This post comes courtesy of Dr. Miranda Marti, a naturopathic physician who has been following organic food research for over ten years.
There are a lot of sensational headlines in the media this week about organic food. Some of them imply that a recent study from Stanford proves there are no health benefits from eating organic food. This is an unfortunate overstatement of the study’s findings.
The study, which is itself a meta-analysis of many studies, provides us with important information that is primarily about the food itself (nutrient content, incidence of pesticide contamination, etc.) from organic and conventionally grown sources.
For example, because they found that organic foods were no more or less likely to be contaminated with bacteria associated with food-borne illnesses, like E. coli. So, we can be reasonably sure that our risk of getting food poisoning from organic foods is about the same as it is from non-organically grown food.
It also helps confirm something that has been long suspected, that the nutrient profiles of organic produce are virtually the same as those of their conventionally grown counterparts. [Personal anecdote: a full decade ago when I was working on my senior project at Whitman College for my Environmental Studies-Biology major, I would have loved to study the differences in nutrient content of conventionally and organically grown foods. But even back then it was fairly apparent that there was little or none to be seen, so instead I ended up doing field work that involved measuring soil level of nitrogen and phosphorus and the biomass of earthworms on Hawaiian coffee farms utilizing conventional and organic agricultural practices.]
The New York Times does a lovely job of covering these aspects of the study, complete with an interview with someone from the Environmental Working Group, the organization which regularly compiles the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists of which fruits and vegetables bear the most and least pesticide contamination.
But the study cannot, and was not designed to, tell us anything about the long-term consequences of eating organic foods or long-term exposure to pesticides from food sources. The studies included in the meta-analysis that involved human health outcomes had, at most, a two year period of data collection. So, it cannot tell us whether or not pesticide residue on foods over time influences our hormonal activity or our immunity, or how it contributes to our liver’s burden of detoxification.
These are important issues to address because we have reason to suspect that pesticide residue on food has the potential to do all of those things, and that for some people it can have long-term health consequences. For example, here is a link to the EPA program that is in the process of studying whether many chemicals, including pesticides, that people in the US are exposed to have the ability to disrupt human hormones.
So, what about organic food and health?
My clinical recommendations, which have always been aimed at minimizing pesticide exposure, have not changed. In light of all the unanswered questions on the long-term health effects of pesticide residue on foods, I suggest that the prudent approach is to minimize our exposure to the worst of it. Beyond that, the degree of investment in organic produce, meat or dairy depends on personal preference and health status.
I recommend that everyone prioritize eating foods on the EWG’s Dirty Dozen list that comes from organic sources, be that your own garden or an organic CSA or the grocery store, and primarily eat organic dairy and meats.
This is especially true for women who have gyn conditions related to high levels of estrogen activity, such as PMS, fibroids, PCOS or fibrocystic breast disease. As I tell my patients with these conditions: Some pesticides, such as atrazine, stimulate aromatase, the enzyme that creates active estrogen from hormonal substrates, pesticides can monopolize your liver’s detoxification pathways and keep them from efficiently metabolizing your estrogen, and can even be converted in the body to estrogen-like substances (xenoestrogens). In other words, exposure to certain pesticides may make estrogen-related symptoms or conditions worse.
Baker, an investigative journalist, does an excellent job examining many environmental and health concerns associated with common chemicals, such as pesticides, phthalates and flame-retardants, that we are exposed to every day. She also gives a devastating overview of how, from a legal standpoint, all of this is allowed to continue without much public outcry. And, perhaps most importantly, she gives sound advice about what people can do to learn more and to protect themselves until more definitive information about the health risks are known.