Food Science and Nutrition Myths: Is Organic Food Better for Us?

From a lecture series presented by Professor Steven Novella M.D.

Is organic food better for us? An organic label does not say anything directly about the final product, only about the production method. So, does that mean it is inherently healthier?

Health Benefits From Organic Food

A 2010 review, in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, of the last 50 years of research showed that there were no significant differences in nutritional value and no health benefits from eating organic food. That’s 50 years of evidence. Still, it wasn’t many studies. There were 12 studies that were most important in this review, but the evidence we have so far does not show any health or nutritional advantage.

Learn more: The Fallacy That Natural Is Always Better

Pesticides

What about organics and pesticides? I think this is a great example of the bigger issue of natural versus synthetic. The claim of organic farmers is that natural pesticides are safer and better to use than synthetic pesticides. Many people may be surprised to learn that pesticides can be used at all in organic farming. While there are different philosophies among organic farmers, the regulations allow for the use of pesticides from a list of what are naturally derived pesticides, but not a list of synthetic pesticides.

The distinction that’s being made is one of natural versus unnatural, not necessarily safe and effective. In fact, there’s no convincing evidence that current levels of the synthetic pesticides that are used in conventional farming pose any health risk. There are some residues of these pesticides on food and if you are interested in minimizing as much as possible this residue of pesticides, then organic farming does have fewer pesticide residues on it—according to the research.

However, another option might be thoroughly washing vegetables which has been shown to also significantly reduce the amount of pesticides.

Thoroughly washing vegetables has been shown to significantly reduce the amount of pesticides. Click To Tweet

As I said, this alleged advantage to organic or natural pesticides is based upon its origin, but not necessarily evidence for actual superiority. One example of an organic pesticide is Bt, which derives from a bacteria, the bacillus thuringiensis bacteria. This releases a toxin that kills insects. Interestingly, there are some GM or genetically modified foods that put this gene from the Bt into the crop itself—so it makes its own natural pesticide. Here, we have a combination of an organic technology with a genetically modified technology.

Learn more: Not All Foods Are Created Equal

Are Organic Pesticides safe?

But, let’s get back to the question of are organic pesticides better? A 2010 Canadian study comparing several organic pesticides to several synthetic pesticides found that the organic pesticides were less effective. They were less effective at killing insects. Therefore, the farmers had to use higher doses and this had a broader environmental impact. In terms of the environment and amount of pesticides used, the organic pesticides fared worse than the synthetic pesticides.

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Other organic pesticides that are used included one called Neem, which is a combination of chemicals AZA0 and liminoids. This disrupts the hormone cycle in insects. It is derived from seeds. Therefore, it’s natural and okay for organic use, but it is a hormone disrupter and does kill insects. You can also get pyrethrins derived from chrysanthemums—again, a natural source. But, this is a very broad spectrum insect toxin. It’s very toxic to honeybees, for example.

Macro image of a dead bee on a leaf.

When you look at what makes up these organic pesticides, it turns out that the natural source is irrelevant to their chemical activity. The assumption that they are safe, better for the environment, or maybe even safer for human health, is based largely on this “natural” assumption. It seems to be more reasonable to base it simply on what the evidence shows about their chemical activity, how they’re used, and the impact that they have on the environment and human health.

Hormones

Image of technician filling a syringeAnother concern that comes under the banner of natural being better is the use of hormones in meat production or other animal production such as eggs and milk. There are several kinds of hormones that are given to animals. This includes endogenous hormones, hormones that animals make for themselves ordinarily—such as estradiol and progesterone—and exogenous steroids, ones that animals do not make for themselves like zeranol.

These hormones in meat, for example, have been banned in Canada and the European Union based upon alleged health concerns. But, this is largely based upon theory and on just a popular notion that hormones are not safe—it’s not based on any scientific evidence. In the United States and elsewhere, use of these hormones is carefully monitored and regulated. But, the scientific evidence has been enough to convince regulators that, at certain levels, it is safe for public consumption.

Antibiotics

Antibiotics are another issue. The use of antibiotics in animals to minimize infection is an example. Whenever you crowd a bunch of animals together, they will spread infections around. Again, there are certain techniques you can use to minimize the need for antibiotics to minimize the risk of disease spread. But, for large industrial purposes, antibiotics are used to prevent infections in the animals. The question that comes up is, are these antibiotics posing any risk or direct threat to human health?

Technician with vaccination needle in pig farm

One concern is that extensive use might increase the risk of bacterial resistance to antibiotics. This is a very legitimate concern. While there does not appear to be any direct harm to humans, it is true that relying on antibiotics and using them heavily in animals does increase the number of bacterial species that are out there in the world that have resistance to antibiotics. Thus, there may be an indirect concern for human health there.

Keep Reading:
Is Natural Food Better for Us?
Is Raw Food Better for Us?
How Dangerous are GMOs?

From the Lecture Series: Medical Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths: What We Think We Know May Be Hurting Us
Taught by Professor Steven Novella, M.D.