Phyt Back! The Organic Question

The debate about whether organically grown fruits and vegetables are more nutritious than their conventional counterparts has raged on for many years. Yet many people–especially cancer survivors and those still in treatment–are confused. Do organics really matter? Or am I okay with just eating conventionally grown produce?

The fact is that the phytonutrient content of fruits and vegetables is determined by how they’re grown and you should consider two things when pondering the pros and cons of organics: the phyto-arsenal in organics and the toxin load in conventional produce.

Phyto-Arsenal (or What Organically Grown Plants Have More Of)

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a phrase many associate with the stress of modern living, but it also summarizes a scientific concept that states that living things able to survive stress become stronger, called ‘hormesis’. The recent explosion of research around the role of phytonutrients in human health and disease prevention has provided another measure of how nutritious a food is and has been a focus in more recent organic-vs.-conventional produce studies. Many of these studies have shown the phytonutrient content of organic produce is significantly higher than in conventional. For example, studies that there’s more lycopene in organic tomatoes, more polyphenols in organic potatoes, more flavonols in organic apples, and more resveratrol in organic red wine. 

The reason for the higher phytonutrient content in organically grown produce is explained by why plants produce phytonutrients in the first place: protection. Plants get stressed by overexposure to sun, cold, rain, insects, and other pests and threats. In fact, research suggests that phytonutrients operate in the same way in plants as antioxidants and immune boosters do in humans. When a plant is exposed to stress and is raised without pesticides and herbicides, it naturally produces higher levels of phytonutrients. Good for the plant and good for the people who eat the plant!

final horizontal carrot

Toxin Load (or What Organically Grown Plants Have Less of)

While the level of fertilizer, herbicide and organophosphate, pesticide and other chemicals used in conventionally grown produce is not unhealthy on an individual serving basis, the cumulative effect can be harmful. This is especially true for people whose genetic profile make them more susceptible to damage from the environment.

organics-pullquote1Everyone carries a slightly different DNA ‘script’ that drives common biochemical processes, such as liver detoxification. These slight variations are called single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs (pronounced ‘snips’). Although more than 99% of human DNA sequences are the same, variations in DNA sequence can have a major impact on how humans respond to environmental factors such as bacteria, viruses, toxins, and chemicals. One recent study showed a three-fold increase in prostate cancer risk in men with a specific SNP who were exposed to two different pesticides. Environmental toxins can also turn on cancer-promoting genes by changing methylation patterns within the gene.

Organic farming, on the other hand, uses compost and naturally-derived methods to cultivate rich soil. And while organic food is not entirely toxin-free—plants can produce natural toxins and some organic farmers use natural pesticides such as tobacco and lime—rest assured that organic food has no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Organic farming also requires less energy and minimizes the release of chemical byproducts that can harm wildlife and the ecosystem. Good for the planet and the people who live on the planet!

To Buy or Not to Buy Organic

Unfortunately, it’s more expensive to buy organic produce. Relatively few government programs support organic farming, organic productivity is lower without super-sizing fertilizers, and the shelf-life of organic fruits and vegetables can’t compete with their conventionally grown counterparts. To eat as much organic produce as possible without blowing your budget, consider either growing your own or buying organic fruits and vegetables whose conventional counterpart contain particularly high levels of chemicals.

Grow Your Own

A small organic garden or even a few containers can produce an amazing amount of high quality vegetables that can save you money. Hundreds of websites are dedicated to growing organics–just type “how to grow organic food” into your favorite search engine. There are even websites that show how to garden vertically to reap large yields from small spaces. Many urban communities also have community garden space available. If you live in the Seattle metro area, P-Patch Community Gardens are a good place to start.

When You’re at the Grocery Store

Buy the organic versions of only those fruits and vegetables that have been shown to consistently contain the highest level of chemicals in their conventional counterparts. Nonorganic peaches for example are high in pesticides, even after washing and peeling. Other thin-skinned fruits also retain unhealthy levels of pesticides and other chemicals: apples, berries, cherries, and grapes are among those worth buying organically grown.

Another important consideration is frequency of consumption. Americans love potatoes, but these tubers get a double dose of chemicals—on the above ground foliage and in the soil to prevent fungus growth. Consider buying organics of any fruit or vegetable that you eat regularly.  And don’t forget that nuts and seeds count as well; nonorganic almonds for example consistently contain nine pesticide residues, three of which are neurotoxins.

The Environmental Working Group provides a list of the top 14, called the Dirty Dozen Plus. This group also has a list of conventionally grown fruits and vegetables that consistently contain low levels of manmade chemicals. Together, these two lists provide a handy reference when shopping.  The Pesticide Action Network is another good reference. This site allows you to look up individual produce items to create your own individualized ‘dirty’ produce list.

There is still so much we do not know about how chemicals in the environment and in our food can impact health and risk for disease. What we do know is that exposure to pesticides and other chemicals used in conventional farming have a cumulative effect. We know that cancer treatments (radiation and chemotherapy) also have a cumulative effect. Therefore choosing to consume organic produce whenever possible can accomplish two important goals: decreasing the total toxin burden on the body and increasing phytonutrient intake. Viewed from this perspective, organic produce seems a very reasonable investment.

Kim Jordan is the Manager of Medical Nutrition Therapy Services at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. 

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    One Comment

    1. Julie Reed
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 8:45 am | Permalink

      Thank you Kim – this is the best explanation I’ve read on the choice of organic/conventional. Especially appreciate you calling out almonds, since non-organic almonds are largely farmed in monocultures, which also has a negative effect on honey bee populations.

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