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Organic Food and Health: The Evidence

by Shane Heaton(more info)

listed in organic food, originally published in issue 75 - April 2002

Public concern about the safety and integrity of our food has intensified in recent years, and a heated debate has ensued over the merits of organic food. A comprehensive and careful review of over 400 scientific papers by the author has revealed important differences between organic and non-organic foods and supports the consumer intuition that organic food is better for you.

When the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) stated in September 2000 that organic consumers were "not getting value for money if they thought they were getting extra safety or nutritional quality",[1] they effectively laid down a challenge to the organic movement to come up with the scientific evidence supporting their long-standing claims that organic food is better for you.

After two years of gathering and carefully sifting through the evidence, I can report that, collectively, the available scientific evidence does in fact support the view that organically produced foods are significantly different in terms of food safety, nutritional content and nutritional value from non-organic foods. Previous literature reviews have been unable to confirm these differences as they failed to ensure that only studies that properly compare organic and non-organic crops are included in their analyses.[2-4] Without even considering the social, environmental and animal welfare benefits of organic farming, there are good reasons to eat organic food...

Fewer Pesticides

Nearly all of the 450 pesticides allowed in non-organic farming are prohibited in organic farming, and the seven that are allowed are generally used on a non-routine basis only, following authorization from the certifying body for a specific reason, and when all other pest control methods have failed. They are generally simpler substances than those used in non-organic agriculture, tending to degrade more quickly in the environment, and therefore residues are rarely found on organic food. When residues are present, they are usually of lower incidence and lower levels than residues in non-organic food, and more often than not come from environmental pollution.[2,5-8]

In contrast, 25 million tonnes of pesticides are applied to conventional crops each year in the UK9 and residues are found on nearly half of all fruit and vegetables tested.10 Multiple residues of up to seven different compounds are not uncommon on many foods, especially lettuces (7 different pesticides have been found on single samples in the last 3 years of testing), pears [6], strawberries [5], apples [3], oranges [7] and even baby food (5 different compounds in a single jar!).[5],[10] We know very little about the combined toxicity of multiple compounds, though some research suggests they may be hundreds of times more toxic than the same compounds individually.[11]

Researchers have linked symptoms such as headaches, tremor, lack of energy, depression, anxiety, poor memory, dermatitis, convulsions, nausea, indigestion and diarrhoea with pesticide levels in patients' bloodstreams.[12] Many pesticides are known or suspected hormone disrupters and the US Environmental Protection Agency ranks pesticide residues among the top three environmental cancer risks.[13] While the FSA doesn't consider pesticides to be a food safety issue,[14] the British Medical Association is more concerned, stating, "Until we have a more complete understanding of pesticide toxicity, the benefit of the doubt should be awarded to protecting the environment, the worker and the consumer. This precautionary principle is necessary because the data on risk to human health from exposure to pesticides are incomplete."[15]

Epidemiological evidence suggests that combinations of pesticides can cause an increased incidence of birth defects in the offspring of pesticide applicators and in the local residents of areas of heavy pesticide use,[16] and the respected Royal Society recently recommended that exposure of pregnant women to hormone disrupting chemicals (including pesticides) should be minimized in order to protect unborn children.[17]

Dr Vyvyan Howard, foetal and infant toxico-pathologist at the University of Liverpool, has found that we each have around 500 accumulated toxic compounds in our bodies - most of them from our diet. Our grandparents didn't have these chemicals in their bodies because most of them didn't exist 50 years ago.

"From the simple stance of hazard avoidance, organically produced food is the best option that we have." Dr Vyvyan Howard, Toxico-Pathologist, University of Liverpool

More Nutrients

According to official data from MAFF and the Royal Society of Chemistry, nutrient levels in fruit and vegetables are lower now than they were 60 years ago. Trace minerals in vegetables have fallen by up to 76%.[18] It is worthy of note then that studies comparing the nutrient contents of organic and non-organic fruit and vegetables reveal a strong trend towards higher levels in organic produce. Of 27 studies comparing the mineral and vitamin C contents of organic and non-organic crops, 14 showed higher levels in organic produce while just one favoured non-organic.[19] Potential reasons for the difference include different varietal choices, better soil nutrient recycling (composting) and crop rotation to avoid soil mineral depletion, and better encouragement of the soil micro-organisms that improve nutrient uptake by roots.[20]

American nutritionist Virginia Worthington statistically analysed the available data and quantified the differences.[21] While the average levels of all 21 minerals compared in the scientific literature were higher on average in organic fruits, vegetables and grains, most did not attain statistical significance because of the limited numbers of comparisons available, despite the magnitudes of the differences found (see Table 1). However, there can be no dispute over vitamin C, magnesium, iron and phosphorus, all of which, according to the available evidence, are significantly higher in organic produce.

While the conventional view is that we are getting enough minerals in our diet, many health issues linked by nutritionists to multiple nutrient deficiencies are on the increase. Official data confirm that many people fail to get the recommended daily allowance for various nutrients in their diet[22-24] and deficiencies are common - not low enough to cause acute deficiency diseases like scurvy or beriberi, but low enough to cause body systems to underperform for months, years or decades until symptoms show and it may be too late to do anything about it. The United States Department of Agriculture has estimated that considerable improvements in public health, including declines in cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, allergies and infant deaths, would result from small improvements in our intake of vitamins and minerals,[25] and Worthington has shown how the sometimes small differences between organic and non-organic produce can mean the difference between getting the recommended daily allowance for a nutrient or failing to.[21]

"Eating organic is neither a fad, nor a luxury. Heaton's comprehensive scientific assessment shows that it is a necessity." Patrick Holford, founder of The Institute for Optimum Nutrition

More Phytonutrients

Plants contain some 5-10,000 naturally occurring phytonutrient compounds26 that are often involved in the plant's own immune system, protecting it from pests and disease. Because organic crops are not artificially protected with pesticides, they tend to produce more of these protective compounds. So far, significantly more lycopene has been found in organic tomatoes,[27] more polyphenols in organic potatoes,[28] more flavanols in organic apples,[29] and more resveratrol in organic red wine.[30] A recent review of this issue estimated that "on the basis of the currently available evidence, organically grown vegetables will tend to contain 10-50% more phytonutrients than those conventionally grown'.[26]

Fewer Food Additives

More than 500 additives are permitted for use in conventionally produced foods,[31] compared with just 30 or so permitted in organic processing, and only when necessary for the production of the food in question. Additives are present in extraordinary abundance in food today and we each eat up to five kilograms of them a year.[32] Organic standards strictly prohibit many specific additives and ingredients that have been linked with health problems, including hydrogenated fat (heart disease[33]), phosphoric acid (osteoporosis[34]), MSG (asthma, headaches[35],[36]), aspartame (neurological disturbances[37],[38]), and artificial flavourings and colourings (allergic reactions, hyperactivity in children[31],[39],[40]).

Less Nitrate

Nitrate is a natural constituent in plants present at low levels in all vegetables, and while not toxic itself, in certain circumstances nitrate can be converted into potentially harmful nitrite and nitrosamines, which are known to cause cancer in animals.[41],[42] While levels of nitrate in drinking water must be carefully monitored and controlled, similar controls are lacking for vegetables (which contribute far more nitrate to the human diet), and artificial fertilization practices are known to result in much higher levels in vegetable crops.[2] While other factors such as season and light exposure also influence the level of nitrate in crops, 14 out of 16 comparative studies found higher levels in non-organic than organic crops, and none found higher levels in organic.[19]

No Greater Risk of Food Poisoning

Despite recent accusations and media reports,[43] there is no evidence linking organically produced foods with an increased risk of food poisoning.[44] A recent Public Health Laboratory Service survey of over 3,000 samples gave organic foods a clean bill of health[45] and confirmed expectations that organic methods, such as the careful composting of manure, minimize pathogenic risks. Professor Hugh Pennington, a leading UK expert on E.coli O157, agrees that organic standards are "risk reduction measures that represent a way forward".[46]

Better Health Outcomes

So can organic food, with fewer toxins and more nutrients, make a difference to your health? Observations, experience and clinical evidence from organizations such as the Nutritional Cancer Therapy Trust and Foresight (the preconceptual care charity) suggest that it can, but it's very difficult to do any controlled studies with people because of the many other confounding factors like genes and lifestyle.

"This scientific evidence supports our experience that organic food provides the nutrient content and freedom from unnatural toxins necessary for remission from cancer and continued good health." The Nutritional Cancer Therapy Trust Interesting, then, are controlled animal feeding trials, and the evidence here is clear - animals fed organically produced feed have better health in terms of growth, reproductive health and recovery from illness than those fed on non-organic feed, including over successive generations.[47],[48]

I believe that regulators fail to see the significance of these differences because of a fundamental failure to understand the true definition of health. They often see health as simply the absence of illness, and honestly believe that we are healthier than ever before, citing increased longevity statistics but ignoring the fact that the people living to old age now have benefited from improved disease treatments after growing up before the accelerated declines in crop nutrient contents, the proliferation of food additives, and the dramatic increase in pesticide use (3300% rise in 50 years but higher percentages of crops are lost to pests than ever before[49]). Also overlooked are such details as (age-adjusted) cancer incidence escalating rapidly over recent decades; allergies, headaches, fatigue, and PMS all now commonplace;[50] infertility affecting around one in four couples (a far more relevant gauge of our current health than the longevity of people conceived and raised before the industrialization of food production!); and the ages of incidence of many diseases getting lower and lower. Many doctors and nutritionists believe that health is better defined as an abundance of well-being, and is being hindered by both an increase in the amount of toxins we are exposed to and a decrease in the amount of nutrients in food needed to deal with those toxins.

In my opinion, organic food offers those interested in protecting, maintaining or improving their health an important safe haven in today's polluted and processed world. Organic food is not a luxury. It is how food is supposed to be.

As a nutritionist I am obliged to point out that just because food is organic doesn't guarantee it's healthy. A diet high in refined, pre-prepared, sweet, salty, fried or junk food, whether organic or non-organic, is not a viable strategy for long-term health. As ever, balance is the key. Choosing organic foods does not negate the need to eat a balanced diet, though as we have seen, it can reduce your intake of toxins while increasing your intake of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, thus contributing to your overall health.

More Research Needed

The FSA, which currently asserts that there is no evidence of a difference between organic and non-organic produce, has pointed out that there is considerable variability in agricultural measurements caused by factors other than the method of agriculture. Of course there is - varying weather, soil, climatic and crop conditions all play a part. But the evidence to hand reveals that the average nutrient contents of organic produce are consistently higher then those in non-organic produce. The considerable variability in agricultural measurements makes it necessary to collect and consider a large amount of data in order to identify underlying patterns. We have now analysed the existing data enough. It can no longer be credibly disputed that that there are significant differences in the nutritional quality of organic and conventional produce that demand further investigation. There is an urgent need for more comparative data on the full spectrum of nutrients in organic and non-organic produce, and an end to the meaningless claims that there is no evidence of a difference. The FSA has committed to investing in research on organic food and farming and is currently consulting with the organic movement as to the form that that research should take.

In the Meantime...

  • Vote with your fork. Buy organically produced food wherever possible. Buying organic is not only beneficial to your health, it also sends a clear message to regulators, farmers and the government about how you would like food and farming managed;
  • Write to your MP to ask them to write to the Minister for Public Health at the Department of Health. Ask them to ensure that the FSA fulfils its commitment to commission research investigating the nutritional differences between organic and non-organic food. Ring the House of Commons (tel: 0207 219 3000) to find out who your MP is;
  • Support the Soil Association - the UK's largest organic membership organization - working with farmers, manufacturers, retailers, consumers, regulators and researchers to ensure the continued success of the organic movement. Members receive the Living Earth magazine every quarter to keep up with organic campaigns, lobbying work, and the latest on environmental, food and farming issues. For more information see www.soilassociation.org
  • See all the evidence for yourself. Read the complete report Organic Farming, Food Quality and Human Health,19 which includes summaries of 99 studies comparing the nutrient contents of organic and conventional foods and lists over 400 scientific references.
    Also highly recommended is Virginia Worthington's review.[21]

"The birthright of all living things is health. This law is true for soil, plant, animal and man: the health of these four is one connected chain. Any weakness or defect in the health of any earlier link in the chain is carried on to the next and succeeding links, until it reaches the last, namely, man.

The undernourishment of the soil is at the root of all. The failure to maintain a healthy agriculture has largely cancelled out all the advantages we have gained from improvements in hygiene, in housing, and medical discoveries. To retrace our steps is not really difficult once we set our minds to the problem. If we are willing to conform to natural law, we shall rapidly reap the reward not only in a flourishing agriculture, but in the immense asset of an abounding health in ourselves and in our children's children." Sir Albert Howard, organic pioneer, 1945

References

1. Krebs Sir John, Chairman of the Food Standards Agency (FSA). 1 September 2000. BBC Countryfile and FSA. Position Paper, Food Standards Agency View on Organic Foods. August 2000.
2. Woese K, Lange D, Boess C and Werner Böel K. A comparison of organically and conventionally grown foods: results of a review of the relevant literature. Journal of Science of Food and Agriculture. 74: 281-93. 1997.
3. Williams CM, Pennington TH, Bridges O and Bridges JW. Food quality and health. Shades of Green, a Review of UK Farming Systems. Royal Agricultural Society of England. pp73-90. 2000.
4. Saffron L. Agriculture, food and cancer risk. Bristol Cancer Help Centre. UK. 1997.
5. MAFF. Annual Report of the Working Party on Pesticide Residues 1998. Health and Safety Executive. MAFF Publications. London. 1999.
6. Schüpbach MR. Spritzmittelruckstande in obst und gemuse. Deutsche Lebensmittel-Rundschau. 3: 76-80. 1986.
7. Reinhardt C and Wolf I. Ruckstandean Pflanzenschutzmitteln bei alternative und konventionell angebautem obst u. gemuse. Bioland. 2: 14-17. 1986.
8. Bitaud C. Study on pesticide residues in organic food products in France. The World Grows Organic: Proceedings from the 13th IFOAM Scientific Conference. Basel, Switzerland. pp28-31. 2000.
9. The Ecologist, Nov 2000.
10. MAFF. Annual Report of the Working Party on Pesticide Residues 1999. Health and Safety Executive. MAFF Publications. London. 2000.
11. Abou-Donia MB, Wilmarth KR, Jensen KF, Oehme FW and Kurt TL. Neurotoxicity resulting from coexposure to pyridostigmine bromide, DEET and permethrin: implications for gulf war chemical exposures. J Toxicol Environ Health. 48: 35-65. 1996.
12. Laseter J and Rea W. Chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides in environmentally sensitive patients. Clinical Ecology. 2(1). 1983.
13. Balch JF and Balch PA. Prescription for Nutritional Healing. 2nd ed. Avery Publishers. USA. pp176-83. 1997.
14. Krebs Sir John, Chairman of the Food Standards Agency. Personal communications. 21 August 2001.
15. BMA. The BMA Guide to Pesticides, Chemicals and Health, Report of the Board of Science and Education. British Medical Association. London. 1992.
16. Garry VF, Schreinemachers D, Harkers ME and Griffith J. Pesticide applicators, biocides and birth defects in rural Minnesota. Environmental Health Perspectives. 104: 394-99. 1996.
17. The Royal Society. Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals. 2000.
18. McCance and Widdowson. Chemical Composition of Food. 1st to 5th eds. MAFF/RSC. 1940-1991.
Analysed in Mayer AM. Historical changes in the mineral content of fruits and vegetables. in Lockeretz W (ed.). British Food Journal. 99(6): 207-11. 1997.
US data available in Bergner P. The Healing Power of Minerals, Special Nutrients and Trace Elements. Prima Publishing. Rocklin, CA. p312. 1997.
19. Heaton S. Organic Farming, Food Quality and Human Health. Soil Association. Bristol. 2001.
Available from the Soil Association bookshop on Tel: 0117 914 2446; www.soilassociation.org; Soil Association, 40-56 Victoria Street, Bristol BS1 6BY. Price £12.
20. Ingham Elaine. The soil food web. Proceedings of the 12th National Conference on Organic Food Production, 5-7 January 2001. Cirencester College. UK. 2001.
21. Worthington V. Nutritional quality of organic versus conventional fruits, vegetables and grains. J Alt Compl Med. 7(2): 161-73. 2001.
Available to download for free from www.foodisyourbestmedicine.com
22. Vitamin and Mineral Nutrition Lab. National Dietary Survey. Beltsville Human Nut Res Center, US Dept Agric. Beltsville, MD. 1993.
23. MAFF. National Food Survey 1995. Stationery Office. London. 1996.
24. MAFF. National Food Survey 1997. Stationery Office. London. 1998.
25. Welt C. Benefits from Human Nutrition Research. United States Department of Agriculture report. 1992.
26. Brandt K and Mølgaard JP. Organic agriculture: does it enhance or reduce the nutritional value of plant foods? Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. 81: 924-31. 2001.
27. Pither R and Hall MN. Analytical survey of the nutritional composition of organically grown fruit and vegetables. Technical Memorandum 597. MAFF Project 4350. Campden Food and Drink Research Association. UK. 1990.
28. Hamouz K, Lachman J, Vokal B and Pivec V. Influence of environmental conditions and way of cultivation on the polyphenol and ascorbic acid content in potato tubers. Rostlinna Vyroba. 45(7): 293-98. 1999.
29. Weibel FP, Bickel R, Leuthold S and Alfoldi T. Are organically grown apples tastier and healthier? A comparative field study using conventional and alternative methods to measure fruit quality. Acta Horticulturae. 517: 417-26a. 2000.
30. Levite D, Adrian M and Tamm L. Preliminary results of resveratrol in wine of organic and conventional vineyards. Proceedings of the 6th International Congress on Organic Viticulture, 25-26 August 2000. Basel. Switzerland. pp256-57. 2000.
31. Hanssen M and Marsden J. E for Additives. 2nd ed. Harper Collins. UK. 1987.
32. Clayton P. Health Defence. Accelerated Learning Systems. Bucks, UK. p246.
33. Willet W et al. Intake of trans fatty acids and risk of coronary heart disease among women. Lancet. 341(8845): 581-85. 1993.
34. Wyshak G. Teenage girls, carbonated beverage consumption and bone fractures. Archives of Paediatric and Adolescent Medicine. 154(6): 610-13. 2000.
35. Scoppal. MSG and hydrolyzed vegetable protein induced headache: review and case studies. Headache. 31(2): 107-10.
36. Carper J. Food: Your Miracle Medicine. Simon & Schuster. UK. 1994.
37. Roberts HJ. Aspartame (Nutrasweet) - is it Safe? The Charles Press. USA. 1990.
38. Koehler GM. The effect of aspartame on migraine headache. Headache. 28(1): 10-14. 1988.
39. Ward NI, Soulsbury KA, Zettel VH, Colquhoun ID, Bunday S and Barnes B. The influence of the chemical additive tartrazine on the zinc status of hyperkinetic children. Double blind placebo-controlled study. Journal of Nutritional Medicine. 1: 51-57. 1990.
40. Fuglsang G et al. Prevalence of intolerance to food additives among Danish schoolchildren. Pediatr Allergy Immunol. 4(3): 123-29. 1993.
41. Magee PN and Barnes JM. Carcinogenic nitroso compounds. Advances in Cancer Research. 10: 163-246. 1967.
42. Low H. Nitroso compounds: safety and public health. Archives of Environmental Health. 29: 256-60. 1974.
43. Avery D. The hidden dangers in organic food. American Outlook. The Hudson Institute. Autumn 1998.
44. FSA. Position Paper. Food Standards Agency View on Organic Foods. FSA. August 2000.
45. Public Health Laboratory Service. The Microbial Examination of Ready-to-Eat Organic Vegetables from Retail Establishments. PHLS report. UK. 2001.
46. Prof Hugh Pennington. University of Aberdeen. Personal communications. July 2001.
47. Worthington V. Effect of agricultural methods on nutritional quality: a comparison of organic with conventional crops. Alternative Therapies Health Med. 4(1): 58-69. 1998.
48. Staiger D. The nutritional value of foods from conventional and biodynamic agriculture. in IFOAM Bulletin No. 4. pp9-12. 1988.
49. Pimentel et al. Handbook of Pest Management in Agriculture. 2nd ed. CRC Press. Boca Raton, FL. 1990.
Also Pimentel D. Cornell University. As quoted by Lefferts LY and Blobaum R. Eating as if the earth mattered. E Magazine. p32. Jan/Feb 1992.
50. Metro newspaper health survey (22,000 respondents). Burn out Britain. Metro. April 2001.

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About Shane Heaton

Shane Heaton, DipION, is a clinical nutritionist trained at the Institute for Optimum Nutrition in London and registered with the British Association of Nutritional Therapists. Passionate about food quality and its influence on health, his extensive research on organic food quality has led to the publication of the ground-breaking Soil Association report, Organic Farming, Food Quality and Human Health. When not researching, writing, lecturing or tutoring, Shane enjoys helping people improve their health at his nutrition practice in west London and can be contacted on info@dontjustsurvive.com

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