Is An Organic Diet Better?

Associated Press photo. Organic foods have made big inroads in supermarkets like this Hannaford store in Quincy, Mass.

Associated Press photo. Organic foods have made big inroads in supermarkets like this Hannaford store in Quincy, Mass.

This question is asked in relation to the diet of a particular nation, but the various answers provided by these experts could apply anywhere:

Sales of organic food have been rising steadily over the past decade, reaching almost $30 billion in 2011, or 4.2% of all U.S. food and beverage sales, according to the Organic Trade Association.

Many of the consumers who purchase these products say paying more for organic produce, milk and meat is a trade-off they are willing to make in order to avoid exposure to chemical pesticides and fertilizers and milk from cows given bovine growth hormone. But other families—especially those whose food budgets may be more limited—wonder if organic food is really worth its hefty price tag.

So far, researchers haven’t been able to provide them with a definitive answer.

Some experts say common sense should tell us that food grown without the help of synthetic chemicals is probably safer and healthier to consume than food containing those substances, even in trace amounts. They believe Americans should try to substitute organic products for conventional ones whenever possible.

But others point out that there isn’t enough scientific evidence to say for sure that eating organic food leads to better health. As such, they say the most important dietary advice they can give Americans is to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables and less processed food.

Chensheng (Alex) Lu, associate professor of environmental exposure biology at the Harvard School of Public Health, argues for eating more organic food. Janet H. Silverstein, a professor of endocrinology at the University of Florida and a co-author of an American Association of Pediatrics study on the health benefits of an organic diet, takes the skeptic’s view.

Yes: It’s Common Sense to Try To Avoid Pesticide Exposure

Is there definitive scientific proof that an organic diet is healthier? Not yet. Robust scientific studies comparing food grown organically and food grown conventionally don’t exist, thanks to a lack of funding for this kind of research in humans.

The lack of definitive evidence—combined with the higher price of organic food—has given skeptics a golden opportunity to argue that organic isn’t worth the cost and effort.

But let’s be clear: Some convincing scientific does exist to suggest that an organic diet has its benefits. What’s more, it only makes sense that food free of pesticides and chemicals is safer and better for us than food containing those substances, even at trace levels.

While studies in recent years have delivered a decidedly mixed message about the healthfulness of organic food, those on both sides of the debate generally agree that organic produce typically contains fewer pesticides than conventional produce, and that people may be able to reduce or eliminate agricultural chemicals from their bodies by adopting an organic diet.

This was illustrated in a study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives in 2006. That study, which I led, showed that within five days of substituting mostly organic produce for conventional produce in children’s diets, pesticides disappeared from the children’s urine.

Protective Effect?

Many say the pesticides found in our food are nothing to fear because the levels fall well below federal safety guidelines and thus aren’t dangerous. Similarly, they say the bovine growth hormone used to increase cows’ milk yield is perfectly safe. But federal guidelines don’t take into account what effect repeated exposure to low levels of chemicals might have on humans over time. And many pesticides were eventually banned or restricted by the federal government after years of use when they were discovered to be harmful to the environment or human health.

Pesticides, in particular, are made to kill organisms, and the President’s Cancer Panel in 2010 made clear that it sees them as a threat, advising Americans to “reduce their cancer risks by choosing, to the extent possible, food grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers.”

Organic skeptics like to cite a meta-analysis study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine last year that suggested organic foods are neither healthier nor more nutritious than their conventional counterparts.

Left out of that analysis, however, were recent field studies showing that organic produce, such as strawberries, leafy vegetables and wheat, not only tastes better but contains much higher levels of phenolic acids than conventional produce. Phenolic acids are secondary plant metabolites that can be absorbed easily through the walls of intestinal tract, and can act as potent antioxidants that prevent cellular damage, and therefore offer some protection against oxidative stress, inflammation and cancer.

The Price Debate

Yes, organic food typically costs more and can be harder to find than traditional food, but one could argue that the price of conventional food is artificially low because of all the subsidies that organic farmers don’t get and that the government could do more to help organic farmers lower their costs. Nevertheless, when bought in-season, organic produce is often comparable in price to conventional produce…

Read the whole story here.

One thought on “Is An Organic Diet Better?

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