Does organic mean healthier?

The answers on organics may just surprise you

By Michael Downey

Does organic mean healthier?

Like a growing number of Canadians, Jennifer Kavur shops regularly for organic groceries. She buys organic tomatoes, lettuce, apples and many other items. And the 31-year-old Toronto editor pays dearly for them: $2.99 for a head of organic cauliflower compared to the conventionally grown version, which costs just 99 cents. Her reasoning for spending more? "It's better for you, healthier. You don't get all those pesticides."

Organic food is still a niche market, representing just over two percent of all food sold. According to Consumer Reports, it costs consumers on average about 50 percent more than conventionally grown foods. But organic food is more visible today than ever before, with most large supermarket chains in Canada now offering dedicated organic sections.

A reason for the surge in popularity in organic foods? Like Kavur, most Canadians say they buy organic because it's healthier, according to an ACNielsen survey. But are they right?

Eighty-five percent of organic food sold in Canada is grown in the United States. Wherever grown, no food - whether organic or conventional - can be sold in Canada unless it meets Canadian standards for legal pesticides and for residue limits. Says Health Canada's Paul Duchesne, "Our main interest is to ensure that both types of food are safe to consume."

Organic food is brought to market according to the National Standard of Canada for Organic Agriculture, principles "that endorse production and management practices that contribute to the quality and sustainability of the environment and ensure the ethical treatment of livestock." One of the main differences is supposed to be that organic produce is not sprayed with synthetic pesticides.

Yet, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) says, "the term organic is not synonymous with pesticide-free." Several large U.S. studies have found traces of synthetic pesticides on as much as 25 percent of organic foods. (There have been no similar major studies done on organic foods in Canada, but the CFIA found that ten percent of all Canadian-grown produce - conventional and organic - had pesticide residues.)

Some of those residues found on organic food may be due to "uncontrolled contamination," says Andy Hammermeister of the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada at Nova Scotia Agricultural College in Truro. That could be the result of the wind blowing synthetic pesticides onto organic crops, prior use of synthetic pesticides on the land, old or used spraying equipment, and so on. But it's not always by accident that pesticides end up on organic foods. "Most people don't realize that organic farmers are allowed to use a wide array of natural, non-synthetic chemicals as pest killers," says Alex Avery, director of research and education at the Centre for Global Food Issues, a United States-based Hudson Institute group that researches agricultural and environmental concerns. Many conventional farmers, meanwhile, are actually using less pesticide. In Ontario, for example, pesticide application has dropped by 50 to 60 percent overall since 1983, according to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture.

And just because pesticides are natural doesn't mean they aren't toxic. The natural pesticide rotenone, for instance, found in a number of plants, causes Parkinson's symptoms when injected into rats. Pyrethrum, derived from dried chrysanthemum heads, has been classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as having "suggestive evidence of carcinogenicity." For humans, Avery says, "the natural poisons pose the same theoretical, but remote, dangers as the synthetic."

But consumers need not be alarmed by pesticide residues, natural or synthetic, left behind on both organically and conventionally grown produce. For one thing, most comes off en route from the farm to your shopping cart – in the process of trimming, shipping and washing. According to Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California, Davis, washing alone removes from 70 to 99 percent of pesticide residues. After washing, any traces left are minute. In fact, we're exposed, on average, to only about 0.9 milligrams of synthetic pesticides daily.

Compare that to our daily consumption of built-in pesticides that all plants produce naturally: roughly 1,500 milligrams a day. "And the proportion of nature's pesticides that cause cancer in rodents is the same as for synthetic pesticides," says Bruce Ames, a bio-chemistry and molecular-biology professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

What about what's left after processing and washing? According to Peter MacLeod, executive director of crop protection chemistry at CropLife Canada, a trade association of various biotech and pest-control industries, the safety margins when testing pesticides are huge. First, a "harmless dose" - the greatest amount that can be ingested without adverse effects. "Then pesticides are approved in amounts that ensure no one receives over one one-hundredth to one one-thousandth of that harmless dose, based on a worst-case scenario of maximum exposure from all possible sources," explains MacLeod.

Such rigorous testing means very few pesticides ever make it all the way through to approval: After an average of nine years of testing, only one active pesticide ingredient is ultimately approved out of every 140,000.

Far more dangerous than pesticides is E. coli, which a University of Minnesota study published in the Journal of Food Protection in 2004 found to be more prevalent in organic produce than in conventional. The study looked at 32 organic and eight conventional farms. It found the overall presence of E. coli in the organic produce tested "was approximately sixfold greater than in conventional fruits and vegetables." And unlike pesticides, washing doesn’t remove the E. coli threat.

So when you're calculating your grocery budget and trying to determine whether to spend more on organics, consider this: Both the United Kingdom's Food Standards Agency and its counterpart in France have found no proof of greater safety or nutrients in organic food. In fact, the United Kingdom's advertising industry gives these guidelines to organic-food marketers: Unless they can show convincing evidence that organic food is healthier, safer or tastes better than conventionally grown food, they should not make those claims. The bottom line: If you're buying organic because you assume it's better for you, you might just be wasting your money.

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Adapted from Reader's Digest Canada; March 2008

Average: 3 (12 votes)