Why buy organic? My answer to a critic.

| 11/14/2011 1:29:04 PM

Tags: health benefits of organic versus non-organic, Cole Ward,

 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. 

t brandt
3/3/2012 12:10:40 PM

I'm trying to ease your worries, not argue with you. Actually breast ca rates are declining in the US, possibly due to decling use of est/prog BCPs. E+ ca rates have risen minimally over the past 8 yrs after declining over many yrs before that- too short a period & small a change to mean much now. Links posted here never work, so try going here: http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/723593 & searching for articles on genetics & rate of breast ca. The BRCA genes are well known, but there are many others with more being found all the time.... My point is this: if you have the genetics predisposing you to estrogen sensitive ca, and you're a woman (ie- hi estrogen levels naturally) then that minute bit of estrogen you get from food doesn't make any difference. You have more important things to worry about.

liz vermeersch
3/3/2012 12:02:43 AM

As I said T Brandt, there are now several studies on this specifically because it HAS been increasing. Obviously any cause of cancer will most likely have complex causes involving both genetics AND environment. Saying that "its probably genetically determined" doesn't really mean much unless you have some substantiated data.

t brandt
3/2/2012 11:23:44 PM

sorry- didn't come back to this site 'til now to see your post. DM-Diabetes mellitus CT- Computed Tomography ("cat scan") MI-Myocardial Infarction ("heart attack") CAD-Coronary Artery Disease CABG-Coronary artery bypass graft

t brandt
3/2/2012 11:19:16 PM

Sorry to hear about your problem, Liz. We don't really know that receptor pos. breast ca is increasing because we've only known about it for 20 yrs or so. It's probably genetically determined. The estrogen in your food is probably way too low to be of any consequence. As I said above, beef grown with estogen has only 1/16th the amount as found in "natural" potatoes. Soy is also fairly high in estrogen compared to other foods, but again, very low compared to a woman's own natural levels.

liz vermeersch
3/2/2012 10:14:09 PM

"Just estrogen" that is used as growth hormones is now the object of studies to find the large increase in cases of hormone-receptor positive breast cancer in younger women. I don't know the specific cause of my breast cancer, but I do know I'd prefer to limit the additional estrogen (natural or otherwise) that I ingest.

tony davidson
1/14/2012 3:43:20 AM

This would be more interesting if we spoke plain English. What is DM, CTs, MI, CAD, etc. for us plain folk at Mother Earth News?

bruce mcelmurray
11/30/2011 1:50:37 PM

I can verify that it tastes and looks different. When I was a child we used to buy our chickens from a local farmer. One time he gave me a chicken which I raised as my pet. That chicken used to lay an egg for me every day and I would have it for breakfast before I went to school. Eggs never tasted better...and it sure was different looking than the store bought eggs you get now. Back then just about everything was organic before organic became so well known. Bring a warm egg in your hand into the house, put it in a pan and yum - so good.

susan mesmer-gurnee
11/29/2011 7:15:47 PM

I'm not much of a writer, but over the last 9 to 10 years I have worked side by side with a organic farmer who happens to be 83 years young. She has taught me a lot about the choice of vegetables and meat that is organically grown. Which is all grown on their farm. Put a fresh organic egg next to the store bought and the difference between the color of the yolk is amazing. The taste of any of the foods that I get from the farm is so much better than store bought. Did I mention the fresh honey that she extracts from her own hives. Take time to compare. Yes it may cost a few penny's more but in the long run it's so much better for you, and the taste that your not going to find in a grocery store.

heather phillips
11/16/2011 10:15:15 PM

This is a fascinating debate. I really appreciate the scholarly and respectful dialogue. Please don't let this drop. :)

t brandt
11/16/2011 12:25:44 PM

Antibiotic resistance of concern to humans is caused by over-use of antibiotics in humans, not animals. Those toxic strains of E.coli, for instance, are found in all of us, just in low enough numbers that they don't usually cause problems. I like your take on the relationship of envro & gen factors: you're thinking things thru from all sides. But my point is that those without the genetic make up for DM can eat all the calories they want with impunity. They won't get DM. Those with the genes often didn't show the disease back in the 50s before govt subsidies lowerd the price of food and people stayed skinnier.. Now cheap food and easily available, hi-carb fast food is eaten excessively and the DM shows itself. It's not that modern food is "bad." Our eating habits have become bad. BTW- improved tech & increased awareness are making many diseases "more common" now than previously. When I was a student, before fiber optic scopes & CTs, 90% of all colon ca was found in reach of the examining finger-- if you couldn't reach it, you couldn't diagnose it. Now only 1% of colon ca is rectal. Has the rate gone down, or just that higher colon ca is now found easily and accounts for the bulk of the new diagnoses? Up until CABG became common, a man's 6th decade was often his last: the "age of thecoronary."(Life expectancy was only 63 yrs when Medicare went into effect in 1966.) He didn't live long enough to get cancer. Now, he doesn't die at age 55 of MI, but lives long enough to show cancer eventually. Are the actual rates increasing, or just the opportunity, dependent on longevity, to develope it? You also make a good point about adaptation to diet. Paleontogists show us that humans seemed to show more traumatic injuries, but less skeletal disease prior to the development of agriculture 7000y/a. And there's copious evidence that "the caveman diet" may be the healthiest for us: more meat & less carbs.

11/16/2011 1:55:41 AM

Respectfully, you could just as easily say DM and CAD are determined by diet and aggravated by genetics....... some cancers are rising even after age is accounted for......... antibiotic use in animals is irresponsible regardless of whether we end up eating them given it allows the creation of superbugs........and for a new topic; much food organically grown is not as ideal for our body as some would believe, given domesticated plants and animals have been around for only a blink of time, a blink so brief our bodies have not had a chance to adapt to it. But, what do I know since I am only a medical student? ;)

t brandt
11/15/2011 11:58:11 PM

Cole, I was that critic and my objection to your article was that you implied industrialy produced food is bad for us. I submit that we have no evidience of that: we are bigger and stronger (due to the low price of food allowing us to afford more protein & calories). We do live longer ( you're right: it's due to better hygeine & technology). The food quality has nothing to do with It one way or the other-- that's the whole point. In producing meat, antibiotics and "growth hormones" are used to increase efficiency ( the weight to feed ratio). The antibiotics are washed out prior to slaughter and never make it into the food. The "growth hormones" are just estrogens and the natural estrogen in a serving of potatoes is 16x (!) higher than in 4oz of commercial beef. "Organically" grown food has lower cost input than industrial (no addded chemicals to buy) but does have a lower yield, so the price per lb must be higher for the producer to earn as much per acre. I've gardened organically for 50 yrs and have dabbled in producing grass-finished beef and free-range chickens for eggs for the past couple yrs. I do it becasue it pleases me to be (nearly) self-sufficient and the self satisfaction of working with Nature. It's good for our mental health, but having also practiced medicine for 40 yrs I can assure you, not any better for our physical health. Those lucky enough to be able to raise their own food should rejoice for these personal reasons; those not able should not fret that their health is in danger. BTW- DM & CAD are genetically determined and not "caused" by diet (although they are aggravated by excess calorie intake). Cancer rates are seen to be rising because early CAD deaths are falling- you gotta die of something-- nobody gets out of this alive ;-)

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