A reader recently criticized one of my blogs, objecting to certain of my comments about commercial meat processing practices. He wrote: “organic food is not any healthier than commercial food”, and that modern food raising/processing practices are much of the reason why we are “bigger, stronger and healthier than ever before”.
I beg to differ. We are taller (although this depends on which of today’s populations you are using as a benchmark, as well as which century you are comparing us with).
But the reasons for this involve a variety of things which have little to do with food (other than being able to afford it): modern medicine, work weeks substantially shorter than those of our great-grandparents, more stringent environmental and manufacturing regulations (consider the 19th century “phossy jaw” phenomenon or the prevalent illness and deaths caused by the ubiquitous use of arsenic during the 19th century, etc.)
I could go on; there are many examples of environmentally-linked illness in earlier centuries, especially during industrialization. Fact is that the average height of a population has been shown to correlate to factors such as climate change, the growth of cities, war and population cycles.
That takes care of “bigger and stronger”. What about healthier? Looking at America, I’d say no. We’re certainly are bigger (as in, fatter) than we ever have been. Those of you who have travelled in Europe and Asia may have felt – well – kinda fat, right? Food have anything to do with that? You betcha.
My critic wrote that “organic food is not any healthier than commercial food…the differences in nutrient levels in organic meat vs commercial is only discernable in the test tube and has little clinical significance.”
To some degree, he’s right – if what you’re assessing is restricted to nutrient value. There is little difference in measured nutrient value between organic and non-organic food. But my concern is not the relative nutritional content of the food itself, it’s the effect of non-nutritional elements added to commercial products, such as growth hormones, chemical additives, flavor enhancers, fertilizers, insecticide residues, waxes, and so on. These are added to the production cycle to increase growth rate (and thus muscle) in animals, produce a product that is visually attractive and uniform in size and color (fruits and vegetables), increase yield and prevent insect damage (grains and vegetables), etc.
So let me go back to my previous question: are we healthier? I don’t think so. True, we no longer suffer from smallpox or once-common childhood killers like diptheria, or the numerous diseases caused by incorrect handling of industrial products. But what we see now are almost epidemic levels of diet- or environment-related diseases like diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer.
And one last response to my critic, who wrote that “organic food actually costs less to produce: no chemicals, no hormones.” This is nonsense. It costs much more to produce meat “organically”, simply because without the use of hormones to artificially boost growth, it takes an animal longer to reach slaughtering size. And it is extremely challenging to grow marketable organic fruits and vegetables without chemical fertilizers. Just ask any farmer.
I for one, will always opt for naturally-raised, organic products whenever I’m offered a choice. And I believe you should too.
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