Why are Organic Foods Better for Health?


Can organic foods really improve my health?

Yes. Organically grown food is your best way of reducing exposure to toxins used in conventional agricultural practices. These toxins include not only pesticides, many of which have been federally classified as potential cancer-causing agents, but also heavy metals such as lead and mercury, and solvents like benzene and toluene. Minimizing exposure to these toxins is of major benefit to your health. Heavy metals damage nerve function, contributing to diseases such as multiple sclerosis and lowering IQ, and also block hemoglobin production, causing anemia. Solvents damage white cells, lowering the immune system’s ability to resist infections. In addition to significantly lessening your exposure to these health-robbing substances, organically grown foods have been shown to contain substantially higher levels of nutrients such as protein, vitamin C and many minerals.

Research Suggests Organic Food is Better for Your Health

Rats fed organic food were significantly healthier than their peers given conventionally-grown produce, shows research reported by the Danish Institute of Agricultural Sciences, February 2005.

During the experiment, 36 rats were divided into three groups. All were given potatoes, carrots, peas, green kale, apples, rapeseed oil, and the same vitamin supplements. One group was fed organic food, another conventionally grown food with high levels of fertilizer and some pesticide, and the third group received minimally fertilized conventionally grown food.

Although pesticide residue was measured and found to be below detection levels in all groups, the scientists found that the rats fed organically-grown produce were measurably healthier, slept better, had stronger immune systems and were less obese.

Lead researcher, Dr Kirsten Brandt, of Newcastle University's School of Agriculture, was careful not to overstate the findings, but noted: "The difference was so big it is very unlikely to be random. We gave the food to the rats and then we measured what they were doing. We can say the reason why the rats have different health was clearly due to the fact that there was a different growing method, and this was enough for this result. If we want to understand how and why, we need another study."

How do organic foods benefit cellular health?

DNA: Eating organically grown foods may help to better sustain health since recent test tube animal research suggests that certain agricultural chemicals used in the conventional method of growing food may have the ability to cause genetic mutations that can lead to the development of cancer. One example is pentachlorophenol (PCP) that has been found to be able to cause DNA fragmentation in animals.

Mitochondria: Eating organically grown foods may help to better promote cellular health since several agricultural chemicals used in the conventional growing of foods have been shown to have a negative effect upon mitochondrial function. These chemicals include paraquat, parathion, dinoseb and 2-4-D which have been found to affect the mitochondria and cellular energy production in a variety of ways including increasing membrane permeability, which exposes the mitochondria to damaging free radicals, inhibiting a process known as coupling that is integral to the efficient production of ATP.

Cell Membrane: Since certain agricultural chemicals may damage the structure and function of the cellular membrane, eating organically grown foods can help to protect cellular health. The insecticide endosulfan and the herbicide paraquat have been shown to oxidize lipid molecules and therefore may damage the phospholipid component of the cellular membrane. In animal studies, pesticides such as chlopyrifos, endrin and fenthion have been shown to over stimulate enzymes involved in chemical signaling causing imbalance that has been linked to conditions such as atherosclerosis, psoriasis and inflammation.

How can organic foods contribute to children’s health?

The negative health effects of conventionally grown foods, and therefore the benefits of consuming organic foods, are not just limited to adults. In fact, many experts feel that organic foods may be of paramount importance in safeguarding the health of our children.

In two separate reports, both the Natural Resources Defense Council (1989) and the Environmental Working Group (1998) found that millions of American children are exposed to levels of pesticides through their food that surpass limits considered to be safe. Some of these pesticides are known to be neurotoxic, able to cause harm to the developing brain and nervous system. Additionally, some researchers feel that children and adolescents may be especially vulnerable to the cancer-causing effects of certain pesticides since the body is more sensitive to the impact of these materials during periods of high growth rates and breast development.

The concern for the effects of agricultural chemicals on children's health seems so evident that even the U.S. government has taken steps to protect our nation’s young. In 1996, Congress passed the Food Quality Protection Act requiring that all pesticides applied to foods be safe for infants and children.

Organic foods that are strictly controlled for substances harmful to health can play a major role in assuring the health of our children.

Are organic foods nutritionally superior to conventionally grown foods?

Yes, and significantly more. Proof of their superiority has been demonstrated in numerous studies. In 1998, a review of 34 studies comparing the nutritional content of organic versus non-organic food was published in the peer-reviewed, MEDLINE-indexed journal Alternative Therapies (Volume 4, No. 1, pgs. 58-69). In this review, organic food was found to have higher protein quality in all comparisons, higher levels of vitamin C in 58% of all studies, 5-20% higher mineral levels for all but two minerals. In some cases, the mineral levels were dramatically higher in organically-grown foods—as much as three times higher in one study involving iron content.

Organic foods may also contain more flavonoids than conventionally grown foods, according to Danish research published in the August 2003 issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. In this study, 16 healthy non-smoking participants ranging in age from 21-35 years were given either a diet high in organically or conventionally grown fruits and vegetables for 22 days, after which they were switched over to the other diet for another 22 days. After both dietary trials, the researchers analyzed levels of flavonoids and other markers of antioxidant defenses in the food and in the participants’ blood and urine samples. Results indicated a significantly higher content of the flavonoid quercitin in the organic produce and in the subjects’ urine samples when on the organic produce diet, plus the subjects’ urinary levels of another flavonoid, kaempferol, were also much higher when on the organically grown compared to the conventionally grown diet.

A review of 41 studies comparing the nutritional value of organically to conventionally grown fruits, vegetables and grains, also indicates organic crops provide substantially more of several nutrients, including:

  • 27% more vitamin C
  • 21.1% more iron
  • 29.3% more magnesium
  • 13.6% more phosphorus

The review also found that while 5 servings of organically grown vegetables (lettuce, spinach, carrots, potatoes and cabbage) provided the daily recommended intake of vitamin C for men and women, their conventionally grown counterparts did not. Plus, organically grown foods contained 15.1% less nitrates than conventionally grown foods. Nitrates, a major constituent of chemical fertilizers, bind to hemoglobin and, particularly in infants, can significantly reduce the body's ability to carry oxygen. For more information on nitrates, click Nitrates – North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service

In another study whose findings are based on pesticide residue data collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, organic fruits and vegetables were shown to have only a third as many pesticide residues as their conventionally grown counterparts. Study data, which covered more than 94,000 food samples from more than 20 crops, showed 73% of conventionally grown foods sampled had residue from at least one pesticide, while only 23% of organically grown samples had any residues. When residues of persistent, long-banned organochlorine insecticides such as DDT were excluded from the analysis, organic samples with residues dropped from 23 to 13%. In contrast, more than 90% of USDA's samples of conventionally grown apples, peaches, pears, strawberries and celery had residues.

When it comes to choosing between organic or conventionally grown foods, size is definitely not everything, suggests another study published in Science Daily Magazine. Chemistry professor Theo Clark and undergraduate students at Truman State University in Mississippi found organically grown oranges contained up to 30% more vitamin C than those grown conventionally. Reporting the results at the June 2, 2002, meeting of the American Chemical Society, Clark said he had expected the conventionally grown oranges, which were twice as large, to have twice the vitamin C as the organic versions. Instead, chemical isolation combined with nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy revealed the much higher level in organic oranges.

Why the big difference? Clark speculated that "with conventional oranges, (farmers) use nitrogen fertilizers that cause an uptake of more water, so it sort of dilutes the orange. You get a great big orange but it is full of water and doesn't have as much nutritional value."

Eating organic may also help protect against chronic inflammation, a major factor in both cardiovascular disease and colon cancer. Another study, published in the European Journal of Nutrition, found that organic soups sold in the UK contain almost 6 times as much salicylic acid as non-organic soups. Salicylic acid, the compound responsible for the anti-inflammatory action of aspirin, has been shown to help prevent hardening of the arteries and bowel cancer. Researchers compared the salicylic acid content of 11 brands of organic soup to that found in non-organic varieties. The average level of salicylic acid in 11 brands of organic vegetable soup was 117 nanograms per gram, compared with 20 nanograms per gram in 24 types of non-organic soup. The highest level (1,040 nanograms per gram) was found in an organic carrot and coriander soup. Four of the conventional soups had no detectable levels of salicylic acid.

What substances do we avoid by eating organic food?

Over 3,000 high-risk toxins routinely present in the U.S. food supply are, by law, excluded from organic food, including:

Pesticides: By far the largest group of toxins to be largely prohibited from organically grown foods are synthetic pesticides, which are found virtually everywhere else in the food supply. Several hundred different chemicals and several thousand brand-name pesticide products are legally used in commercial food production in the U.S. Act of 1992; the Environmental Protection Agency had classified 73 pesticides authorized for agricultural use as potential carcinogens (cancer-causing agents). And pesticides don’t just remain where they are applied. A 1996 study by the Environmental Working Group found 96% of all water samples taken from 748 towns across the U.S. contained the pesticide atrazine, and at least 20 different chemical pesticides are routinely present in municipal tap water across the U.S.

Heavy metals: The toxic metals cadmium, lead, and mercury enter the food supply through industrial pollution of soil and groundwater and through machinery used in food processing and packaging. Cadmium, which can be concentrated in plant tissues at levels higher than those in soil, has been linked to lung, prostate and testicular cancers. Despite lead’s long-recognized serious adverse impact on health, especially that of young children, lead solder is still used to seal tin cans, imparting the lead residues found in many canned foods. Even low levels of lead are harmful and are associated with decreased intelligence, impaired neurobehavioral development, decreased stature and growth, and impaired hearing. Mercury is toxic to brain cells and has been linked to autism and Alzheimer's disease.

Solvents: Used to dissolve food components and produce food additives, solvents are also virtually omnipresent in commercially processed food. Solvents, such as benzene and toluene have been linked to numerous cancers. Benzene, specifically, has been repeatedly associated with rheumatoid arthritis—an auto-immune condition involving pain and degeneration in the joints that affects over 2 million adults in the U.S.

Not only are these toxic substances harmful singly, but when combined, as they are in commercially grown and processed food, and in the human body where they accumulate, their effects have been found to be magnified as much as a 1,000-fold.

This page was updated on: 2005-05-23 20:42:43
© 2002 The George Mateljan Foundation