Should you go organic?
Short answer: yes.
Long answer: read on.
This is a tough question and the answer is yet emerging. However, I do have an opinion, based on the information that is currently out there.
Many of you may be familiar with a recent headline of the form, “Stanford study shows little evidence of health benefits from organic foods.” It was a catchy headline and definitely made many of us feel a transient pang of pain in our pocketbooks over extra dollars spent on those “organic” labels. As is often the case, however, there was more to the article than the headline. Thankfully, my pocketbook-pain was short-lived as I read the fine print: organic foods can reduce exposure to pesticides and antibiotics. Whew. I never recommended organic foods for more nutrients, anyway. No one should buy organic hoping for more vitamin C in their oranges.
Both in my home and in my practice, I favor of organic products for the following reasons:
Reduce exposure to pesticides. Most pesticides work by disrupting the nervous systems of pests. There is data suggesting that workers regularly exposed to pesticides are more likely to have neurologic problems. It is widely thought that children are more susceptible to the effects of such toxins, perhaps because they have developing nervous systems and also because they are physically closer to the ground, where many of the chemicals are sprayed. And, any parent can tell you, they tend to put everything in their mouths.
Reduce exposure to antibiotics. Did you know that the vast majority of antibiotics sold in the United States are given to animals? Farm animals are given antibiotics to reduce infection and promote growth. This can result in “superbugs,” or antibiotic resistant bacteria, that can reach you in many theoretical fashions. Imagine a cow fed antibiotics. Soon, the bacteria living in that cow’s gut develops resistance to antibiotics; then the cow poops; then it rains and the resistant antibiotic is all over your ground water or in the fertilizer used for your tomatoes; or you have that cow in your burger. The long term impact of antibiotic use in animals is not fully understood (and let us not forget– most of our problem with superbugs is caused by improper use in humans), but we do know that resistant bugs can in fact pass from animals to humans and pose health risks. The government has already started passing some restrictions on antibiotic use in animals. We will see what comes of it.
Avoid exposure to added hormones. Without going into too extensive a diatribe, let me just say that hormones in our meat and dairy have been implicated in everything from earlier onset of puberty to increased risk for certain cancers. Farm animals are often given hormones (via the form of implants or in their feed) for faster and leaner growth. Additionally, animals and their products (like milk) may have abnormal levels of hormones due to the manner in which they are cared for. The science here is weak given that hormones also occur naturally in our bodies. Nevertheless, many countries have much stricter regulations than the US. In fact, the European Union has a ban on the use of hormones in livestock and a ban on the importation of American meats due to the use of hormones.
Other potential benefits… Organic foods may also provide healthier fats. That is, organic beef or organic milk may have more omega-3 fats which have a number of potential health benefits (a huge subject for another day). Organic foods are also free of genetically modified products, meaning the product itself cannot be genetically engineered (like a watermelon designed to be free of seeds) nor could it be fed anything that was genetically modified (like a hen fed genetically altered corn). Though this is a very new and sketchy area of research, some people feel good about steering clear of genetically engineered foods. Lastly, there are potential environmental benefits to boot. Fewer pesticides and organic farming practices result in less environmental pollution.
Bottom line: If going organic suits you and your lifestyle, great. I am in favor. However, buying organic is not for everyone. The data is far from 100%, so I understand if people are hesitant to pay more for every product. If partial organic is more your style, I would recommend investing in organic eggs, dairy products, and pesticide-heavy produce, known as the dirty dozen. This is a list of products that helps consumers prioritize which fruits and veggies to buy organic. It is regularly updated by the Environmental Working Group, though some items, like blueberries, seem to be regulars on the list. They also have a list of produce that is least contaminated with pesticides, so you can save your money there and buy those convential!