Eating Organic: The Benefits and the Basics

Eating Organic: The Benefits and the Basics

Over the last several years, we have seen a rise in demand for organic foods. While we have become more health conscious and environmentally focused, the benefits of eating organic foods have become more top of mind.

The Benefits of Eating Organic

By choosing to eat organic, you help support sustainable farming practices that focus on conserving soil health and water. Organic farmers avoid the use of inorganic pesticides and herbicides, and instead, use renewable resources to grow their crops. By comparison, conventional pesticides often include fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge. Choosing organic food can also help decrease your cumulative exposure to synthetic chemicals and heavy metals such as copper [1] [2].

Of course, organic foods are not always free of toxins and they can still be unhealthy, especially if eaten to excess. For example, some foods such as organic brown rice may contain undesirable levels of arsenic [3].

How to Identify Organics

How to Identify Organics

  • In Canada, Canadian Organic Regulations (COR) require that foods labelled “organic” contain at least 95% of organic ingredients.
  • Many smaller growers can’t afford to get organic certification, however, which is why it’s so great to be able to talk to local growers at the farmers market and actually ask them about their farming practices.
  • If you’re shopping at the grocery store, you can look for the organic aisle and organic labels on fruits and vegetables, as well as on non-dairy milks, grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and other pantry staples.

Organic vs. Conventionally Grown

Organic vs. Conventionally Grown

There are several theories as to why organic produce may have higher nutrient levels than those grown conventionally. One such theory supposes that because pesticides defend plants against certain pests and predators, conventionally grown plants have less motivation to create substances that would protect them naturally. Many of these substances are chemicals that have positive benefits for our own health.

For example, researchers at the Swedish University of Agricultural Science found that carrots fertilized with fresh compost farmyard manure (an organic fertilizer) produce the most polyacetylenes [4]. Polyacetylenes are chemicals found in carrots that have demonstrated an ability to trigger the death (apoptosis) of leukemia cells [5]. Other foods and herbs that contain polyacetylenes include panax ginseng, celery, and parsnips [5] [6].

Of course, these plants don’t produce these chemicals to fight leukemia cells. Instead, polyacetylenes discourage insects from eating the plants. They also have activity against certain bacteria and viruses that affect the plants. As it happens, the highest levels of polyacetylenes and many other protective nutrients are found in the skin (peel) of fruits and vegetables, where they are most needed. Given that it is usually recommended to peel conventionally grown fruits and vegetables to minimize pesticide intake, this may mean missing out much of these helpful nutrients.

Why Choose Organic?

Why Choose Organic?

Although more research needs to be done to determine any direct health benefits of organic foods versus conventionally grown foods, there are already plenty of reasons to choose organic:

  1. Better conditions for workers who grow and pick organic foods
  2. Reduced environmental impact from these foods
  3. More sustainable growing practices for better food security long term

Remember though, eating conventionally grown fruits and vegetables is still better than eating no fresh produce at all!

References:

[1] Jarup, L. (2003). Hazards of Heavy Metal Contamination. Br Med Bull, 68, 167-82.

[2] Curl, C.L., Beresford, S.A., Fenske, R.A., et al. (2015). Estimating perticide exposure from dietary intake and organic food choices: the Multi-Ethnic study of Atheroschlerosis. EnvironHealth Perspect, 123(5) 475-83.

[3] Jackson, B.P. (2012). Organic foods and brown rice syrup. Environ Health Perspect, 120, 623-6

[4] Kjellenberg, L., Johansson, E., Gustavsson, K-E., et al. (2016). Influence of organic manures on carrot (Daucus carota L.) crops grown in a long-term field experiment in Sweden. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 31, pp 258-268.

[5] Zidorn, C., Jöhrer, K., Ganzera, M., et al. (2005). Polyacetylenes from the Apiaceae vegetables carrot, celery, fennel, parsley, and paresip, and their cytotoxic activities. J Agric Food Chem, 53(7), 2518-23.

[6] Matsunaga, H., Katano, M., Yamamoto, H., et al. (1990). Cytotxic activity of polyacetylene compounds in Panax ginseng C.A. Meyer. Chem Pharm Bull (Tokyo), Dec; 38(12), 3480-2.