Friday, September 14, 2012

"Organic", is it worth it? Q/A Part I

Q: Are organically grown fruits and veggies really healthier to eat? I mean, there's new research recently touted in the mainstream media indicating that their nutrient content isn't better than that in conventionally grown produce.  

Yes, I think that organic produce is generally healthier and safer to eat than conventionally produced products. This is basically because they tend to have less pesticides in them. (More about the nuances of this later in this post.)

This said, note that the label "organic" is sometimes applied to questionable products, and more so after the USDA got involved in handing it out.

Some excellent and conscientious food producers can't afford to (or don't want to) buy the label "organic" from the USDA-maffia, whereas some shady operators who don't give a sh*t about the health of their customers are able to get the label.

So the label "organic" doesn't mean that you can happily suspend your thinking about if a particular product is really good for you.

Q: So, labels aside, what kinds of produce should I choose for health purposes?

There are two major health considerations with all foods:

1) How much potentially harmful "stuff" is in it?
2) How much nutritious "stuff" is in it?

Regarding the first consideration, it has been found (HT: SuppVersity) in a comprehensive study that organic produce (that is veggies and fruits grown without synthetic pesticides) generally has orders of magnitudes lower pesticide content than conventional products. (Duh!)

Why does that matter?

There is a large body of research that indicates that pesticide chemicals, ingested in realistic quantities, may impair health in numerous ways.

Yes, it is also true (as the brilliant Bruce Ames showed) that plants themselves produce toxins that may be just as harmful as toxins that are man made.

HOWEVER: One's total body burden of absorbed toxins in relation to one's body's detoxification/elimination ability (a function of genetics, health status, and stress levels) is what ultimately counts.

Most of us live in environments which, by default, expose our bodies to a higher toxic load than they are "designed" to cope with optimally (especially if we want to live for a long time past our reproductive age).

If we want to stay healthy our task is therefore to keep the total body burden of toxins as low as (practically) possible, while, on the other hand, optimizing our bodies' ability to deal with the toxins that we can't (or don't want to) avoid. (The latter involves, for instance, making sure that our digestive-, hormonal-, detox- and immune systems work correctly. A wide subject.)

What about the second consideration (nutritional content)? How can I get the most nutrition out of my fruits and vegetables? 

To begin with, major factors that matter for the nutritional value of these foods are:

1) The nutritional quality of the soil in which the produce was grown. This factor is a function of what nutrients are already in the soil (how "depleted" the soil is), and of the type of fertilizer used during the growing process.

Regarding fertilizer, taking a biological viewpoint, I don't think that enough is known about nutrition to design a "multi-vitamin/mineral" for soils that produces as nutritious results as using, for instance, manure, or dead animals or plants for fertilizer.

2) The strain or variety that is grown, and its propensity to absorb and retain nutrients from the soil, as well as its ability to synthesize nutrients that we benefit from.

A focus on crop yields in the development of new strains (e.g., GMO) compromise these nutritional aspects.

3) The level of processing and transport that the produce undergoes before it reaches your plate. (The longer the supply chain, the less will be left of volatile nutrients.)

[Let me know if I missed or misinterpreted some aspect - I'm not an expert on agriculture!]

Regarding these nutritional considerations, I think that the label "organic" matters less than when considering toxic load.

Rather, the most important factor is probably large scale production vs. small scale local production - not necessarily "organic" vs. conventional.

Small farms typically (but not always) access less depleted soils to begin with, and if they also use good crop rotation practices and natural fertilizer (e.g., manure, and crop waste materials) their products should be more nutritious.

In addition, small farms, often try to compete by growing tastier products. This means using varieties which may grow slower than those used in large scale production and which both absorb and produce more nutrients. (Think about the difference in taste between the tomatoes that you get in Tuscany, Italy vs. supermarket tomatoes.)

Bottom line: (Here taking the luxury of considering health as virtually the only consideration.)

BEST: Locally produced fruits and vegetables from small farms that use "organic" practices and with a focus on taste, but not necessarily labeled organic. Ideally, visit the farm that you will be buying from. Make sure that it is not situated next to a major source of pollution. (I don't think I'd like to buy veggies home grown on a roof top next to a known polluter).

NEXT BEST: Items that are labeled "organic", but that are not necessarily local and/or small scale. 

NEXT NEXT BEST: Conventional produce products that are not on EWG's dirty dozen list. ( )

[Also see part II, and part III of this mini series.]

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