IMPACTS ON HEALTH
Since organic farming practices eliminate use of synthetic pesticides, pathogens (including antibiotic-resistant ones), and heavy metals, it is no surprise these elements aren’t of concern in organic foods. Potential acute- and long-term toxic effects from low-dose exposure to pesticides are concerning.
While there is a need for more research comparing foods organically and conventionally grown, some findings do exist thus far.
If you are trying to conceive, are pregnant, or have children, you may want to consider eating and serving some organic foods if it’s in the budget. This may help to reduce risk of some negative health outcomes of eating pesticide-heavy foods. Keep reading to find out what we currently know about some farming practices used in some conventional farms.
FIRST THINGS FIRST! It is important to note that not all conventional farms use the same practices, so one cannot assume that all produce or animal products contain the potentially harmful pesticides, heavy metals, antibiotics, and hormones (in animal products) listed in the points presented below. Some conventional farms use a variety of the same practices as organic farms. Also, as I mentioned earlier MORE RESEARCH IS NEEDED! Nutrition is ever-changing as it is a science-based area of study. Science is always changing. Now I shall proceed.
PREGNANCY AND FETAL/CHILD DEVELOPMENT CONCERNS
Pesticides and heavy metals have been found to have potentially negative effects on fertility, health of babies in the womb, and health of children(1).
Pesticides are sometimes used in conventional farming to help keep crops from being eaten up by other veggie-hungry critters. For this reason, pesticides help farms to provide more food for us and our families to eat. However, some epidemiological findings unfortunately included associations between early childhood pesticide exposure and impaired cognitive function, behavioral problems, and even childhood cancers.
Organic farming practices create organic food that may prevent prenatal exposure to organophosphate pesticides thought to damage children’s neurocognitive development(2).
Since organic farming practices cannot include synthetic pesticides, obviously organic foods have lower levels of pesticide residues. Thus, when we feed our children mainly organic foods, they are exposed to less pesticide residues as well (2,3,4).
While this area needs more research, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists is advising a word of caution against pesticide exposure. There has been some research showing a link between pesticide exposure during pregnancy and childhood cancer to follow (as previously mentioned). Males are not excluded from reproduction concerns. Pesticide exposure may alter semen quality, affect sterility, and even increase risk of prostate cancer. Female reproduction development disruption can occur at many different stages: via disruptions in puberty, menstruation/ovulation, through fertility, and menopause(5).
Other areas that warrant more research include effects of synthetic hormones in animals for consumption on human health. There is currently no evidence to suggest estrogen found in animal products (provided to animals during their lifespan) plays any role in early puberty onset or breast cancer risk(2).
GENERAL NUTRITION COMPARISONS
The benefits of organic food hold true for both plant products and animal products. See some highlights below!
ORGANIC PRODUCE BENEFITS
- Phytochemicals and nutrients like phenols, vitamin C, and phosphorus may be increased while nitrates may be decreased in organic produce when compared to foods made from conventional farms, as found in studies analyzing these compounds(2,4,6).
- Organic wheat has lower protein content but better digestibility when compared to wheat from conventional farms(7).
- Contamination levels and risk with the mycotoxin deoxynivalenol is lower in organic grains than non-organic(8).
- Flour made from organic wheat has lower levels of arsenic and cadmium, both of which are toxic heavy metals – aka not great for human health. In fact, in general organic crops have lower levels of cadmium when compared to conventional crops(7).
ORGANIC ANIMAL PRODUCTS BENEFITS
Most of the benefits from organic animal products are thought to be a result of a better diet, with access to more fresh forage in the diet of the animals.
- It has been found that in organically raised poultry (like chicken and turkey) and swine (like ham, pork, and bacon) have a lower prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria(4,9,10).
- Poultry raised organically has more omega-3s than conventionally raised. This may hold true for pork and lamb, but research is more limited(4).
- Grass-fed beef has more omega-3s than conventionally raised (but note, grass-fed doesn’t always mean organic!)(11,12).
- Organic dairy has more protein, omega-3s, and vaccenic acid (a naturally occurring trans-fat), with less omega-6s, linoleic acid, and oleic acid than conventionally produced(13,14).
- Consumption of organic dairy products meant reduced eczema risk during first 2 years of life in one 2008 study(15).
- Organic eggs may have more potassium and stearic acid. They may also have more cholesterol and palmitic acid, but limited research exists on organic eggs versus conventionally produced(16,17).
It is worthy to note that nutrients found in higher amounts in these highlighted organic foods can be found in other healthy foods to help make for a balanced diet. Organic or not, make sure you are always washing your produce to remove potentially harmful chemicals like pesticides. Contact a registered dietitian, like myself, for individualized diet assistance!
Hertz-Picciotto I, Sass JB, Engel S, Bennett DH, Bradman A, et al. (2018) Organophosphate exposures during pregnancy and child neurodevelopment: Recommendations for essential policy reforms. PLOS Medicine 15(10): e1002671
- Engel S, Wetmur J, Chen J, Zhu C, Boyd Barr D, Canfield R, Wolff MS. Prenatal exposure to organophosphates, paraoxonase 1, and cognitive development in children. Environ Health Perspect. 2011; 119: 1182-1188. DOI:10.1289/ehp.1003183.
- Forman J, Silverstein J, Committee on Nutrition and Council on Environmental Health. Organic foods: health and environmental advantages and disadvantages. Pediatrics. 2012;130(5):e1406-e1415.
- Lu C, Toepel K, Irish R, Fenske RA, Barr DB, Bravo R. Organic diets significantly lower children’s dietary exposure to pesticides. Eviron Health Persepect. 2006;114(2):260-263.
- Smith-Spangler C, Brandeau M, Hunter G, et al. Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives?: A systematic review. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2012;157(5):348-366.
- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), Committee on Health Care for Underserved Women, American Society for Reproductive Medicine Practice Committee, and The University of California, San Francisco Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment. Exposure to toxic environmental agents. Fertility and Sterility. 2013, 100:931-934.
- Zhao X, Chambers IV E, Matta Z, et al. Consumer sensory analysis of organically and conventionally grown vegetables. Journal of Food Science. 2007;72(2):S87-S91.
- Vrcek IV, Cepo DV, Rasic D, et al. A comparison of the nutritional value and food safety of organically and conventionally produced wheat flours. Food Chemistry. 2014;143:522-529.
- Jaroslav Remza, et al. Fusarium mycotoxin content of Slovakian organic and conventional cereals. Journal of Central European Agriculture. 2016;17(1):164-175.
- Sapoka A, Kinney E, George A, Hulet R, CruzCano R, Schwab K, Zhang G, Joseph S. Lower prevalence of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella on large-scale U.S. conventional poultry farms that transitioned to organic practices. Sci Total Environ. 2014;476-477:387-392.
- Young I, Rajic A, Wilhem BJ, Waddell L, Parker S, McEwen SAM. Comparison of the prevalence of bacterial enteropathogens, potentially zoonotic bacteria and bacterial resistance to antimicrobials in organic and conventional poultry, swine and beef production: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Epidemiol Infect. 2009;137(9):1217-32.
- Daley C, Abbott A, Doyle P, Nader G, Larson S. A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Nutr J. 2010; 9:1-10.
- Bjorklund EA, Heins BJ, DiCostanzo A, Chester-Jones H. Fatty acid profiles, meat quality, and sensory attributes of organic versus conventional dairy beef steers. Journal of Dairy Science. 2014;97(3):1828-1834.
- Palupi E, Jayanegara A, Ploeger A, Kahl J. Comparison of nutritional quality between conventional and organic dairy products: a meta-analysis. J Sci Food Agric. 2012;92:27742781.
- Benbrook CM, Butler G, Latif MA, Leifert C, Davis DR. Organic production enhances milk nutritional quality by shifting fatty acid composition: a United States-wide,18thmonth study. PLoS ONE. 2013;8(12): e82429. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0082429.
- Kummeling I, Thijs C. Huber, M, van de Vijver LPL, Snijders BEP, Penders J, Stelma F, van Ree R, van den Brandt, PA, Dagnelie PC. Consumption of organic food and risk of atopic disease during the first 2 years of life in the Netherlands. Br J Nutr. 2008;99:598-605.
- Matt D, Veromann E, Luik A. Effect of housing systems on biochemical composition of chicken eggs. Agronomy Research. 2009;7(Special issue II):662-667.
- Samman S, Kung FP, Carter LM, et al. Fatty acid composition of certified organic, conventional and omega-3 eggs. Food Chemistry. 2009;116(4):911-914.
Written by Stacy Ramirez, MS, RDN, LD
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