by: Dr. Eric Zielinski
Grocery shopping can be a difficult task, let alone worrying about organic vs. non-organic foods. On the one hand, I’m sure that you want to provide the best for your family and minimize (if not completely cut out) the toxins that they are exposed to.
On the other hand, I’m sure that many of you are like me and are a little skeptical of this crunchy, Yoga Mom, gluten-free, organic craze that we find ourselves in the middle of.
Come on, you’re telling me that I need to purchase organic pineapples when their skin is as thick as a Roman soldier’s armor?!
Personally, I don’t buy it and I want to get to the bottom of the “organic” trend. Don’t you?
Difference between organic and non-organic?
In my search for truth on the organic food issue, I quickly observed that there is a debate between organic and non-organic foods that usually centers on these three topics:
In the words of the University of Arizona, (1)
“Organic foods are defined as those foods that are grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, genetic engineering, pesticides, or drugs. Pesticides are chemical or control agents made to kill insects, weeds, and fungal pests that damage crops.”
Non-organic foods, therefore, are either directly manufactured with or are indirectly contaminated by synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, genetic engineering, pesticides or drugs.
In terms of aesthetics, many claim organic food looks and feels differently than non-organic foods. Specifically, conventional food items almost look too “perfect;” whereas organic produce resembles the fresh fruit and veggies in your backyard garden with non-symmetrical shape, varying color, and even some blemishes. Food Sentry offers one explanation why this is so:
“The short version is that much non-organic, unprocessed or minimally processed produce is treated with a variety of growth-enhancing substances and is also commonly subjected to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grading and quality standards (voluntarily), while organic produce is not.” (2)
We cannot prove whether or not this is true, but it does give some credence to the Ugly Food Movement, doesn’t it? (3)
Quoting a recent paper that examined more than 50 years worth of data about the nutritional content of organic and conventional foods, the Mayo Clinic claims that organic foods are not more nutritious than non-organic varieties. (4) Yet, this perspective isn’t supported by everyone.
This past July, the British Journal of Nutrition published a paper that evaluated 343 studies on the topic and emphatically concluded that organic foods are truly the healthier option because they contain up to 69 percent more antioxidants than non-organic foods. (5)
In light of the significance that antioxidants play in the prevention and successful treatment of chronic illnesses – such as heart disease, neurodegenerative disease and cancer – this shouldn’t be taken lightly. The study also uncovered that organic foods have considerably less cadmium (a toxic metal) and, of course, pesticide residue.
The take-home message is this: When considering the tomes of research that have been done pinpointing the specific dangers associated with eating conventional, pesticide-ridden foods, why would anyone purposely choose non-organic food if they had the means to do so?
Danger of non-organic foods
Keeping in mind that we are what we eat, it shouldn’t be shocking to learn that the risks associated with pesticide are dramatic and widespread. According to a recent article in the journal IJRET: International Journal of Research in Engineering and Technology:
“The World Health Organization estimates that there are 3 million cases of pesticide poison in each year and up to 220,000 deaths, primarily in developing countries. The potential health effects of pesticides include asthma, allergies, and hypersensitivity, and pesticide exposure is also linked to cancer, hormone disruption, and problems with reproduction and fetal development. Children are at greater risk from exposure to pesticides because of their small size: relative to their size, children eat, drink, and breathe more than adults. Their bodies and organs are growing rapidly, which also makes them more susceptible; in fact, children may be exposed to pesticides even while in the womb.” (6)
How many of these health conditions can be directly caused by eating non-organic food, no one knows. The problem that we have in determining this type of data is that pesticides are so ubiquitous because of modern landscaping and farming practices that virtually no one is safe from them.
Case in point: A 2000 report from the Greater Boston Physician for Social Responsibilityhighlights how the use of organophosphates around the home and at school put children especially in harm’s way. (7)
- “Animal tests of pesticides belonging to the commonly-used organophosphate class of chemicals show that small single doses on a critical day of development can cause hyperactivity and permanent changes in neurotransmitter receptor levels in the brain.
- One of the most commonly used organophosphates, chlorpyrifos (Dursban), decreases DNA synthesis in the developing brain, resulting in deficits in cell numbers.
- Some pyrethroids, another commonly used class of pesticides, also cause permanent hyperactivity in animals exposed to small doses on a single critical day of development.
- Children exposed to a variety of pesticides in an agricultural community in Mexico show impaired stamina, coordination, memory, and capacity to represent familiar subjects in drawings.”
And these are just the side effects of kids being exposed to pesticides on their playground. Just imagine what things would look like if we added non-organic foods to the mix!
The Dirty Dozen ™
Although impossible to avoid entirely, it is still crucial to limit our exposure to pesticides in our food supply. Thankfully, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) created a list called the Dirty Dozen™ to help consumers have full disclosure on the levels of pesticides in their foods, and those that contain the most pesticides. (8)
- Sweet bell peppers
- Imported nectarines
- Cherry tomatoes
- Imported snap peas
According to EWG’s research, these findings were the most notable: (8)
- 100 percent of imported nectarines and 99 percent of apples tested positive for at least one pesticide residue.
- Potatoes have more pesticides by weight than any other food.
- Grapes contain up to 15 pesticides.
- Celery, cherry tomatoes, imported snap peas and strawberries showed 13 different pesticides apiece.
However, this doesn’t mean that other non-organic produce items are off the hook. The point of this list is to highlight the significant dangers that these 12 foods contain.
Dirty Dozen PLUS™
Shockingly, the Dirty Dozen didn’t last too long. During the third year of the EWG’s listing research, they expanded their list and added a plus category to document these food items: (8)
“The two foods that contain trace levels of highly hazardous pesticides. Leafy greens – kale and collard greens – and hot peppers do not meet traditional Dirty Dozen™ ranking criteria but were frequently contaminated with insecticides that are toxic to the human nervous system. EWG recommends that people who eat a lot of these foods buy organic instead.”
At the rate that food manufacturers are going, you can only guess how long this list will stay to just 14.
Clean Fifteen ™
On the other end of the spectrum is what the EWG calls “The Clean Fifteen,” fresh fruits and vegetables that are the least likely to contain significant pesticide residues. (8)
- Sweet corn
- Frozen sweet peas
- Sweet potatoes
Generally speaking, these can be eaten without worrying about harmful chemicals, and it makes sense doesn’t it? Most of these items have thick protective skin layers or shells, which naturally ward off pests. The others are buried deep in the soil and, as long as the soil isn’t irradiated with Round Up or something, the fruit should be fine.
Here are some notable findings from EWG’s research on the Clean Fifteen: (8)
- Avocados are the best, with only 1 percent of samples showing any detectable pesticides.
- 89 percent of pineapples, 82 percent of kiwi, 80 percent of papayas, 88 percent of mango and 61 percent of cantaloupe had no residues.
- Only 5.5 percent of Clean Fifteen samples had two or more pesticides.
- None of the Clean Fifteen foods tested positive for more than 4 types of pesticides.
Why is organic worth it?
It is with caution that we must shop for our groceries as these pesticides can be hidden ingredients. As consumers who are concerned with natural health and disease reversal, it is important to educate yourself on what you and your family are eating.
Although they are most expensive and can be more challenging to find at grocery stores, buying organic is a definite the easiest decision you can ever make for your natural health regimen.
Here’s some sage advice: Grow your own food as much as possible and join a local, organic co-op if you can. If you absolutely must purchase conventional produce, steer clear from the Dirty Dozen Plus 2 and keep in mind that organic grains, dairy, and most other products are certainly the way to go.