Published in Modern Athletic Health
When you walk into your grocery store, I’m sure you’ve noticed dozens of items labeled as “organic,” from fruits and vegetables, to meat and dairy, to frozen waffles and peanut butter, and everything in between. You’ve probably also noticed that with that nice “Certified Organic” label comes a pretty big hike in the price, with organic food sometimes priced as high as 25 to 50% more than conventional option (that is, non-organic food cultivated through standard farming practices). Regardless of the added cost, 45% of Americans reported that they will go out of their way to buy organic when possible, and, a pleasant surprise to this researcher, over 50% of younger adults, aged 18 to 29, are choosing organic every opportunity they have, be that in the grocery store, at restaurants, or by going to farmer’s markets.
But with the notable added expense, and sometimes added effort required, why are so many people making the choice to go the organic route? There are a lot of concerns people have reported: pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones added to their foods; a general consensus that conventional foods have fewer vitamins and minerals; concerns about genetically modified organisms (GMOs); environmental worries; the fear of developing cancer or other diseases; the list goes on and on. If I were to address all the concerns voiced by consumers, this would no longer be an article, but an entire book. A series of books, perhaps! So we’re going to narrow it down.
First of all, for the sake of time, I am only going to address the issue of organic food. I am not going to discuss GMOs, as that’s a whole different article (or, again, book, or series of books). And, since I am primarily a healthcare provider, I am only going to directly address the health concerns relating to organic foods, and mostly bypass the environmental piece. It’s a very important aspect, but one we just don’t have time for right now. So I’m going to talk to you about a few important factors (and the science behind them) that you need to know when choosing what kind of food to buy.
Let’s start by talking about produce. The first thing most people think of when considering organic fruits and veggies is the pesticides that are sprayed all over your food. Go organic, avoid toxic chemical agents. Easy peasy. But did you know that organic produce is not pesticide-free? While their usage is closely monitored by governing bodies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), farmers who conform to “Certified Organic” labeling regulations can still use some pesticides. Pesticides that are made from naturally occurring materials (barring more dangerous toxic ingredients, like arsenic), or even some synthetic substances, if they are blended with natural elements and considered “only very slightly toxic,” can be used on “organic” crops. So pesticides are still used on organic produce, but only mildly toxic ones. But it’s not only about content; it’s about scale. Studies looking into pesticide use on organic produce have shown that, since organic-approved pesticides are more gentle, farmers have to use a lot more of them to keep bugs away than if they were using standard pesticides on conventional crops. When I say a lot more, I mean a lot! Up to 10 times more! Even mildly toxic ingredients become much more concerning as they increase in quantity.
But let’s take a step back and ask a fairly obvious question: do conventional pesticides actually have negative health effects? Can they make us sick? There are thousands of articles, reports, and studies across the internet with varying answers. But if you exclude all the articles by people with no legitimate scientific background or those with an obvious bias (such as promoting their personal career, like organic farmers writing about the benefits of organic food, or pesticide companies reporting the safety of their products), things become a bit clearer. To summarize: sources ranging from the World Health Organization (WHO) to the National Institute of Health (NIH) have assessed the toxic nature of various pesticides in various forms and found that, on conventional foods, the level of toxicity is not a concern for human consumption in standard volumes. However, most experts also voice a word of caution: because of the complexity and diversity of this topic, from the wide variety of types of pesticides, to quantities used, to individual human health concerns, more research is needed to fully understand the short and long term effects of pesticides on our health.
Another important thing to note is that even pesticides that are very low toxicity when ingested by adults in small quantities on fruits or vegetables can be extremely dangerous when inhaled in large quantities. While, as a consumer, this is not something you would ever have to worry about, the farmers and farmhands who are hired to care for the plants are directly affected by this. Spraying hundreds (or thousands) of gallons of pesticides over acres of produce can cause extreme health problems in those in close proximity. While protective gear is provided, it is not always fully effective. There is also the large concern about the effects of these extremely large quantities of pesticides on the communities surrounding the farms. The airborne poisons can drift into the surrounding areas for children and families to breathe in, unprotected. It can seep into groundwater, affect crops and animals in nearby areas, and create a laundry-list of other concerns. Families living near conventional farms that use large amounts of pesticides report significantly higher rates of cancers and other diseases than those who do not live in conventional farming communities.
Another big concern about organic food has nothing to do with fruits and veggies, and everything to do with meat, eggs, and dairy products. “Organic” in this category of food means that antibiotics and growth-promoting hormones are not administered at any point while raising the animals, the animals are raised in organic pastures and fed only organic grains and feed, and they must also have unrestricted outdoor access. It’s also important to mention that simply adhering to these standards are not enough to be certified as “Organic” -- there is a testing and verification process in place through the USDA to ensure quality. So what’s the problem with hormones and antibiotics?
My biggest concern, as a healthcare provider and a consumer of dairy products, is that surprisingly little research has been done on the effects of antibiotics and growth hormones on human health. Because of this, and because of the somewhat emotional nature of the topic of the consumption of animal products, there’s a lot of misinformation, or skewed perspectives, which are perpetrated by the food industry, vegan activist organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and even well-meaning individuals. As always, I am going to disregard the bias, and take a serious look at what properly conducted scientific studies have to say.
The FDA and the food industry maintain that the approved hormones used in animals for conventional meat, eggs, and dairy are safe for human consumption. However, in 1995, the Journal of Clinical Oncology stated that consuming foods with Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1) may be connected to an increased risk of certain types of cancer. In 2015 a study was published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) in correlation with the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institute of Health (NIH) which examined the connection between hormones in milk collected from cows treated with growth hormones and disease in humans, and they concluded that growth hormones in the food we consume “could be counted as an important risk factor for various cancers in humans.” However, another study published through the same resources noted that if the animal is provided with proper veterinary care throughout its life, these added hormones are not harmful to humans.
There’s also some concern about hormones (specifically estrogen) affecting early pubescent changes in children. The amount of estrogen in the meat of a hormone-treated cow is far less than what the adult body naturally produces -- over 100,000 times less. However, for children who are not yet creating these hormones on their own, even a small amount introduced to their system can have notable effects. It is not fair, however, to say that hormone-treated meat and dairy are the sole cause of the rise in early puberty. There are many other factors that we won’t get into here, but it is important to bear in mind that very, very rarely is one health condition or other concern caused by one singular trigger. Our health requires a much more holistic approach. With that in mind, your choice to consume hormone-free meat or not can be one important piece in that puzzle.
For nearly 40 years now, there has been a debate about administering antibiotics to animals whose meat or other products we consume. Most conventional farmers insist that the use of antibiotics in their animals is mandatory to keep them healthy and provide consumers with the large quantities of inexpensive meat they demand. But researchers are concerned that the consumption of antibiotics in our animal products is creating antibiotic-resistant germs that can cause serious diseases in humans. A study funded by the National Institute of Nursing Research analyzed the effects of antibiotic-treated foods on the potential increase of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans. Their consensus, after extensive research, was that antibiotic use in animals used as food is currently one of the leading causes of antibiotic resistance -- a very large health concern -- and necessitates additional research into the further-reaching potential medical impacts. This concern is echoed by dozens of other reports by doctors and researchers worldwide. The rise of antibiotic resistant pathogens is a major concern, and it is becoming clear that antibiotic-treated meat and dairy products are a chief culprit.
I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to point out that obtaining the Certified Organic seal obviously requires adhering to strict requirements, but it also costs a lot of money. For many small farmers, it’s far more than they can afford. Many conventional farmers, or at least farmers who do not hold the Certified Organic title, actually do adhere to a lot of organic farming practices, such as crop rotation, using organic-approved pesticides, feeding animals organic feed, avoiding the use of antibiotics and growth hormones, and providing livestock unlimited outdoor access. In fact, many of your local farmers probably far surpass the requirements laid out by the FDA and USDA for organic food. But due to the high cost, or other stipulations which make it very difficult if not impossible for the small business to obtain certification, they cannot legally label their food as such.
If you do most of your grocery shopping at the supermarket, then the organic certification might be very important to you. It assures you that at least minimal organic standards have been met. But if you really want to know how your food was grown or raised, hit up your local farmers markets and talk to the people actually growing or raising the food. Ask questions about what matters to you, whether it’s hormone usage, pesticide variety and quantity, animal habitat, what have you. While most of them probably don’t have that fancy-schmancy certification, you will probably find that many of their farming practices greatly surpass what organic certification would require.
The verdict is that you have to choose for yourself whether or not buying organic produce, meat, and dairy is worth the expense for you and your family. But hopefully now you can at least make a (more) educated choice! I personally grow a lot of my own food and shop local as often as possible, but when I do buy food from the market, I always choose organic.
These facts and opinions are those of a certified Master Herbalist, Reiki Master Teacher, and a Natural Health Consultant, and are for educational purposes only, and not intended to replace consult with your healthcare practitioner.
If you have any questions or concerns about anything in this article, please contact me or your natural healthcare practitioner immediately.