HEALTH WATCH: Organic versus Conventional:

447Views 5Comments Posted 13/04/2017

By Michael Greger MD

ARE ORGANIC foods safer and healthier than conventional alternatives? Those are two separate questions.

Some consumers are interested in getting more nutrients; others are more concerned about getting fewer pesticides. Let’s do nutrition first.

Hundreds of studies have been reviewed and researchers didn’t find significant differences for most of the traditional nutrients like vitamins and minerals. They concluded that despite the widespread perception that organically produced foods are more nutritious, they didn’t find robust evidence to support that perception.

They did, however, find higher levels of phenolic hytonutrients in organic. These so-called “secondary metabolites” of plants are thought to be behind many of the benefits ascribed to eating fruits and vegetables. Organic fruits and vegetables had between 19 and 69% more of a variety of these antioxidant compounds.

The theory was that these phytonutrients are created by the plant for its own protection. For example, broccoli releases the bitter compounds like sulforaphane when the plant is chewed to ward off those who might eat it. Bugs take one bite and say, “Ew, this tastes like broccoli!”

But pesticide-laden plants are bitten less by bugs and so may be churning out fewer of these compounds. Plants raised organically, on the other hand, are in a fight for their lives and may necessarily have to produce more protection. That was the theory anyway, but we don’t have good evidence to back it up.

Fertilizer factor
The more likely reason has to do with the fertilizer; plants given high dose synthetic nitrogen fertilizers may divert more resources to growth rather than defense.

These antioxidants may protect the plant, but what about us? More antioxidant phytonutrients are found in organic vegetables and so yes, they displayed more antioxidant activity, but also more antimutagenic activity.

Researchers exposed bacteria to a variety of mutagenic chemicals like benzopyrene, the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon found in barbecued meat, or IQ, the heterocyclic amine found in grilled/broiled/fried meats (as well as cigarette smoke), and there were fewer DNA mutations in the petri dishes where they added organic vegetables compared to the petri dishes where they added conventional vegetables.

Preventing DNA damage in bacteria is one thing, but what about effects on actual human cells?

Organic strawberries may taste better, and have higher antioxidant activity and more phenolic phytonutrients, but what happens when you stack them up head-to-head against human cancer cells? Extracts from organically grown strawberries suppressed the growth of colon cancer cells and breast cancer cells significantly better than extracts from conventional strawberries. Now this was dripping strawberries onto cancer cells growing in a petri dish, but, there are real life circumstances in which strawberries come into direct contact with cancerous and precancerous lesions, and so presumably organic strawberries would work even better, but they haven’t yet been tested in clinical trials.

Although in vitro studies show higher antioxidant and antimutagenic activity as well as better inhibition of cancer cell proliferation, clinical studies on the impact of eating organic on human disease simply haven’t been done. Based on antioxidant phytonutrient levels, organic produce may be considered 20 to 40% healthier, the equivalent of adding one or two serving’s worth to a five-a-day regimen.

But organic produce may be 40% more expensive, so for the same money you could just buy the extra servings worth of conventional produce. From a purely nutrients-per-dollar standpoint, it’s not clear that organic foods are any better. But people often buy organic foods to avoid chemicals, not because they are more nutritious.

Comments 5


Agree with you; however, it is 3rd World to add layers of bureaucracy in areas where it is not warranted (like, if my dog has 2 choices for his arthritic hips: a supplement I can only purchase online from the U.S. --vet recommended which has worked over the past 2 years --OR hip surgery which local vets have said might leave my pet paralyzed and have wholeheartedly supported the supplement regime) as this tends to allow for corruption not to mention total frustration for nationals--especially those living outside the metropolitan area of PC, in rural areas. Human shampoo?--it needs authorization to import. There is not enough of a variety of QUALITY supplements or health products in Panama (understandable because of its low population base) but to make individuals go through ridiculous hoops to bring them in for themselves is restricting FREEDOM OF CHOICE. This is 3rd World mentality.

2 years ago

Panama a 3rd World Country.....? That is no longer the case. Perhaps we need to improve and this is a daily effort in some of the provices such as Chiriqui and in some Interior regions, but, please it is time that the world recognizes Panama's natural beauty and not as a 3rd world country. Sad!

2 years ago

We grow 100% organic fruits in Panama for private investors Simply Natural: contact me at: 6013-0133

2 years ago

The author did a good job outlining the nutritional value of organic produce but skimped on the real reason most of us seek it. We want to avoid death by Monsanto. And like a good 3rd World customer, Panamá most likely does not monitor the soaking of fields up in Boquete and Volcan and all the other provinces that produce our fruits and veggies. So imagine the cocktail of wicked chemicals used on ¨conventional¨ crops here in PTY.

2 years ago

Would love to grow my own organic fruits and vegetables both for saving money and for safety but Panama's restrictions on non-GMO personal seed selection is heavy handed. In fact, Panama is taking lessons from near-bankrupt Costa Rica on elimination of FREEDOM OF CHOICE. Big Brother wants to tell us which nutritional supplements we can take, what we can give our pets, what cream can we use on our skin, etc. Like Big Brother is all knowing and cares about us (except when they kill us with government-approved cough syrup).

2 years ago
The comments are the responsibility of each author who freely expresses his opinion and not that of Newsroom Panama.
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