By Dr. Mercola
In order to qualify as organic, a product must be grown and processed using organic farming methods that recycle resources and promote biodiversity. Crops must be grown without synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage sludge-based fertilizers.
In this way, when you eat organic what the food doesn't contain is just as important as what it does. This is especially true when it comes to pesticides. You might have wondered just how much a difference eating organic actually makes. Is it worth the (sometimes) higher price or the effort it may take to seek out mostly organic food?
Research conducted by the Swedish Environmental Research Institute found out just that. You can get the gist of the study by watching the video above. According to Coop Sverige, which commissioned the study:1
"We wanted to know more about what happens in the body when switching from conventional to organic food. The result was so interesting that we made a film to share with the masses. We want to inspire more people to eat organic – we think it's good for both people and the environment."
Just Two Weeks of Eating Organic May Significantly Lower Pesticide Levels in Your Body
The study was refreshingly straightforward. A family of five, which included three children, typically ate mostly conventional, non-organically grown food. For the study, the family continued eating only conventionally grown food for one week.
They then switched to an entirely organic diet, which they followed for two weeks. Urine samples from all the family members were taken throughout the course of the study and analyzed for their pesticide content. After just two weeks of eating organic, pesticide levels declined significantly. According to the report:2
"The results of the survey clearly show that some pesticides are absorbed into the body through diet. By choosing organic products, it is possible by and large to avoid the consumption of these chemicals through food.
Compared with the period when the family consumed conventionally grown food, the concentrations of pesticide residues decreased on average by a factor of 6.7 when the family ate organic food.
The children in particular had lower concentrations during the period of organic food consumption. Levels of most, but not all tested pesticides fell in the adults."
Earlier this year, a separate study published in Environmental Health Perspectives came to similar conclusions.3 It looked at the diets of nearly 4,500 people living in six US cities, assessing exposure levels to organophosphates (OPs), which are among the most commonly used insecticides on US farms.
Not surprisingly, those who ate conventionally grown produce were found to have high concentrations of OP metabolites, whereas those who ate organic produce had significantly lower levels. Those who "often or always" ate organic had about 65 percent lower levels of pesticide residues compared to those who ate the least amount of organic produce. According to lead author Cynthia Curl:
"If you tell me what you typically eat, I can tell you how high your pesticide exposure is likely to be. The study suggests that by eating organically grown versions of those foods highest in pesticide residues, we can make a measurable difference."
Pesticide Levels Detected Below Allowable Limits… But Does This Equate with Safety?
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) insists pesticide residues on food are no cause for concern. More than half of all foods tested last year had detectable levels of pesticide residues, but most, the USDA claims, are within the "safe" range.
In the featured study, the researchers also pointed out that even when the family was eating conventionally grown food, their pesticide levels fell below the acceptable daily intake (ADI), which suggests it would pose no risk to their health. However, this assumption misses out on a key factor: cumulative exposure. According to the report:4
"The concentrations measured in the urine show that although pesticides are present in the body, the levels are low and, when converted, are estimated to be below the ADI value (acceptable daily intake) by a good margin. The ADI value is the maximum quantity of a substance that a person can consume daily throughout his or her lifetime without this posing any risk to their health.
It is therefore unlikely that a single substance would pose any risk to humans. That said, the system currently used for risk assessing chemicals is suitable only for one substance at a time.
There is, therefore, no approved method for making an overall assessment of the effect of multiple chemicals simultaneously (i.e. combination effects, popularly known as the 'cocktail effect'). There is an awareness that this is a major shortcoming."
The USDA's assurances of safety are also lacking, as the Department does not test for one of the most pervasive and most harmful agricultural chemicals of all, namely glyphosate, which is the active ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup. As reported by Reuters:5
"As has been the case with past analyses, the USDA said it did not test this past year for residues of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide and the world's most widely used herbicide.
A USDA spokesman who asked not to be quoted said that the test measures required for glyphosate are 'extremely expensive... to do on a regular basis...'
…Many genetically modified crops can be sprayed directly with glyphosate, and some consumer and health groups fear glyphosate residues in foods are harmful to human health, even though the government says the pesticide is considered safe."
What Are the Real Health Risks of Pesticide Exposure?
More than 1 billion pounds of pesticides are used in the US each year, an amount that has quintupled since 1945. This includes 20,000 products made from varying formulations of more than 1,000 chemicals, sprayed everywhere from farm fields and gardens to playgrounds and schools.6 In children, there is increasing evidence that these ubiquitous chemicals are especially damaging, not only at high exposure levels but also at low, chronic levels to which millions are exposed.
The CHAMACOS study followed hundreds of pregnant women living in Salinas Valley, California, an agricultural mecca that has had up to a half-million pounds of organophosphates sprayed in the region per year. The children were followed through age 12 to assess what impact the pesticides had on their development.7 It turns out the impact was quite dramatic, and mothers' exposure to organophosphates during pregnancy was associated with:8
- Shorter duration of pregnancy
- Decreased neonatal reflexes
- Lower IQ and poorer cognitive functioning in children
- Increased risk of attention problems in children
As the dangers of organophosphates become clear, farmers have shifted toward other supposedly safer chemicals, like neonicotinoids and pyrethroids. The former group of chemicals is a leading suspect behind the massive bee die-offs occurring across the US, and the latter have shown equally concerning health effects as organophosphates. One study tested urine samples from 779 Canadian children, aged 6-11, and even at that young age, 97 percent of the children had pyrethroid breakdown products in their urine. Ninety-one percent also had traces of organophosphate pesticides.9
A 10-fold increase in urinary levels of one pyrethroid breakdown product was associated with twice the risk of a child scoring high for behavioral problems, such as inattention and hyperactivity. And according to a 2006 US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) review, animal research has also shown that even low levels of some of these compounds have an adverse effect on:10
Immune function Nervous system development Behavioral development Thyroid Liver Reproductive hormones
Glyphosate Residues on Your Food May Be Harmful
Nearly 1 billion pounds of glyphosate is doused on both conventional and genetically modified (GM) crops worldwide each year, although GM crops receive the heaviest amounts. It's important to realize that processed foods undoubtedly expose you to this toxic contamination, courtesy of the GM soy, GM sugar beets, and vegetable oil used.11 The same goes for meats from animals raised in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), as GM soy is a staple of conventional livestock feed.
It's quite crucial to understand that glyphosate contamination in GM crops is systemic, meaning it is present in every cell of the plant, from root to tip. It's not just an issue of topical contamination—although that certainly adds to the level of contamination. Normally, you need to thoroughly wash your produce to help remove topical residues, but you cannot remove glyphosate from GM produce, as it has been absorbed into the cells of the plant.
In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is the research arm of the World Health Organization (WHO), determined glyphosate to be a "probable carcinogen" (Class 2A), based on "limited evidence" showing that the popular weed killer can cause non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and lung cancer in humans, along with "convincing evidence" it can also cause cancer in animals.12
Glyphosate and glyphosate formulations have also been shown to induce DNA and chromosomal damage in mammals, as well as human and animal cells in vitro. Research published in 2013 showed glyphosate residues "enhance the damaging effects of other food-borne chemical residues and toxins in the environment to disrupt normal body functions and induce disease."
A Norwegian study published in Food Technology also found that GM soy contains high levels of glyphosate, along with a poorer nutritional profile, leading the researchers to question its quality and safety.13 Evidence also suggests glyphosate may be a key player in Argentina's growing health problems, where birth defects and cancer rates have skyrocketed among GE corn and soya farming communities. According to Dr. Medardo Vasquez, a neonatal specialist at the Children's Hospital in Cordoba, featured in the documentary film People and Power — Argentina: The Bad Seeds:
"I see newborn infants, many of whom are malformed. I have to tell parents that their children are dying because of these agricultural methods. In some areas in Argentina, the primary cause of death for children less than one year old is malformations."
Additional Benefits of Eating Organic
Lowering your exposure to pesticides and other agricultural chemicals is just one reason to consider eating organic as much as possible. One of the benefits of eating organic, for instance, is that the foods will be free of GM ingredients – and this is key to avoiding exposure to toxic glyphosate. In addition to fewer pesticide and chemical residues, organic foods have, on average, 48 percent lower levels of cadmium, a toxic metal and known carcinogen.14
Organic meats are also far less likely to contain drug-resistant bacteria, which is yet another major health threat.15 Organic rules do not permit antibiotics to be used, whereas conventional farmers routinely give their animals antibiotics to promote rapid growth. Meanwhile, organic fruits and vegetables can contain anywhere from 18-69 percent more antioxidants than conventionally grown varieties. According to the study authors:16
"Many of these compounds have previously been linked to a reduced risk of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative diseases and certain cancers, in dietary intervention and epidemiological studies. Additionally, the frequency of occurrence of pesticide residues was found to be four times higher in conventional crops... Significant differences were also detected for some other (e.g. minerals and vitamins) compounds."
There are also a number of other studies to support the claim that organically grown produce contain higher levels of nutrients in general. For example, in 2010 PLOS ONE published a study showing organic strawberries were more nutrient-rich than non-organic strawberries.17
Which Foods Are the Most Important to Buy Organic?
Everyone can be harmed by pesticides, but if you're a woman of childbearing age or have young children, taking steps to reduce your exposure is especially important. Ideally, all of the food you and your family eat would be organic. That being said, not everyone has access to a wide variety of organic produce, and it can sometimes be costlier than buying conventional. One way to save some money while still lowering your risk is by focusing on purchasing certain organic items, while "settling" for others that are conventionally grown.
Animal products, like meat, butter, milk, and eggs, are actually the most important to buy organic, since animal products tend to bioaccumulate toxins from their pesticide-laced feed, concentrating them to far higher concentrations than are typically present in vegetables.
Unlike conventional fruits and vegetables, where peeling and washing can sometimes reduce the amounts of these toxins, the pesticides and drugs that these animals get exposed to during their lives can become incorporated into their very tissues, especially their fat. So if you're on a budget, choose organic animal foods first.
Beyond animal foods, the pesticide load of different fruits and vegetables can vary greatly. Consumer Reports analyzed 12 years of data from the USDA's Pesticide Data Program to determine the risk categories (from very low to very high) for different types of produce.18 Because children are especially vulnerable to the effects of environmental chemicals, including pesticides, they based the risk assessment on a 3.5-year-old child. They recommended buying organic for any produce that came back in the medium or higher risk categories, which left the following foods as examples of those you should always try to buy organic.
Peaches Carrots Strawberries Green Beans Sweet Bell Peppers Hot Peppers Tangerines Nectarines Cranberries Sweet Potatoes
Tips to Minimize Your Dietary Pesticide Exposure
Your best bet for minimizing health risks from pesticide exposure in your food is to avoid them in the first place by eating organic as much as possible and investing in a good water filtration system for your home or apartment. Alternatively, you can try growing some of your own produce using organic methods right in your own backyard.
If you know you have been exposed to pesticides, the lactic acid bacteria formed during the fermentation of kimchi may help your body break down pesticides. So including fermented foods like kimchi in your diet may also be a wise strategy to help detox the pesticides that do enter your body.
Following are some great resources to obtain wholesome organic food. Eating locally produced organic food will not only support your family's health, it will also protect the environment from harmful chemical pollutants and the inadvertent spread of GM seeds and chemical-resistant weeds and pests. Finally, if you can't find organic produce, don't use that as an excuse to skimp on veggies altogether. As Consumer Reports noted:19
"Though we believe that organic is always the best choice because it promotes sustainable agriculture, getting plenty of fruits and vegetables—even if you can't obtain organic—takes precedence when it comes to your health."
Also remember that some local foods are grown using organic standards, even though they might not be certified organic. One of the benefits of getting your food straight from the farm via the resources below is that you can often meet the farmer and ask about pesticides and other chemical usage before you buy:
- Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
- Farmers' Markets -- A national listing of farmers' markets.
- Local Harvest -- This Web site will help you find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies.
- Eat Well Guide: Wherever you are, Eat Well -- The Guide is a free online directory of more than 25,000 restaurants, farms, stores, farmers' markets, CSAs, and other sources of local, sustainably produced food throughout the US.
- Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) -- CISA is dedicated to sustaining agriculture and promoting the products of small farms.