Is organic food healthier?   A recent report from Stanford University, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine has made it a point of controversy.  The report, titled “Are Organic Foods Safer and Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?” concluded that there is a lack of evidence to support that “organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods,” despite finding that consumption of organic foods “may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”

While the report has triggered a full-fledged war between health and food experts, the intention of this article is not to refute the findings or break down the inaccuracies.  Many other reputable sources have done so already, noting the confusing misrepresentative statistical measurements of the study: Bryce Wylde: An Organic OrdealTom Philpott: 5 Ways the Stanford Study Sells Organics Short and Charles Benbrook: Initial Reflections.  Instead, it will look at what the report fails to emphasize; the health promoting benefits of organic foods, specifically the high phytonutrient content, and reduced exposure to harmful chemicals and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Phytonutrients

Phytonutrients are naturally occurring defensive compounds found in plants. Included are polyphenols, isoflavones and flavonoids (all various forms of antioxidants) are produced and used by the plant to fight off fungus, microbes and other pests.  When a plant is under attack from some type of infection (fungal, bacterial, viral or certain pests), they naturally increase the amount of these critical components to protect themselves.  When they are sprayed with pesticides and fertilizers, there is no need to produce these immune-response products.  Organic plants, by contrast, contain significantly higher concentrations of these molecules, as they are the plant’s sole defense from pathogens.

The importance of antioxidants to our health is unquestioned.  Research has and continues to show that antioxidants reduce our risk of developing many chronic diseases and can help mitigate the damage created by active disease.  Quickly growing research supports that polyphenols, isoflavones and flavonoids are equally as important to boosting our immune system and protecting us from developing major chronic diseases as well as reducing the damage caused by diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and cancer.

Reduced Exposure

For many consumers who already buy organic food, the issues around conventional vs. organic foods have never been related to nutritional value.  For most, it is about reducing the amount of harmful chemicals they are exposed to on a daily basis.  Research, including the results from the Stanford study, almost unanimously agrees that there is less risk of exposure to various chemicals by consuming organic foods.  Many studies have shown that there are significantly higher levels of urinary metabolites of harmful insecticides and pesticides in those whose diets consist of conventional produce when compared to those with diets consisting predominantly of organic produce.  Other studies have shown that these same metabolites in high concentrations are correlated with autism, ADHD and asthma in children.  While the evidence in these studies is preliminary, some argue that the evidence is sufficient to warrant campaigns supporting organic eating during pregnancy and early childhood.

Fruits and vegetables are not the only foods that can be raised organically.  Meat, dairy and eggs are also being looked at.  The Stanford study acknowledges explicitly that there is a reduction in exposure to antibiotic resistant bacteria from organically raised animals.  While in Canada, there is a body of law that prohibits the use of growth hormones in all animals raised for consumption, organic or conventional, those laws do not apply to the use of antibiotics.  Conventionally raised animals are often given prophylactic antibiotics throughout their life to reduce the risk of developing infections.  This common practice increases the likelihood of bacteria to develop resistance to antibiotics.  Organic farming rules dictate that prophylactic antibiotic use is forbidden, thus reducing the development of antibiotic resistance in organic meat.

When to Buy Organic Food

After examining the evidence, the question becomes not if, but when to buy organic.  With much of the organic produce, meat, dairy and egg prices being higher than conventional foods, many people get stuck on where to focus their shopping efforts when they make the switch to organic foods.  The Environmental Working Group (EWG) makes that decision a little easier by putting out an annual Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, which lists foods that are highly contaminated or rarely contaminated with pesticides.  They refer to these lists as “The Dirty Dozen” and “The Clean Fifteen” respectively.    The dirtiest foods are items that should be organic, whenever possible.  The clean foods are considered safe whether they are conventionally or organically grown.

Produce, meat, eggs, honey and dairy are always the most nutritious when they are fresh.  As food is transported across the globe, it loses nutritional value.  While organic eating is important to consider, as much, if not more consideration should be put on buying foods that are local, fresh and sustainably grown.  To access the freshest, least contaminated and most sustainable food, visit local farmer’s markets or farm stands, which is made simpler by www.foodlink.ca, a site that helps consumers locate sustainable farms and markets in their area, across Ontario.  Buying fresh, local and organic will reduce pesticide and antibiotic resistant exposure, while improving nutritional value and overall health.