Nearly everyone has heard sayings like, “Don’t judge a book by
its cover” and “It’s what’s on the inside that counts” but does the same apply to that granola bar, bag of chips, or loaf of bread? The food industry is abound with buzzwords aimed at making consumers feel better about choosing the foods they do- words like “natural”, “whole-grain”, “no added sugar”, “healthful”, and of course the almighty “organic.” Although the FDA does provide fairly tight regulations on food labels surrounding health claims, many of these buzz words are undefined and thus unregulated by the FDA.
It might be surprising to learn that even the term “organic” on a food label is not regulated by the FDA. The National Organic Program (NOP) is the federal regulatory framework governing organically produced food products. Ultimately, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees the program and enforces the NOP regulations and standards. (Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, 2017) They regulate use of the term “organic” on food labels in several important ways (Electronic Code of Federal Regulations, 2020):
- A label bearing the term “100 percent organic” verifies the organic certification of all the ingredients in the product (excluding salt and water). These products are eligible to utilize the USDA organic seal on their packaging;
- The term “Organic” may be applied to any product that contains a minimum of 95% organic ingredients. These products can also use packaging that displays the USDA organic seal;
- Using “Made with organic ingredients” means that a product contains a minimum of 70% organically produced ingredients. Although use of this label claim is regulated by the USDA, these products are not eligible to carry the oﬃcial USDA organic seal;
- If the total organic contents of a product is less than 70%, specific organic ingredients (ex. “organic oats”) may be listed in the ingredients list on the back of the label.
With the movement for “clean” eating growing and individual consumers having more concern for their health and the environment, the organic foods industry has flourished. The organic food industry is BIG business. Organic fruits and vegetables sales made up 36% of all organic food sales and accounted for nearly 15% of all U.S. fruits and vegetables sales in 2018. (Gelski, 2019) Organic food sales in the United States rose 5.9% in 2018 to reach $47.9 billion, according to a 2019 survey conducted by the Organic Trade Association. Further, organic food sales made up 5.7% of overall U.S. food sales, which is an increase of nearly 70% over 2017 organic food sales. (Gelski, 2019)
People choose organic foods for a number of reasons such as perceived improved taste of organic foods or concern over environmental impact of conventional farming practices but the belief that organic foods contain higher nutrient levels and are better for one’s health is by far the most common one. But when it comes to health is organic really better? There seem to be a lot of conflicting answers depending on who you ask, but here are 4 evidence-based benefits you can expect from switching to organic food.
1. Lower levels of exposure to synthetic chemicals and heavy metals
Agro-chemicals are associated with a number of deleterious health eﬀects and although these chemicals have been deemed safe in the quantities used in conventional modern farming, concerns exist about the potential harms of repeated exposure. Most people are aware that organic farming does not make use of synthetic farming chemicals like pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides. Published research has found that crops grown using organic farming methods were significantly less likely to contain detectable levels of pesticides with conventionally grown crops testing positive for pesticide residues at a rate 4 times higher than those grown organically. (Barański, M., et al. 2014) The reduced use of chemicals in organic farming methods revealed that organic crops were also 48% less likely to contain high levels of the heavy metal cadmium, a toxic heavy metal known to bioaccumulate in the liver and kidneys. (Barański, M., et al. 2014)
2. Higher levels of healthy fats
You are what you eat doesn’t just apply to humans. It applies all the way up the food chain. Livestock that are raised for food are also aﬀected by the food they consume. In order for an animal product to be labeled organic, there are a number of feed requirements that must be met. One of these includes a higher percentage of time spent grazing resulting in generally higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the products derived from these animals. Studies have found significant diﬀerences in fatty acid profiles when data from all livestock species were pooled. Though concentrations of saturated fatty acids and monounsaturated fatty acids were similar, larger diﬀerences were detected for total PUFA and n-3 PUFA, which were an estimated 23% and 47% higher in organic meat, respectively. (Średnicka-Tober, D.,et al. 2016a) Similarly, concentrations of α-linolenic acid (ALA), very long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA+DPA+DHA) and conjugated linoleic acid have proven significantly higher in organic milk, by 69%, 57% and 41%, respectively. (Średnicka-Tober, D.,et al. 2016b) Additionally, the omega 3 to omega 6 ratios were lower in organic milk, by an estimated 71%. (Średnicka-Tober, D.,et al. 2016b)
3. Reduced exposure to synthetic hormones, growth factors, and antibiotics
The prophylactic use of antibiotics and growth
accelerators in conventional livestock husbandry
is extremely prevalent and is thought to be a significant factor contributing to the uptick in health concerns in humans. Conversely in livestock raised according to organic farming principles, antibiotic use is stringently restricted and the use of growth accelerators is prohibited. Organic farming regulations aim to provide superior animal welfare including promoting natural grazing and other behaviors as well as space requirements aimed at promoting good overall health and welfare for the animals. It is reported that a substantial proportion (50 – 80%) of antibiotics are used for livestock production worldwide. (Mie, A., et al. 2017) Growth accelerators like rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) have been linked to increased cancer risk and early-onset puberty in humans as well as increased risk for medical complications like mastitis (infection in the udder) in the animals.
4. Increased levels of phytonutrients
An increased intake of plant foods is associated with a reduced risk of chronic disease. The mechanism of this is thought to be related, at least in part to the consumption of antioxidant nutrients from the plants. Studies have shown that the antioxidant capacity of organic plant foods is superior to conventionally grown versions because the organic farming methodologies aid in the synthesis of important phytonutrient compounds like polyphenols. Multiple published reports have revealed higher levels of phytonutrient antioxidants in organic produce versus what is found in their conventional counterparts. An extended study evaluating the polyphenol content of tomatoes found that organic tomatoes contained 79% and 97% higher levels of quercetin and kaempferol, respectively. (Mitchell AE et al., 2007). Studies have also shown that organic red wines contain higher levels of the longevity powerhouse resveratrol as well as other polyphenols and antioxidants (Di Renzo et al., 2007).
Fruit and vegetable intake is associated with lower risk of chronic diseases as a result of consumption of antioxidant substances. Organic foods are thought to have higher antioxidant capacity, because this form of agricultural management could induce synthesis of secondary compounds such as polyphenols. (Faller, ALK and Fialho, E. 2010) In general, organically grown produce produces antioxidants at a level that is 30% higher than that of conventional produce. We know that phytonutrients are a means by which plants protect themselves and are often produced in reaction to stressors. It is believed that common conventional farming practices including reduced pest pressure, higher nitrogen and rapid plant growth reduce plant antioxidant production by reducing natural stress on the plant as it grows. (Benbrook et al., 2008).
Though a significant body of in-vitro human studies on the full array of benefits from organic foods may be lacking, there is an ample body of evidence that delivers a good case for the benefits of choosing organic foods. The cost of purchasing all foods as organic can certainly be daunting and in fact cost-prohibitive for many. However, utilizing resources such as the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 provide a good place to start.
Andrea Pryce, N.D., received her baccalaureate degree from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and is a 2006 graduate of Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe, Arizona. Following completion of her N.D. degree she went into private practice in Scottsdale, Arizona. She has a strong background in biomedical research with significant experience in both bench top and field research. She has worked as a bench top research associate performing genetic oncology assays for a major biomedical research foundation. Additionally, she served as a project coordinator for a homeopathy study co-conducted by the Southwest College Research Institute and the University of Arizona’s Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. She maintains a research interest in the epigenetics and nutrigenomics particularly as they relate to oncology. In 2009, she moved to Florida and began working at Life Extension in Fort Lauderdale where she was Medical Editor for their monthly magazine. Dr. Pryce joined the faculty at Hawthorn University in April of 2014 and also serves on the faculty of Everglades University. She has recently joined the team at the Integrative Health Institute in Boca Raton, Florida.
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