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BLOG: July 2007

Benefits of organic foods

Are organic foods healthier than conventionally grown foods? Significantly lower pesticide residue, combined with the higher average nutritional value, seem to make the answer easy. What are the most recent news?

A ten-year study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry focused on two of the flavonoids - quercetin and kaempferol - in tomatoes. It found out that organic tomatoes have on the average 79% and 97% higher content of these two phytochemicals, respectively. Researchers believe it is due to the abundance of nitrogen in conventional fertilizers, as opposed to better mineral balance and availability in the soil of organically grown foods (BBC).

It is just another in a long series of studies, spanning over more than two decades, reaffirming nutritional superiority of organic foods. It is no surprise, since in organic farming fertility of the soil is maintained with nutrient-rich composts and manure, and by periodic crop rotations.

On the other hand, conventional agriculture puts back in the soil mainly inorganic fertilizers containing the three main plant nutrients needed for plant growth - nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium; thus,

soil is increasingly depleted from most other nutrients,

many of them essential to our health.

While organic foods should have better nutrient content in general, the real world is more complicated, with significant variations in produce types, soil quality, climate, and growing methods. Some conventional farmers also use composts and/or manure, at least to some extent. On the other hand, not all "organic" labeled produce live up to their high standards. Some may not actually be organic - so make sure that those you buy are certified.

This is probably the main reason why some studies in the past have come up with contradicting results. There is a number of important factors, and it may be difficult to control all of them. However, in the long run, it seems safe to say that consuming certified organic produce will provide you with

significantly higher amounts of all nutrients,
especially minerals

Add to it another important health benefit of organic foods: their residual pesticide level is a

small fraction of pesticides contaminating foods
produced in conventional farming.

While the official sources (EPA) maintain that residual pesticide levels in conventionally grown produce are, in general, harmless, it is to be taken with a grain of salt. It is no secret that their objectivity is being compromised by the "higher" (read: economic) interests. EPA's flexibility and generosity in both, establishing tolerance levels for toxic contamination, and still allowing produce far outside those standards to be brought to the market, is rather common.

What these residual pesticide levels can do to you? Well, if you are male, one thing  it can do to you is lower your fertility. In 2002, researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia run into unexpected result: sperm count and virility of men in rural Missouri areas was lower than that of men in large cities (Minneapolis, New York). In 2003, the cause became apparent: men with poor semen quality had significantly higher pesticide exposure (Geographic Differences in Semen Quality of Fertile U.S. Males, Swan et al., 2002).

The reason pesticides have such effect is that many

pesticides mimic estrogen,
effectively suppressing male hormones.

If you are a female, the same effect generally promotes cancerous growth, particularly in breast cancer.

Since only about 2% of total pesticides used ends up on the produce, there is a plenty left to contaminate soil and waters, penetrating into the food chain in rural areas. Conventional water treatments are ineffective in removing many of these toxins from drinking water, so you are practically on your own.

While this implies that pesticide food residue is not necessarily the worst source of pesticide exposure, it is not to be taken lightly. Long-term effects of what are officially "safe exposure levels" are yet to be determined, and the picture is not likely to be rosy. Most pesticides work by blocking cellular enzymes, so their accumulation invites trouble. Being estrogen-mimics, many of them also increase your already excessive exposure to endocrine disruptors (i.e. hormonally active chemicals), coming from plasticizers (phthalates), detergents, TCE (trichloroethylene), PCBs from industrial and auto exhaust, heavy metals like cadmium, etc.

On top of that, harmful effects of pesticide residues are

multiplied many times when combined with
hundreds of other toxins contaminating your body.

How the body handles this extra estrogen load depends on many factors you may, and may not be able to control. However, a healthy diet always helps. For instance, phytochemicals from cruciferous vegetable family (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, collard greens, etc.) prevent it from being metabolized to "bad estrogen", the carcinogenic 16-hydrolase form10.

But you don't really want any extra enzyme killer, nor potential carcinogens inside your body. This is even more true for children and people whose health is already compromised - they are much more vulnerable. Besides, too much of the "good estrogen" is still bad; it can cause infertility, impotence, gender confusion, impaired growth and mental function (children), hypothyroidism that doesn't show on the standard test10, and so on.

The unquestionable benefit of eating true organic foods is cutting your food pesticide exposure - and all the health risk it presents - down to the possible minimum. Added bonus of eating organic, overall, is that your body is getting significantly higher influx of nutrients - the single most powerful disease prevention and health restoration factor there is.