Benefits of organic foods are now less controversial

Ask the average consumer, the proverbial “man-on-the-street,” and you will likely find their knowledge about nutrition greater than it ever has been. The information super-highway, although loaded with flawed sources and falsehoods, does have a plethora of accurate sources of facts and figures concerning our diet and its effect on achieving optimal health. Still, it’s hard for the layman to know what is accurate. To make it even worse, statistics can be manipulated, inaccurate conclusions drawn.

Most people are at least dimly aware that pesticides are bad. Makes sense to me, a substance intended to poison small living creatures probably wouldn’t be good for large living creatures. This is one of the attractions for consuming organic foods. But confusion continues on this topic; what are organic foods and what is special about them? They certainly have been gaining in popularity and have become a booming business. The recent sale of natural-foods giant Whole Foods to Amazon proves this and will likely lead to even further growth in the industry.

What does “organic” mean? The term “organic” refers to the way agricultural products are grown and processed. While the regulations vary from country to country, in the U.S., organic crops must be grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes (the commonly seen GMOs), or petroleum-based or sewage-based fertilizers.

How does a food stuff qualify for the label “organic?” Fruits, vegetables and grains labeled organic are grown without the use of most synthetic pesticides or artificial fertilizers. The appropriate agency, the National Organic Standard Board, does allow some synthetic substances to be used, those that have been deemed safe for conventional farming. Yet some health experts still warn about the potential harm of repeated exposure to even these. Put simply, for foods to qualify for the “Certified Organic” seal, the item must have contents 95 percent or more free of synthetic additives like pesticides, chemical fertilizers and dyes, and must not be processed using industrial solvents.

What, exactly, are the health benefits of going organic? That depends on who you ask and which studies you consult, but there are some science-backed perks you’re likely to get if you do choose to buy organic foods. An analysis by a reputable medical journal on nutrition found that organically grown crops were significantly less likely to contain detectable levels of pesticides. Other studies do not reach this conclusion: as is so often the case, variables such as soil, weather and farming technique make accurate assessment difficult.

Because of differences in fertilization techniques, organics were also much less likely to test positive for a toxic heavy metal, cadmium, that accumulates in the liver and kidneys. Chronic exposure to low levels of cadmium often causes the metal to accumulate in these organs. As these levels rise, the kidneys may become damaged, causing protein to be excreted in the urine. With time and continued consumption, kidney failure may result.

Organic food is often fresher because it doesn’t contain preservatives that make it last longer. This consequently means organic products will have a different, ie shorter, lifespan to conventional products on those same shelves, factoring in storage, ingredients and handling. The advantage of being fresher also can be seen as a negative: organic foods tend not to last as long in your refrigerator.

Organic livestock raised for meat, eggs, and dairy products must have access to the outdoors and be given organic feed. They may not be given antibiotics, growth hormones, or any animal by-products. Disease is prevented via natural methods such as clean housing, rotational grazing techniques, and healthy diet. Organically-raised meat and milk appear to have about 50 percent more omega 3 fatty acids. This is a type of unsaturated healthy fat, which is not found in adequate quantities in commercially grown foods.

Many people in our society appear to have an imbalance of these essential fatty acids with an excess of omega 6’s. There is growing concern about the consequences of this imbalance. We eat way too much omega-6, which is found in abundance in the corn oil and vegetable oils used in so much American food. Too much omega 6 can raise your blood pressure, lead to blood clots that can cause heart attack and stroke, and cause your body to retain water.

Another advantage to organically grown vegetables is the presence of higher levels of beneficial antioxidants, at least according to some studies. In a recent one, researchers found that organic onions had about a 20 percent higher antioxidant content than conventionally grown onions. Another newer analysis of data from many different studies found organics packed 20 to 40 percent more antioxidants and around 48 percent less cadmium. Many controversies exist in these studies, so “hard and fast” conclusions are hard to make.

Most would prefer to consume less poisonous substances, so eating more organically grown foods really just makes sense. But the costs cannot be denied, they are a fact of life. Organic foods are significantly more expensive than commercially grown ones. Where you live and what kind of organic foods you are seeking are some of the factors involved in determining how much more. For many, the costs are out of reach. Perhaps it is a matter of selectivity: “going organic” in those foods with typically the highest pesticide levels. One of the worst are strawberries. Apples and peaches are some others, but there are more.

No one is suggesting you stop paying the rent, so you can eat organic. This is a multi-factorial question: how to live within your means and live your healthiest life. Nutrition is a part of the big picture, as is exercise and fitness, and your physical environment. And, of course, genetics, certainly not one you have any ‘say’ in. The rest you have some measure of control in, although, as we all know, habits are hard to break. Information is a good start. Read up on nutrition, and healthy living, and then make an informed decision about how much, if any, organically grown foods you decide to eat. But decide to make nutrition an important part of your life; it IS an important part of your health.

Editor’s note: Dr. Conway McLean is a physician practicing foot and ankle medicine in the Upper Peninsula, with an upcoming move of his Marquette office to the downtown area. McLean has lectured internationally on wound care and surgery, being double board certified in surgery, and also in wound care. He has a sub-specialty in foot-ankle orthotics. Dr. McLean welcomes questions or comments