Should I eat Organic?

Should I Eat Organic?

There has been a lot of controversy in the news and blogosphere about the recent study by Stanford researchers whether organic foods are more “healty” or “better” for you than conventionally grown food.   The researchers performed a meta-analysis, which means they looked at other published peer reviewed articles, and statistically coalesced additional insight by looking at the sum total of information from all the studies.  According to the article, if you accept their conclusion at face value without any criticism, the authors come to the following conclusion:

Conclusion: The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

According to their selection criteria, organic food is not necessarily more nutritious because from the data they examined, some previous research findings support, and some others do not support the claim of extra nutrition.  But what they also do find, unequivocally,  is that organic foods reduce exposure to pesticides.  And this is the point that many of the organic haters are missing!

What’s the point of eating organic?

The primary reason I recommend eating organic to my patients is to avoid the chronic low level exposure to pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and additionally to promote environmental sustainability.  Why? because those chemicals are toxic to humans also.  But this decision is an individual choice that depends on your health status, your risk tolerance, and your financial status.  Crystal Smith-Spangler, MD MS, one of the lead co-authors of the Stanford study above, for example, does buy organic when purchasing for her young child, but not always for herself.

What does it mean to be certified organic?

USDA Organic Certification means crops are produced without the use of synthetic pesticides, no sewage sludge, no antibiotics, no growth hormones, no bioengineered ingredients (genetically modified or GMO), no ionizing radiation, and no chemical food additives.  In addition, organic farmers use renewable resources and employ soil and water conservation techniques.

My bias is to eat organic when possible

Here is some pro-organic commentary from the Environmental Working Group.

Here is my question

What is the safe level of a known toxin, endocrine disruptor, or carcinogens from pesticides, etc.? Who decides this and how?  What about chronic long term exposure?  Is the “safe” level the same for an adult and a child?  What if the child already has burden on their immune system?  Too many unknowns, and since I don’t have all these answers  I personally prefer not to take the risk, and am willing to pay extra to eat organic in order to avoid it.  However, I will not chide those who disagree with my opinion and who disagree with the trade-off.

Related Information

This is a story I heard on the radio today about farm chemicals potentially causing kidney failure to rice farmers in Sri Lanka. To be fair, some of the fertilizers being used are illegal, however, this is yet another reason to purchase organic because you know what you are (not) getting.  These pesticides and fertilizers contain cadmium and arsenic.  Even the FDA is considering creating standards for “acceptable” levels of arsenic for rice because of the health impacts to babies and children.  Currently there are none, and the exposure is significant. Here is the link to the NPR story.

Here is an article comparing farm yields on conventional to organic crops in the respected journal Nature.  Surprisingly, organic techniques can match conventional yields for many crops, and this gap can be narrowed where organic methods are lacking.   Here is the link to the LA Times article.

 

 

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Karima Hirani, MD MPH
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