and Truths, co-authored by genetic engineers Dr John Fagan and Dr Michael Antoniou and researcher Claire Robinson, released on 19 May 2014 as a free online download by the sustainability and science policy platform Earth Open Source:
THE HAZARDS of ROUNDUP
The other main food source of GMO’s is soy, which has been modified to be “Roundup Ready.” Other crops that have been genetically modified to be “Roundup Ready” include corn, sugarbeets and canola. Roundup is a powerful herbicide manufactured by Monsanto. GMO soy is modified so that huge amounts of Roundup, which would otherwise kill the plant, won’t affect it. However, the resultant crop contains large residues of Roundup. The “active ingredient” in Roundup, Glyphosate, has been shown to cause DNA damage, endocrine disruption and cell death at levels that are legal in our food (see http://www.motherearthnews.com/Sustainable-Farming/Roundup-Weed-Killer-Toxicity.aspx#axzz2REHtZpu6 ). There is also evidence that the glyphosate in Roundup kills much of our friendly gut flora which can create many adverse consequences- see http://www.naturalhealth365.com/dangerous_chemicals/roundup.html
Glyphosate is also dramatically reduces the mineral content of plants sprayed with it- see http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2011/12/10/dr-don-huber-interview-part-1.aspx
According to this review “Glyphosate’s Suppression of Cytochrome P450 Enzymes and Amino Acid Biosynthesis by the Gut Microbiome: Pathways to Modern Diseases” published 5/13 in the journal Entropy, Glyphosate disrupts Cytochrome P450 and the “Consequences are most of the diseases and conditions associated with a Western diet, which include gastrointestinal disorders,obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, autism, infertility, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.” (see http://www.scribd.com/doc/136964468/New-GMO-Review-Links-Roundup-Glyphosate-to-Diabetes-Autism-Infertility-and-Cancer ). However, science is not black and white but often controversial, so I will also link this article that is highly critical of the aforementioned review: http://skeptoid.com/blog/2013/05/04/roundup-and-gut-bacteria/
Recent research shows that one of the “inactive ingredients,” POE-15, may be much more toxic than Glyphosate. See http://www.sott.net/article/260165-New-Study-Roundup-more-toxic-than-officially-declared
It has been reported that the majority of conventionally-grown wheat (that is, virtually all wheat that is not certified organic) is drenched with Roundup to kill the wheat plants prior to harvesting. Thus, the huge number of people who have discovered that they feel worse when they eat wheat and attribute their problems to gluten sensitivity may actually be feeling worse due to the Roundup residues in conventional wheat! See
However, there are two (or more) sides to every story and shortly after the above story went viral online, a rebuttal appeared claiming that most wheat in the US is not treated with Roundup prior to harvest (though it admits a portion of it is).
While this column minimizes the toxicity of Roundup by ignoring the case against it, it does seem to make valid points about treatment with Roundup being less common than claimed by some. Still, I advise choosing organic wheat when possible to minimize the possibility of contamination by Roundup.
for more on this important concern.
There are NO research studies demonstrating that GMO foods are safe for humans to eat. ZERO. NONE AT ALL.
However, there are many quality studies on the effects of GMO foods on the health of animals that consume them. Quoting http://www.globalresearch.ca/potential-health-hazards-of-genetically-engineered-foods/8148, “independent studies showed stunted growth, impaired immune systems, bleeding stomachs, abnormal and potentially precancerous cell growth in the intestines, impaired blood cell development, misshaped cell structures in the liver, pancreas and testicles, altered gene expression and cell metabolism, liver and kidney lesions, partially atrophied livers, inflamed kidneys, less developed organs, reduced digestive enzymes, higher blood sugar, inflamed lung tissue, increased death rates and higher offspring mortality as well.”
Here is another well-written article on the hazards of GMO foods: “Why genetically engineered food is dangerous: New report by genetic engineers” : http://earthopensource.org/index.php/news/60-why-genetically-engineered-food-is-dangerous-new-report-by-genetic-engineers
61 countries including the European Union, Russia, China, Brazil and Australia require the labeling of GM foods (see http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/issues/976/ge-food-labeling/international-labeling-laws)
In a March 2013 survey, 82% of the American public think GMO foods should be labeled while only 9% say they should not (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/04/gmo-poll_n_2807595.html ). It would seem that in a democracy this wish would be honored, but Monsanto has an undue influence on government agencies through lobbying and having many of their former executives now put in charge of regulating Monsanto! See http://openyoureyessheeple.wordpress.com/2011/01/28/monsantos-government-ties/
Given how unlikely it is that our leaders will respond to the public’s desire for GMO labeling, the best hope is the action of individual states. However, in the November 2012 election, California State Proposition 37 to label GMO foods was narrowly defeated after Monsanto and companies that produce GMO-containing foods outspent proponents five to one with a very deceptive advertising campaign. Prior to the campaign 91% of Californians said they supported GMO labeling! A similar proposition was narrowly defeated in Washington State in Nov. 2013 after another massive and deceptive advertising campaign by opponents. And another proposition was defeated 50.5% to 49.5% in Oregon in Nov. 2014. However, in April of 2014 the Vermont legislature passed the first law requiring GMO labeling, slated to take effect in 2016, though 4 national organizations have filed a lawsuit challenging the law as unconstitutional!
Unfortunately due to the current lack of labeling, the only way to avoid GMO exposure is to eat mostly organic!!!