Is Organic Healthier? October 26 2014

By Elizabeth Stewart, RHN

About two years ago, a review study was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition stating “evidence is lacking for nutrition-related health effects that result from the consumption of organically produced food1.” Media tried to spin the study conclusion to support statements that suggested organic is no healthier; however, the actual conclusion was that there simply wasn’t enough evidence to draw any conclusion.

The reason for this lack of evidence is primarily because there has been limited industry and government funding to support such studies. Another problem is that it is difficult to design a well-controlled clinical study that will isolate the organic diet from other variables and then directly link specific health benefits to an organic diet; for example, that an organic diet can decrease your chance of developing heart disease, diabetes or eczema.

But, you don’t have to wait until such evidence is available – there is already a lot of good information out there that can help guide your decision on what’s best for you. There are studies that demonstrate higher levels of nutrients in organically grown foods, including vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus as well as higher antioxidant levels2. Of course “higher” is a relative term. Maybe nutrient levels in organic foods are closer to what nature intended, which means that when we eat organic foods, we are receiving a better balance of nutrients. And, while it may be hard to directly link these higher levels of nutrients to any one specific health benefit, we do know that getting the right balance of nutrients is important and an excellent approach to maintaining good health.

Over the past couple of decades, more and more “phytonutrients” have been discovered. Phytonutrients are the thousands of naturally occurring compounds found in many fruits and vegetables that don’t fall into the category of vitamin or mineral. You may have heard of resveratrol from red grapes or EGCs from green tea, but there are literally thousands, and most likely millions, yet to be discovered. There is still so much research to be done to understand how these nutrients (or lack of) can have an impact on our health.

How can farming practices affect the levels of these phytonutrients? The findings reported by a team of British researchers may help shed some light. They discovered a class of phytonutrients which they named Salvestrols (also known as phytoalexins). What makes salvestrols so interesting is their action with a particular enzyme that is only present in malfunctioning cells – such as cancer cells. When this enzyme encounters a Salvestrol, it converts it into a form which is toxic to the malfunctioning cell, resulting in arrest or decline of the diseased cells. Because the enzyme is not present in healthy cells, the Salvestrols exert no ill effects on them3.

What do Salvestrols have to do with organic food? Plenty! Salvestrols are naturally produced by plants to protect themselves from fungus and disease and are found in higher concentrations in plants that are grown organically. The explanation for this is simple. When ripe fruit comes under attack by a fungus or other pests, the plant produces a pathogen-specific Salvestrol as its natural defence mechanism; thus, use of fungicides and other pesticides stunt the plant’s manufacturing of Salvestrols since they are never exposed to the attacks which are required to stimulate Salvestrol production3.

The studies discussed above do suggest that different farming practices can impact the nutritional properties of the food and that food grown organically has “higher” levels of nutrients. But, you also need to consider what you’re not getting – namely increased exposure to potentially harmful chemicals and genetically modified organisms.

In Ontario, the last survey conducted on pesticide use was in 2008 and reported 4,866 tonnes of pesticides used in Ontario alone; and that’s just on the crops surveyed4. That’s about one pound of pesticides for every Ontario man, woman and child. Pesticides are now being linked to cancer in both children and adults5, hormone disruption (even in very low doses) cascading to disorders from infertility to cardiovascular disease6, as well as ADHD in children7.

Another consideration is the presence of genetically modified organisms. In Canada, there are four GM crops which have been approved by Health Canada: corn, soy, canola, and sugar beets. At least one of these ingredients can be found in most packaged foods lining the supermarket aisles. While there are many concerns around GM-crops, the overarching concern is that GM crops are regulated in the opposite direction from other agricultural innovations: presumed safe until shown otherwise. In other words, we’re all guinea pigs participating in the GM safety experiment. In addition, new reports show that GM crops contain greater levels of pesticide residues.

The Canadian Organic Standards strictly prohibit the use of synthetic pesticides as well as genetically modified organisms.

So is organic healthier? While the information in this article may not be inclusive of all information available, I hope it presents some new information you may not have considered before, and that it may reinforce your decision to choose organic or may help you reconsider your current food choices.