Organic foods. Better or not?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

July 2010

From the Stone Age to the middle of the 19th century everything that humans ate was organic. It was a world in which food was produced without the use of pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics or other chemicals. The Second Agricultural Revolution began with factory-produced nitrogen. It accelerated when machine power replaced horse power. Chemicals killed bugs and weeds, crop yields soared and agriculture has never been the same.

Although modern agricultural methods relieved hunger for millions, they have brought us a new kind of malnutrition. Is the organic food movement the solution?

"USDA Organic" means that single ingredient foods such as meat, milk, cheese, fruits and vegetables must be 100 percent organic, that is, with no synthetic ingredients; foods with multiple ingredients must be at least 95 percent organic. A food that "contains organic ingredients" might be 70 percent or less organic.

Most consumers have two concerns: safety and nutritional value. The possibility that cancer and birth defects might occur as a result of eating fruits and vegetables that have been sprayed with noxious chemicals is quite small. After fifty years of investigation and thousands of publications there is a growing consensus that insecticides and weedkillers are dangerous at high doses but not at the low levels at which they occur in the produce bin. Some chemicals simply degrade spontaneously over time and render themselves harmless. Washing can effectively lower the burden of contaminants. Finally, the human body — or more specifically, the liver — has evolved to break down some toxic chemicals, including those that occur naturally in plants, to harmless by-products.

Not all toxic chemicals that find their way into our food chain were placed there by malevolent farmers. Toxins that were banned more than a quarter century ago remain in the atmosphere and in the soil, including the infamous DDT and dieldrin. Organic farming practices cannot evade them.

Whether or not organic produce tastes better and has higher levels of nutrients partly depends on freshness. The industrial tomato that gets to the grocer overnight will have more vitamin C, for instance, than that of the local organic farmer that took 4 or 5 days to reach the same destination.

Given the same conditions, organic foods have a slight but not overwhelming nutritional edge. Proper handling at home may be the best safety precaution and that includes washing of all produce, even that which is to be peeled.

As for flavor, only you can decide.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.