Organic and Your Health

Taken from the LocalHarvest Newsletter, April 24, 2014


*Welcome back to the LocalHarvest newsletter.

We all know there are compelling environmental reasons to choose organic food. Many of us buy organic out of a belief that it must be healthier, too. In terms of avoiding the potential toxicity of pesticide residues, it is. But the case for organic food actually being more nutritious has been harder to make. Over the last few years, though, there has been a growing body of research demonstrating not only that organic food is better for us, but how.

This month I had a chance to speak with Jessica Shade, Ph.D., Director of Science Programs at The Organic Center. She pointed out that scientists haven't yet demonstrated that all organically grown food is more nutritious than conventional. Studies have focused on individual crops, and even then there are so many variables that it is difficult to isolate the impact of organic management practices. Still, research on a variety of fruit and vegetable crops has shown that organic methods yield produce with higher levels of certain nutrients and other good things. Research has established, for example, that organically grown spinach, peppers, oranges, pears, peaches, strawberries and tomatoes all have higher levels of Vitamin C than their conventionally grown counterparts. Other studies show significantly higher levels of antioxidants and other phytochemicals important for disease prevention.

So the research is beginning to back up what intuitively seems like it must be right: nix the noxious toxins, treat the soil well, and the resulting food will be more nutritious. But exactly why is this? According to Dr. Shade, there are two prevailing guesses. The first is that plants respond well to the somewhat increased stress level found in organic systems. "What?" you say, "My organic tomatoes lived a life of stress?" It's true: plants are less protected from weeds and pests in organic systems, and that puts a little more strain on them. Taken too far, the plants will not produce. There seems to be some optimal level of stress, though, where the plants' response may be to produce more antioxidants. That turns out to be a boon for human health.

The second hypothesis on how organically grown produce comes to be more nutritious has to do with plants' self-defense system. As insects start to gnaw on plants, the plants fight back by producing compounds to make plant unsavory to insects and, like the antioxidants produced under stress, many of those compounds are good for us. Remarkable, huh?

The above applies to produce, but the dairy story is equally interesting and possibly more impactful. The main known nutritional benefit of organic dairy as is the high level of omega-3 fatty acids it provides. As many are aware, diets low in omega-3 but high in omega-6 fatty acids are linked to increased rates of many diseases, and increasing one's level of omega-3s is a good thing for your health. In a study released last December, organic milk was shown to have a significantly lower ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids than found in conventional milk, making it a very healthy choice. The reason is believed to be because in organic systems the cows are required to be on pasture longer, and the fresh grass they consume there leads to milk rich in omega-3s and low in omega-6s. According to Dr. Shade, the pasture rule in the organic law was put there for the cows' well-being, but it turns out that more time on pasture means healthier milk, so everyone wins. The study's authors encourage people to leverage their findings to maximum benefit by minimizing the intake of foods high in omega-6s while also shifting some of their fat intake to full-fat, organic dairy products.

For me, all this research points to an elegant intelligence inherent in organic food production systems. What's good for the plants and animals is also good for humans and the environment. To learn more about organic research, visit The Organic Center's website.

On a different note, if you are a farmer or other food producer, please see the announcement below about an important survey pertaining to the Food Safety Modernization Act.

Until next time, take good care and eat well,

Erin Barnett


*Certified Naturally Grown offers a grassroots alternative to certified organic for farmers and beekeepers. Founded on the original ideals of the organic movement - small-scale sustainable agriculture serving local communities - Certified Naturally Grown's programs are designed for farmers and beekeepers who sell locally and observe traditional growing practices that work in harmony with nature, supporting bee and livestock health and working with the soil's ecology rather than relying on synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides

This alternative certification program includes an application process and annual on-site inspections.