Tag Archives: organic food

There are pesticides inside your body — but an organic diet can flush them out

A study following four American families for two weeks found that everyone’s bodies contain chemicals — but they can be flushed out.

Image in Creative Commons

To feed the almost 8 billion people around the world (and furthermore, ensure rich and diverse diets for the richer countries), we’re spraying our crops with an impressive amount of pesticides. In one way, this is extremely helpful, drastically reducing the negative impact of pests and diseases that have plagued our crops for millennia. But there’s a downside to pesticides as well: we may end up ingesting them, and they could be harmful to our health.

Roundup, the world’s most widely used weedkiller, contains a compound called glyphosate. There’s a lot of scientific debate regarding the actual perils of glyphosate, but the compound was flagged as a potential carcinogen as far back as 1983 by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Although there is contradictory evidence regarding the health dangers posed by this chemical, public debate has been shaped by the corporate lobby just as much as (if not more than) scientific evidence. As a result, the EPA has raised the accepted level of glyphosate substantially (in some cases by a factor of 300) above levels considered safe in 1990. Unsurprisingly, the presence of glyphosate in average Americans has also skyrocketed, from 12% in the mid-1970s to 70% by 2014.

The new study paints an even more concerning picture, as all members of the four families tracked contained glyphosate. The family members were tracked for six days on their regular diet, and for six days, they were asked to switch to a completely organic diet (various places have various definitions for what organic really means, but in this case, it was pesticide-free food). In just six days, the level of glyphosate in their bodies dropped by 70%.

We’ve written before about organic diets and how the alleged benefits of such diets are often exaggerated and blown out of proportion, but this study seems to show a tangible benefit. There is still a debate on whether or not the pesticides are causing any actual damage, but the authors of the study believe the pesticide levels can be hazardous, especially in children.

“While food residues often fall within levels that regulators consider safe, even government scientists have made it clear that US regulations have not kept pace with the latest science,” one of the study authors writes in an article for The Guardian. “For one, they ignore the compounding effects of our daily exposures to a toxic soup of pesticides and other industrial chemicals. Nor do they reflect that we can have higher risks at different times in our lives and in different conditions: a developing fetus, for instance, is particularly vulnerable to toxic exposures, as are children and the immunocompromised. Instead, US regulators set one “safe” level for all of us. New research also shows that chemicals called “endocrine disruptors” can increase the risk of cancers, learning disabilities, birth defects, obesity, diabetes, and reproductive disorders, even at incredibly small levels. (Think the equivalent of one drop in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools.).”

Other areas have implemented stricter controls on how much glyphosate and other pesticides are used. In the EU, while the use of glyphosate isn’t banned, it’s limited to a much lower amount than in the US, and it’s not just this particular pesticide.

The US allows 70 pesticides currently banned in the EU, pesticides that can harm not only humans but also bees and other pollinators, causing a chain reaction that can lead to ecosystem collapse. Pesticides also have many negative environmental effects, including contributing to climate change — A report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change finds that about 30% of global emissions leading to climate change are attributable to agricultural activities, including pesticide use.

The big problem with organic food is that it’s expensive, but this could be addressed by shifting subsidies from pesticides to organic-based agriculture, the researchers believe. The US spends billions of dollars to support pesticide-based agriculture, while organic agriculture is woefully underfunded, despite growing demand.

However, organic food also tends to use up more land and water and comes with its own set of challenges. The relationship between health, organic agriculture, and the environment is complex but, if nothing else, it seems to be able to help to reduce our internal pesticide content. The problem is that for many, organic food is a luxury, or at best, a preference — when it could be seen as a public good. To make matters even more complicated, organic products are almost always significantly more expensive than non-organic products, and the benefits of organic food are often exaggerated. Just like the Green Revolution of the 1970s that brought pesticides, a new revolution could ensure that organic food becomes more and more available for more and more people, boosting public health and saving money in the long run by eliminating cancers and other health problems associated with pesticides (which can be very expensive to treat). 

Ultimately, agriculture is bound to be complex in our modern world, and the line between “good” and “bad” is not always as clear as we’d want it to be. This new study offers important information regarding the real benefits of organic foods, and while results will need to be confirmed in larger studies, it’s still important to consider these advantages.

Organic farming could actually be worst for global warming

Despite it may seem better for the planet, switching to fully organic food production would actually mean an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new study, which claimed that an organic production would require more land to produce the same amount of food.

Credit Wikimedia Commons

The study, published at Nature Communications, said a 100% organic food production in England and Wales would mean a 21% increase in emissions compared to the conventional approach on farming, now responsible for about 9% of UK’s overall emissions.

Organic farming avoids the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and genetically modified organisms, all of which can boost the number of crops produced per acre. Instead, organic farmers rely on things like animal manure and compost, and practices such as crop rotation, which involves growing different plants throughout the year.

Implementing such practices on a larger scale would see a drop in emissions of about 20% for crops and around 4% for livestock. However, the study predicts significant drops in food production by using organic standards, by around 40% compared to conventional farming.

Researchers said that organic production means smaller crop yields and the introduction of nitrogen-fixing legumes into crop rotations, reducing the amount of land available for production. So, crops like wheat would see falls in production and the volume of meat would go down.

To meet the demand for food, the shortfall would have to be made up of imports. The researchers assume that a proportion of these imports would have to come from changing land use overseas. Due to significantly lower productivity in other countries, this would require five times the amount of land that is currently used.

Converting grassland overseas to arable uses also reduces the amount of carbon stored in the soil. In the best-case scenario, with the least amount of land change, then overall emissions are comparable to those under conventional agriculture. However, if half the land is changed from grassland, then overall emissions from UK food production would go up by 21%.

“We estimate that, were organic farming to be adopted wholesale without any change in diet, we would need nearly six million more hectares of land,” said one of the authors, Philip Jones. “Much of which would need to come from Europe. This has an associated impact on the environment, adding potentially unnecessary food miles and greenhouse gas emissions to our food systems.”

There would be significant benefits for cleaner air and water and improved biodiversity under a fully organic farming future, the authors claimed. But critics of the study have focused on the fact that it presumes that there will be no change in people’s diets.

“The assumptions behind the study’s conclusion that there will be a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions under organic are fundamentally flawed,” said Rob Percival of the Soil Association. “The study assumes no change in diet, which is clearly untenable given the global dietary health crisis.”

The researchers involved in the study responded to these criticisms by underlining the fact that that wasn’t the goal of this piece of research.

“The assumption about diets is crucial: today’s organic consumers are a self-selecting group and not typical of the nation,” said co-author Dr. Adrian Williams from Cranfield University.

America’s “Organic Dynasty”

We are in the midst of a great revolution.

One needs only to look outside and see the new Whole Foods market being built in his/her town to understand what I’m talking about. In 1980, less than half a dozen existed across the United States. Today, there are over 470 stores.

Whole Foods Markets have been built in hundreds of American locations. (Photo by Mike Mozart / CC BY 2.0)

Millennials’ love of “organics”

The rise in popularity of non-GMOs and organics is largely credited to the food consciousness of millennials, who currently constitute the American workforce majority. As the food industry becomes increasingly transparent, the demand for foods adorned with “natural, organic, GMO-free” labels will continue to rise. And so will prices.

America and much of the world is currently undergoing a “craze” for organics.

But unlike previous generations, millennial customers are willing to pay premiums for. Although the benefits of a “purer” — and often times, more expensive — lifestyle are not always clear-cut, it is clear that America is in the midst of an “organic revolution”.

According to a February 2017 report, titled “The Future of Food. Are You Ready For The Millennials?”, more than two out of every three millennials (68% to be exact) are willing to pay the higher prices associated with organic foods. And although the health benefits definitely play a role in this generational preference, the transparency and feeling of health-consciousness that are tied to these benefits are perhaps the greatest drivers of this trend; according to the report, 84% of surveyors “felt” more health-conscious upon purchasing organic/natural-labeled foods.

The fall of Whole Foods, the rise of competitors

Whole Foods, an icon of the revolution, is known for its high food standards — striving to present only minimally processed, so-called natural foods. But it is now only a minute fragment of the movement’s bigger picture. In recent years, main competitors like Sprouts Farmers Markets and Trader Joe’s have quickly capitalized upon the “craze for organics” as well, expanding the market while simultaneously putting pressure on the now indistinguishable Whole Foods. Moreover, falling sales seem to have somewhat shaken the company by propelling several organizational changes and allowing Amazon’s recent $13.7 billion acquisition of the food giant.

As of 2018, it seems that Amazon’s summer 2017 merger with Whole Foods has largely been a success. (Photo by Miki Yoshihito / CC BY 2.0) 

Although a decrease in Whole Foods sales may seem worrisome at first, growth among the aforementioned “organic-selling markets” suggests that the organic industry — as a whole — is not actually diminishing. According to the most recent data (from 2017), the organic market continued to flourish along the same upward trajectory as of that in 2016.

A promising food sector

According to the Organic Trade Association (OTA), last year marked several new US sale records and the greatest amount of organic food consumers that the nation has ever seen. While the overall food market hovered around a rather static 0.6% growth rate, a 6.4% growth in organic food sales from an already incredibly successful previous year shows that the sector has already become dominant (5.3% of total food sales) and continues to progress.

Furthermore, the entire organic sector is not solely limited to food. Confirmed by the OTA,  Americans are not simply consuming more organics, they are using more organic products as well. The demand for organic care products and other plant-based products has resulted in a staggering 9% increase in product sales.

Despite how incredible the organic “Golden Age” may be, the organic industry must find new ways to keep the ball rolling. Although it was impressive, the aforementioned 6.4% organic sales growth rate was actually a decrease from 2016’s 9% growth rate.

The looming challenge

Unfortunately, the greatest threat to the organic sector’s current momentum lies in the industry’s producers: farmers. As demand continues to shoot upwards, supply simply cannot afford to dwindle. According to the OTA’s May 24th press release, OTA CEO Laura Batcha has proposed a solution.

“We need more organic farmers in this country to meet our growing organic demand,” says Batcha, “and the organic sector needs to have the necessary tools to grow and compete on a level playing field. That means federal, state and local programs that help support organic research, and provide the organic farmer with a fully equipped toolkit to be successful.”

It is comforting to know that qualified businesses and associations are proactively making sure that the organic dynasty continues – hopefully long enough so that the rising Gen-Z can reap its fruits too. Ultimately, however, the future is always full of uncertainty.

So, do yourself a favor right now: head over to your local organic market, buy yourself your favorite organic snack (kale chips — yum), sit back, and enjoy the dynasty.

Organic kale chips are a scrumptious, healthy snack. Enjoy! (Photo by Lou Stejskal / CC BY 2.0)

organic food vs conventional farming

Organic food requires 40% more land than conventional farming for the same carbon footprint

organic food vs conventional farming

Credit: Pixabay.

Many people are rightfully disappointed by how most conventional farmers grow food, which has springboarded a massive movement around ‘organic food’. This is supposedly food derived from crops and meat that’s been grown in a healthier and simpler manner, akin to how it was done in the good ol’ days before intensive agriculture. Because organic food has a smaller yield, buyers often have to pay a premium for the same amount of conventional-corporation-poisoned food — that’s a market worth $35 billion in the US. But is the price tag really worth it? Organic food buyers will tell you they’re not only providing themselves and family with healthier, better quality food — they’re also helping the environment. A recent study, however, suggests that’s not the case at all.

According to the study authored by Hanna Treu from Humboldt University of Berlin and colleagues, Germans who ate an organic diet required 40% more land to grow their food than those who ate a conventional diet. And in the end, the two diets had roughly the same carbon footprint.

These counter-intuitive findings can be explained by meat consumption. As we often write here at ZME, growing meat is the most unsustainable kind of agriculture, particularly beef, as it requires immense amounts of water, land, and feedstock. Organic meat even more. So, although the participants who ate a conventional diet consumed 45% more meat than those who preferred organic, their land use was far smaller.

german organic food

Credit: Clean Prod.

These findings aren’t at all surprising given a previous study which found organic farms have a 20% lower crop yield than conventional farms.

Sales of organic food have grown by 20 percent annually, and experts predict that the industry’s share of the U.S. food market is expected to grow from about 2 percent to roughly 3.5 percent by the end of the decade. About 10,000 American farmers have made the transition to organic food production on about 2.3 million acres of land, according to the USDA’s Economic Resources Service.

If all US wheat production were grown organically, an additional 12.4 million hectares (30.6 million acres) would be needed to match 2014 production levels. If you extrapolate these numbers for the rest of the world, it soon becomes clear that organic farming is unsuitable as a mainstream option.

Bearing this, as well as the higher costs, in mind, it seems unlikely ‘organic’ food will ever become the go-to choice for most Americans. There simply isn’t enough room to farm it and it might not even be worth it. That’s because contrary to popular opinion:

Journal reference: Hanna Treu, et al. “Carbon footprints and land use of conventional and organic diets in Germany.” J Clean Prod 161: 127-142. Published online: 2017.

Is organic food actually better? Here’s what the science says

It happens to all of us. You’re in the supermarket, you’re buying vegetables and produce, and you’re faced with the inevitable choice: regular or organic? It’s a surprisingly complex question, that carries a different significance for different people. For some, organic means healthier, or more nutritious. For others, it means eco-friendly, or tastier. It can mean clean, good, or just… more expensive. But several scientific studies and reports are starting to add up and show that organic food is not as good as most people think.

Higher price is not higher quality

file000426329881

The organic food industry was estimated at $29 billion in 2010, and since then, it’s grown by almost 10% a year; that seems to be a good thing. I mean, who doesn’t want healthier food that’s better for the environment? But let’s look at the economics. In March, a Consumer Reports analysis found that, on average, organic food is 47% more expensive than regular food. The USDA numbers are similar. Of course, organic food is a bit more expensive to make than regular food, but a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that it’s only 5-7% more expensive, so the price difference is not really justified; it also means that organic farming has become more profitable than regular farming. In other words, from a price point of view, organic has become a synonym for luxury.

Organic food is the fastest growing sector of the American food industry, and its price is just too high. But hey, it’s good for you, right?

Organic food and your health

Spoiler alert: there is very little scientific evidence to support any health benefits for organic products. In fact, there is growing evidence that a diet rich in organic products isn’t actually better for you.

“There’s a definite lack of evidence,” says researcher Crystal Smith-Spangler at Stanford University School of Medicine, especially when it comes to studies of people.

A 2009 meta-analysis (a study of other studies) said there was no nutrient difference in organic versus conventional foods. But that was one of the first major studies focusing on organic food – since then, we’ve had more and more researchers analyzing the situation… but they came up with similar results. A 2012 study found slightly higher phosphorus levels in the organic produce, and a 2014 study found higher antioxidant levels and lower cadmium levels in organic food. Those are good things, but the differences weren’t spectacular, and certainly don’t justify the price difference.

In 2012, another massive meta-analysis was published. A Stanford team analyzed 240 studies: 17 comparing populations consuming organic and conventional diets, and 223 studies that compared either the nutrient levels or the bacterial, fungal or pesticide contamination of various products (fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, milk, poultry, and eggs) grown organically and conventionally. They report little significant difference in health benefits between organic and conventional foods, as well as no consistent differences in the vitamin content of organic products. In fact, only one nutrient (again, phosphorous) was significantly higher in organic versus conventionally grown produce. Protein and fat content were also similar, although a significant difference was reported in organic milk, which contained higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

file0001540739117

“Some believe that organic food is always healthier and more nutritious,” said Crystal Smith-Spangler, MD, MS, an instructor in the school’s Division of General Medical Disciplines and a physician-investigator at VA Palo Alto Health Care System, who is also an instructor of medicine at the School of Medicine. “We were a little surprised that we didn’t find that.” It’s important to note that the research wasn’t funded by any company with an interest in organic or regular agriculture. As a matter of fact, the authors went on to underline the other benefits of organic farming – environmental and animal welfare benefits. “Our goal was to shed light on what the evidence is,” said Smith-Spangler. “This is information that people can use to make their own decisions based on their level of concern about pesticides, their budget and other considerations.”

 

Organic foods and the environment

This part was actually the most surprising for me. I was practically certain that organic food is more environmentally friendly and ethical than regular food – and in a way, it is. Organic animal farming is without a doubt more ethical and offers better life conditions for the animals. Organic principles and regulations are also designed to ensure that animals are treated humanely, or, to be brutally honest, as humanely as possible. There are strict rules on the way in which animals are housed, guaranteeing a degree of comfort for the animals. But when it comes to vegetables, the situation is quite different.

_DSC2817 (1)

The most discussed environmental advantage of organic foods is that they don’t have any chemical pesticides, but a 2010 study found that some organic pesticides can actually have a worse environmental impacts than conventional ones. You see, most people think organic food doesn’t involve any pesticides, but it does. When the Soil Association, a major organic accreditation body in the UK, asked consumers why they buy organic food, 95% of them said their top reason was to avoid pesticides. Also, because organic food is completely non-GMO and therefore some plants are less resistant, in some cases, more pesticides have to be used (organic pesticides, but still pesticides) — and the difference between organic pesticides and regular pesticides is not that big. In fact, it’s the fact that organic pesticides come from natural sources, and are not processed, but they sometimes contain the exact same substances as regular pesticides.

As evolutionary biologist Christie Wilcox explained in a 2012 Scientific American article (“Are lower pesticide residues a good reason to buy organic? Probably not.”): “Organic pesticides pose the same health risks as non-organic ones.”

But it’s not just pesticides – the entire environmental impact of organic crops is just as big (and sometimes bigger) than conventional farming – researchers at Oxford university analyzed 71 peer-reviewed studies and observed that organic products are sometimes worse for the environment. Organic milk, cereals, and pork generated higher greenhouse gas emissions per product than conventional ones but organic beef and olives had lower emissions in most studies.

Usually, organic products require less energy, but take up more land – 84% more land on average. Per unit of product, organic produce generates higher nitrogen leaching, nitrous oxide emissions, ammonia emissions and has more acidification potential. The yield is also generally lower (55% less in England, for example). Besides, a recent study found that because organic agriculture is now done mostly by big corporations instead of not local producers, and the lower yields combined with the intensive use of machinery means that overall, in terms of emissions and pollution, organic agriculture is usually worse than conventional.

Some studies have highlighted the potential of organic agriculture to stabilize and reduce soil erosion, but I haven’t been able to find a satisfying meta analysis.

Another disappointing aspect I found while researching this article is that organic farms (at least in the US) don’t really treat their workers that well.

“The exploitative conditions that farmworkers face in the US are abysmal—it’s a human-rights crisis,” Richard Mandelbaum, a policy analyst at the Farmworker Support Committee, told Grist. “In terms of wages and labor rights, there’s really no difference between organic and conventional.”

So, what should we do?

I’m not saying all organic food is bad — not at all. Buying and eating healthy, sustainable food is a main concern for me, and just like anyone else (perhaps even more so), I care a lot about what I eat. But the bottom line is that if you want healthier foods and minimize your environmental impact, you should buy local — whether it’s organic or not. Local produce is cost competitive with supermarkets, the goods will be fresher, less CO2 is emitted and local producers will generally be more than happy to answer any questions you might have. Besides, you’ll be promoting local businesses instead of the major corporations taking over organic farming.

I expect a massive hate train to follow this article, but I thoroughly encourage you to express your opinion and address us in the comment section. Just please, keep in mind that just because something is branded as healthy and eco-friendly doesn’t make it so. Keep an open mind and constantly challenge your beliefs with scientific evidence and facts. That’s what we strive to promote here.

EDIT: A study published after the original publication date of this article found that organic food is, on average, worse for the climate. The reason why organic food is so much worse for the climate is that the yields per hectare are much lower, primarily because fertilizers are not used. This leads to greater land use which in turn, increases carbon dioxide emissions.

organic-food

Organic label makes regular food taste better or about the “health halo effect”

organic-food

In a society that attempts to pass from an opulent attitude towards consumption to a much more temperate, health-centered one, biases can easily make their way through and distort reality. It’s quite easy too, considering the amount of confusion that seems to be floating in the air. A good example for this is the “health halo effect”, underlined by a recent study that found an organic label influenced most people who had participated into altering their views of the labeled products in a way that goes beyond their health benefits. Perceptions of calories, taste and nutritional value were biased in favor of the organically labeled product, despite the fact the competing product was no less, no more the same.

The health halo effect is term coined by researchers when describing the tendency people have of overestimating the healthfulness of a food based on one narrow attribute. In a rather worrisome twist, previous studies have shown that people actually consume more organic foods than they would have intended were they non-organic foods, like eating far more low-fat foods than they would the traditional version. For those of you tempted each day by this “organic” marketing ploy, here are a few things you should consider:

  • Organic foods are not necessarily (most of the time they aren’t) lower in calories and fat than nonorganic foods.
  • Snack foods, such as fruit chews, that are fortified with vitamins (most often vitamin C) are not worth the extra cost. Save money, and buy whole fruit. Fruit juice? Doesn’t stand a chance against whole fruit squeezed juice.
  • All cereals and crackers are cholesterol free, because they are grains. So of course they’re cholesterol free!
  • A food that contains no high-fructose corn syrup usually contains at least as much total sugar as other similar products.
  • And more… consider checking out the embedded video below for a fun, yet educational take on the organic food war.

Back to the present study at hand, researchers at  Cornell University’s Food, along with Brand Lab researchers Lee, Shimizu, Kniffin and Wansink, asked 115 random people at a local shopping mall in Ithaca, New York to sample, rate and discuss pairs of organically labeled and unlabeled products. As such 2 yogurts, 2 cookies and 2 potato chip portions were presented.  The participants were then asked to rate the taste and caloric content of each item, estimate how much they would be willing to pay for the items and complete a questionnaire inquiring about their environmental and shopping habits. Unbeknownst to the participants, however, each pair of products, one labeled as “organic”, the other as “regular”, were completely identical – both being organic.

[RELATED] Organic food might make people jerks

The findings suggest that the organic label dramatically influences people’s perception. The cookies and yogurt were estimated to have significantly fewer calories when labeled “organic” and people were willing to pay up to 23.4% more for them. Their nutritional value was also skewed as people rate cookies and yogurt as tasting ‘lower in fat’ than the “regular” variety, while the “organic” cookies and chips were thought to be more nutritious. Last, but not least taste buds were also fueled by the health halo effect, since  “organic” chips seemed more appetizing and “organic” yogurt was judged to be more flavorful. Again, all of these products were absolutely the same, the only thing that made an actual difference was the label.

The shopping habit questionnaire was especially enlightening, however, as it showed that not all people were fooled by the health halo effect. People who regularly read nutrition labels, those who regularly buy organic food, and those who exhibit pro-environmental behaviors (such as recycling or hiking) are less susceptible to the organic ‘health halo’ effect, the researchers found.

Examples in consumer goods bias are numerous, such as the cases with expensive beer, critics-ratted wine, hot chocolate in an orange mug, and so on. These are just a few that we actually reported on, the harsh reality is that our perception is greatly influenced and our attention is carefully directed towards certain directions by various organizations, companies and governments. This halo extends well beyond food – politics can be witnessed everywhere. A solution? Think for yourself and do your research!

The organic bias study was reported in a paper published in the journal Food Quality and Preference.

Organic food might make people jerks

Well the title may be a little over the top, but Loyola University psychologist concluded that people with a taste for organics are more likely to be insufferable, and that a type of diet might make you more judgmental.

The new study by Kendall Eskine claims that people who ate foods declared as organic tended to judge other people more harshly than other people with regular diets. In order to reach this conclusion, Eskine, who says he routinely kicks participants out of his research projects, organized subjects into three groups: organic food eaters, comfort food eaters and a control group.

He then exposed a ‘needy stranger’ to the three groups and found that the comfort food group helped the stranger for 24 minutes, the control group for almost 20 minutes, and the organic food group only helped him out for 13 minutes. Eksine explained that this happened because the last group felt they did what they could and shouldn’t do anything more, calling this “moral licensing” – when people put their judgmental thoughts above the needs of others.

The idea that organic food, or any type of diet, could alter personality in such a way doesn’t come as quite a surprise to some, but it was deemed as preposterous by many; still, it is already well know that the self-righteous are more likely to be stressed out about food, as the study explains, so it’s only a stretch to say that organic food eaters are more likely to develop a “holier-than-than-thou” sense of superiority.

However, the downside of the study is that it doesn’t explain causality: it’s not clear if bad tempered people might be more tempted to be into organic foods, or if people who eat organic foods may become more bad tempered. Hopefully, Eksine will sort this out as soon as possible.

Via Food Safety News