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While the controversy over whether organically grown food is healthier lingers, scientific research continues to demonstrate the health benefits to both humans and the environment of growing and consuming organic foods.
Food grown in healthier soil, with natural fertilizers and no harmful chemicals, is quite simply more nutritious and less dangerous to your health.
Detractors of organic farming rest on a meta-analysis published in 2012 by Stanford University, which found similar nutrients in both organically growth produce and those laden with pesticides and insecticides.1
That same study did admit organic foods were not burdened with antibiotic-resistant bacteria and pesticide residue, but stated these were the only benefits.
More recent analyses of organic foods also found similar levels of nutrients between organic and pesticide-treated crops,2 with lower pesticide residue on organic foods.3 However, the more recent studies also found lower levels of cadmium,4 a known carcinogen, and higher levels of antioxidants.5
Organic fruits and vegetables may contain as much as 18 percent to 69 percent more antioxidants than pesticide-treated produce. As antioxidants play a critical role in the prevention of diseases and illnesses, these higher levels of nutrients, in combination with a lower toxicity level, make organically grown foods a superior choice.
Eating Organic Has Long-Term Benefits
One of the strongest selling points for eating organic foods had been to reduce your exposure to pesticides and insecticides. Now, a recent study demonstrates that organic foods hold more benefits to your future health and the health of your children.
The study conducted by the European Parliamentary Research Service reviewed existing research and made several determinations.6
They also found those who ate organic foods tended to have healthier dietary patterns than those who ate foods treated with chemicals.
In other studies, researchers found epidemiological data demonstrating the negative effects of pesticide exposure on the cognitive development of children and determined these effects would be minimized eating organic foods, especially during pregnancy and during early infancy.
Another important finding, also supported by previous studies,8 was organic foods had lower cadmium content than conventional crops.9 There is no safe level of cadmium, as it is a known carcinogen and produces a number of negative effects on human health.
Your highest rate of exposure is from plant-based foods grown in contaminated soil or using certain fertilizers. Other sources include smoking and exposure to nickel-cadmium batteries.10
Once absorbed, your body efficiently retains cadmium, which can build up over your lifetime unless you take steps to remove it.11,12 Being deficient in calcium, iron, protein and/or zinc may worsen cadmium uptake and toxicity.
Cadmium is very toxic to your kidneys, may trigger bone demineralization and increases your risk of dying from lung cancer. It can also affect your blood pressure, prostate health and testosterone levels.14
Organically raised animals also reduce your exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria as the organic practice of preventing animal disease restricts the use of antibiotics in production. Minimizing your exposure to these bacteria may minimize your risk of illness and may have significant public health benefits.
Higher Antioxidant Levels in Organic Foods May Mitigate Disease Risk
Researchers have determined the levels of polyphenols in organically grown crops is significantly higher than those sprayed with pesticides.15 These higher concentrations of phenolic acids, flavones, stilbenes, flavonols and anthocyanins were estimated to be between 19 percent and 51 percent higher in one study.
These plant-based antioxidant compounds have been linked to the reduction in a number of different diseases, including cardiovascular disease,16,17 neurodegenerative conditions,18 cancers19,20 and slowing the aging process.21
Antioxidants are a class of molecule that are capable of inhibiting the oxidation of free radicals that cause damage in your body.
Some antioxidants can be produced by your body, but some are not and, as you age, your ability to produce those antioxidants declines. Antioxidants are crucial to your health and can be acquired through eating real foods. They are nature’s way of defending your body against an attack by reactive oxygen species (ROS).
Your body naturally circulates a variety of nutrients, such as vitamin C, vitamin E, carotenes and lipoic acid, to control the destructive chain reactions associated with ROS. Antioxidants are micronutrients that help your body resist the damage of pollutants and free radicals produced during metabolism.
Oxidative stress occurs when there are more free radicals and ROS in your body than antioxidant defenses, and leads to accelerated tissue and organ damage. Oxidative stress may also shorten the length of your telomeres, which researchers believe can be used as a measure of biological aging.
Antioxidants are present in higher quantities in fruits and vegetables that are organically grown and those eaten closer to the time they were harvested. This is why eating the majority of your fruits and vegetables raw, organically grown and locally harvested increases the number of nutrients from which you benefit.
Studies Indicate Other Advantages to Organic Foods
Researchers have also linked eating foods organically grown to even more health benefits, including a reduction in obesity and type 2 diabetes, two of the more common health concerns facing people today.22
Research has also linked an increase in allergic reactions to foods coated with pesticides in people who have not otherwise experienced food allergies.25 Exposure to specific weed-killing chemicals are associated with higher sensitivity to foods.26
Demand for organic foods is rapidly expanding. This demand is not limited to real foods, but also prepackaged and processed foods. In 2014, people around the world spent $72 billion on organic products.28
The largest organic market located in the U.S. recorded an 11.5 percent increase in 2015. Some make the decision to buy organic based on a concern for the environment, while others are focused on their personal long-term health benefits.
Even Record Growth Not Meeting Consumer Demand for Organic Food
This continued growth provides incentive for U.S. farmers to enter the market. Organic foods are sold through direct-to-consumer sales, conventional groceries and natural health food stores.
Produce accounted for 43 percent of organic food sales in 201229 with 93 percent of all sales taking place through conventional and natural food stores.
Securing a supply chain that supports demand includes ensuring more organic acreage and helping farmers transition from conventional produce farming to organic.
As more consumers become interested in eating a healthier diet and more willing to pay for higher-quality foods, smaller markets are carving out a niche in the marketplace.
It is anticipated that the growth of the organic food market will reach $1 trillion in 2017.31 This increase in sales is helping successfully launch small companies providing products to meet consumer demand.
Angel investors and venture capitalists are also taking advantage, investing more than $2 billion in 2015.32 Despite the growth in organic sales, the number of certified organic farms in the U.S. are finding it challenging to keep pace with the demand. As fewer than 1 percent of American farms were certified organic in 2012, the availability for growth in this field is wide open.33
Foreign suppliers provided $134 million in organic soybeans in 2014, prompting U.S. Congress to expand their support for organic farming and double their funds for the Organic Certification Cost Share Program.34
A recent report found 17 of the top 20 grocer retailers are not meeting the increased consumer demand for organic, pesticide-free foods.35 The same report also revealed food retailers don’t publish a publicly available policy to reduce or eliminate pesticides that impact the growth of pollinators, the largest group of which are bees.
What Does an Organic Label Mean?
” … [P]roduced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.
Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.
Before a product can be labeled ‘organic,’ a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.”
Without certification, products are not allowed to display the USDA organic seal.38 However, a certified organic product may contain a mix of conventionally grown and organic ingredients depending upon the labeling.39 This mix of pesticide-laden ingredients with organically grown ones may negate many of the benefits of eating organic foods. The easiest answer is to avoid processed fare, and cook from scratch, so you know exactly what you’re eating.
One of the benefits to the environment from organic farming and the reduction in pesticide use is the impact on the bee population, pollinators necessary to the growth of crops and plants. Tiffany Finck-Haynes, from Friends of the Earth, and lead author of the paper studying top retailers and organic foods, commented:40
“Without bees and other pollinators, our supermarket shelves would be pretty bare and empty. And they’re an indicator species, so they’re really telling us that their decline is most likely resulting in a larger decline that we’re seeing for the rest of the species in our ecosystem.”
Organic Farming Improves Soil Biodiversity
This video demonstrates sustainable agriculture techniques used on the Allison Farm in Illinois. Another benefit to the environment is soil biodiversity, or the species, genes and entire communities of life that exists within the soil. If you think these tiny creatures aren’t important to your health, the nutrient value of the food grown in the soil and to your children’s future health, think again. Here are a few fun facts about soil:41
A meta-analysis of over 250 studies found that organic farming increased species richness in the soil by 30 percent, and this number has been consistent over the past 30 years of study.42 In fields that were intensely farmed, organic farming had a greater effect on the biodiversity of the land. This analysis of research confirmed that organic farming has a positive effect on biodiversity compared to conventional farming.