Organic Food, Is It Better (or Just More Expensive)?

Researchers at Stanford University say no. In fact, their assessment concludes that there is no discernable health value to organic fruits and vegetables.

. . .

The data (and cohort on which this assessment is based) has been published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine. The data source is not new but compiled from review of 17 previous studies on organic versus standard cultivation, standard defined as using pesticides, weed killers and inorganic fertilizers. An additional 233 studies were plugged to calculate the levels and nutrients, as well as the presence or absence of undesirable items like bacteria and/or fungi. Ick.

Researchers admit that two years (the duration of the longest study among the 250 sampled) is much too short a time to evaluate long-term effects. Taking transparency one step further, the Stanford scientists advise that the evidence which formed the basis for their conclusions was “relatively weak” and largely indecisive. In addition, researchers noted, their indecisiveness was largely due to too many variables like weather, soil type, moisture and sunlight.

Nutritional comparisons ran the gamut of the food chain, from grains, fruits and vegetables, to meat, eggs and milk. Chemical contamination was also calibrated. The only two reported variables were a greater amount of omega-3 in organic milk and detectable levels of pesticides in conventional foodstuffs – up to 30 percent more than organics. The presence of chemicals in organic food results from the fact that, in the 21st century, there are hardly any chemical-free acres left. Even water contains chemicals not found 100 years ago.

Researchers also concluded that organic chicken and pork harbored few or no antibiotic-resistant pathogens, while conventional foods like pork and chicken were 33 percent more likely to contain at least one, and as many as three, antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria. In spite of that, researchers concluded that these variations (between organic and “normal” food) did not provide “clinically meaningful differences.” Hmmm. I guess it depends on whether or not you’ve had e-coli.

The response was predictable. Organic and whole food advocates were irate. The Soil Association said the research was faulty. The study, which seems to follow in the footsteps of Monsanto’s paid studies on genetically modified (GM) food, left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. As a rebuttal to organic food’s claims that it is more healthful, the conclusion was wishy-washy; as an advocate for conventional food, it was cautiously ambivalent. In fact, why bother?

So what is the truth? Since no one seems to know for certain, let’s just take the matter of chemicals used in conventional farming. First there are the pesticides, then the herbicides (weed killers). Finally there are the fertilizers, made from oil or natural gas. It’s hard to imagine any of these actually being good for the human body – or anyone’s body (remember the poor pelicans after the BP oil disaster)?

If the issue is simply unwanted chemicals, food shoppers can switch to bananas, pineapple, tomatillos, sweet corn, podded peas, melons and oranges, in fact any fruit or vegetable that comes in its own wrapper.

If the issue is more nutrition per dollar of the food budget, consumers would do well to buy local, from farmer’s markets, many of which are small farms and organic by nature. Since organic farming aims at practices designed to encourage soil and water conservation and reduce pollution, the nature of organic food propagates beyond simple growing techniques into an ecologically sound way of feeding people without destroying the earth. This is the epitome of sustainability.

One of the most telltale practices of conventional farming is to use antibiotics, growth hormones and medications designed to help calves, piglets, chicks and ducklings avoid disease and grow more rapidly. Unfortunately, putting more meat on the dining room table is also putting an immense strain on the human biome. This strain has so far resulted in a number of diseases or health problems that do not respond to antibiotics.

And that is the second very good reason to avoid conventional produce and meat, which has caused or contributed to antibiotic-resistant strains of tuberculosis, staphylococcus, enterococcus (which can cause meningitis if left untreated), gonorrhea, and gram-negative bacteria, which causes cholera and scarlet fever among other ailments.

If you are unable to afford organic foods across the board, there are some things you can do to prevent the spread of disease. These are:

  • ·         Wash fruit and vegetables in a clean sink full of moderately warm water in which you have dissolved a quarter cup of salt; salt kills bacteria..
  • ·         Cook meat well (use a meat thermometer) before serving, or marinate in wine, red wine vinegar or prepared meat marinades (all of which are potent antibacterials; the 16th Century French were on to something!).
  • ·         Season store-bought baked goods with extra cinnamon, a natural antibacterial and anti-fungal which kills bacteria like e-coli, lowers cholesterol and blood sugar readings in Type 2 diabetics, kills fungi associated with yeast infections and thrush, and helps prevent cancer and slow the ravages of arthritis.
  • If you can’t afford organic meat and produce, at least indulge your interior foodie with organic Greek yogurt or kefir. The pick-me-up these two foods offer your immune system and digestive biota will make you feel young again (or at least able to make it through dinner without crashing)!

And on a final note, this bit of organic news came in as I was finishing up on Wednesday. If it doesn’t scare you, it should. A germ that does not respond to many traditional formulations of antibiotics is now ten times more prevalent than the last time tested.

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