Organic Foods

Organic Foods

Organic food is produced according to a variety of standards and practices that strive to recycle resources and to be ecologically sound.  Production, importation and sale of organic foods is increasing rapidly in the U.S. reaching nearly 5% of food sold and valued at $43.3 billion in 2015.  Typically, organic food is produced without the use of certain pesticides and fertilizers that are considered or known to be environmentally harmful and they are not processed with food additives or genetically modified ingredients.  However, under U.S. federal organic standards, if pests and weeds are not controllable through natural management practices, or by organic pesticides and herbicides, "a substance included on the National List of synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production may be applied to prevent, suppress, or control pests, weeds, or diseases."  Livestock must be fed certified organic food that contains no animal byproducts, have liberal access to pasture and the use of antibiotics (except for illnesses) or growth hormones is not allowed.  Avoiding use of antibiotics reduces the chance of developing dangerous antibiotic resistant “super bugs.”

Organic Certification
The advertising and marketing of foods labeled to be organic requires certification in many countries including, the United States, Canada, Mexico, the European Union and Japan.  In the United States, the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program is responsible for the legal definition of organic and organic certification according to four different categories of organic labeling:

  1. ‘100%’ Organic
  2. ‘Organic’ (at least 95% organic ingredients)
  3. ’Made With Organic Ingredients' (at least 70% organic ingredients), and
  4. ‘Less Than 70% Organic Ingredients.’ 

Organic vs "Natural" or "All Natural" Foods
In the U.S., if food products claim to be "natural" or "all natural" on their label it does not mean that they were produced and processed organically.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate the use of the term natural on labels and has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. However, the food may contain antibiotics, growth hormones, other similar chemicals, and genetically modified products.  And the term is not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, or food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation. The bottom line is that the term natural of a label is mainly an advertising stratagem, it does not mean very much. 

Organic vs Conventionally-Farmed Foods
Because organic food production restricts the use of certain chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides there is the perception that it may be safer, healthier and better for the environment.  It is generally not recognized by the public that edible plants have evolved natural pesticides as a defense against insects and other hazards and exposure to natural pesticides is usually much greater than the total daily exposure to synthetic pesticide residues.  Because the toxicology of natural and synthetic chemicals is similar, and the human body detoxifies these chemicals similarly, the scientific case for an advantage for the health and safety of organic foods over those produced with conventional farming methods is far from conclusive.  A 2012 meta-analysis noted that "there have been no long-term studies of health outcomes of populations consuming predominantly organic versus conventionally produced food controlling for socioeconomic factors; such studies would be expensive to conduct."[1] The American Cancer Society has stated that no evidence exists that the small amount of pesticide residue found on conventional foods will increase the risk of cancer, though it recommends thoroughly washing fruits and vegetables. They have also stated that there is no research to show that organic food reduces cancer risk compared to foods grown with conventional farming methods.

Organic foods also appear to provide little advantage with regard to taste, or nutritive value, or freedom from harmful bacteria.  Several systematic reviews have found that organically produced foodstuffs are not significantly richer in vitamins and minerals than conventionally produced foodstuffs.  One such review concluded that "there is no good evidence that consumption of organic food is beneficial to health in relation to nutrient content."[2]

Other recent reviews have been more positive about possible benefits of organic foods noting that although there is little evidence of beneficial effects on human health, animal studies have found that there are positive effects of an organic diet on weight, growth, fertility indices and immune system.  In addition, human epidemiological studies associated consumption of organic foods with lower risks of allergies and decreased exposure to pesticide residues.  Some studies have found that there is neurotoxicity associated with pesticides in farmworker communities including subtle but important effects on neurological development including reduced IQs. [3][4][5][6]

Although more costly than conventionally produced foodstuffs, organically produced foods may offer some advantages if they are fresh or minimally processed.  Organic produce contains fewer pesticide residues than does conventional produce so consuming a diet of organic produce reduces human exposure to pesticides and, in keeping with the precautionary principal that is desirable.  But the value of such a reduction in exposure to human health remains uncertain.  Organically produced foods are also likely to be better for the environment than those produced by conventional farming practices and undoubtedly they contribute to animal welfare.[7]

Endnotes and Links

[1]Smith-Spangler, C; Brandeau, ML; Hunter, GE; Bavinger, JC; Pearson, M; Eschbach, PJ; Sundaram, V; Liu, H; Schirmer, P; Stave, C; Olkin, I; Bravata, DM (September 4, 2012). "Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives?: a systematic review.". Annals of Internal Medicine. 157 (5): 348–366. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-157-5-201209040-00007. PMID 22944875.

[2]A. Dangour, S.K. Dodhia, A. Hayter, E. Allen, K. Lock, R. Uauy, Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review, Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 90 (2009) 680–685.

[3]Holzman, David C. "PESTICIDES. Organic Food Conclusions Don't Tell the Whole Story." Environmental Health Perspectives Vol. 120, No. 12 , P. A458. 24 Mar. 2017. Web. 24 Mar. 2017.

[4]Huber M, Rembiałkowska E, Srednicka D, Bügel S, van de Vijver LPL. Organic food and impact on human health: Assessing the status quo and prospects of research. NJAS - Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences 58 (2011) 103– 109.

[5]Bellinger DC. A strategy for comparing the contributions of environmental chemicals and other risk factors to neurodevelopment of children. Environ Health Perspect 120(4):501–507 (2012). http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1104170

[6]Vandenberg LN, et al. Hormones and endocrine-disrupting chemicals: low-dose effects and nonmonotonic dose responses. Endocr Rev 33(3):378–455 (2012). http://dx.doi.org/10.1210/er.2011-1050

[7]Forman J, et al. Organic foods: health and environmental advantages and disadvantages. Pediatrics 2012, 30(5):e1406–e1415.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1542/peds.2012-2579

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