Would you drink from a bottle that had the skull and crossbones symbol clearly displayed on the label?
The skull and crossbones symbol used as a warning of danger or even death due to it being a poison.
We’re not talking the whole bottle, just a little sip. Just enough to keep it below the maximum residue level (MRL).
You know, the same amount that is allowed in conventional foods for sale in the supermarket.
So, would you?
You possibly just had the same reaction as I did to this thought experiment.
Pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and human health
I recently had an interesting conversation with an expert nutritional advisor about the impacts of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides on human health.
The conversation journeyed over many interesting topics and tangents, but the take home message I got was that the allowable amounts in foods looks at each individual food in isolation. Each food has a maximum allowable limit, but one plus one plus one doesn’t equal three.
In this equation, the impacts are compounding and it’s more likely to be 1 + 1 + 1 = 30.
That’s why, she said, we’re seeing such vast impacts on fertility, endocrine disruption and multiple implications across chronic disease and mental health.
Pretty scary really, but it’s the equivalent to that one little sip we talked about earlier.
What the science says about organic food
A recent systematic review that assessed the breadth of evidence relating to human health outcomes when comparing an organic diet to its conventional counterpart, found a range of interesting links.
But – like most systematic reviews – they could not provide a definitive statement on the long-term health benefits of organic dietary intake (this is normal in scientific literature).
What they did find, however, was that the levels of omega-3 fatty acids were higher in organic dairy products, and organic meat had an improved fatty acid profile, although the total nutrient content of both the foods is pretty comparable when looking at the whole numbers for macronutrients such as carbohydrates, fats and proteins.
It’s not until you dig into the finer details that you see the real and likely meaningful differences.
They also discovered that some of the antioxidants were found to be higher in organic foods, particularly polyphenols, which makes complete sense. These are secondary metabolites that the plants make, generally to fight off insects and pests. If there are no insects or pests, there is no need for the plant to ramp up these phytochemicals and therefore they are less likely to be in your conventional fruit and vegetables.
Apart from wholegrain products, fruits and vegetables provide the major pesticide exposure in the diet. No surprise here.
Interestingly, polished grains (including white rice and flour) remove the outer layers that contain the highest pesticide content, so unless your wholegrain foods are organic, they may not be as healthy as you think.
Links between pesticide exposure and fertility, allergies and childhood illnesses
We’re all aware that pesticides aren’t ideal, but possibly not fully aware of just how detrimental they can be to our health and the health of our loved ones.
What’s becoming more evident is scientific studies are showing increasing correlations between health and pesticide exposure, including in pregnancy outcomes.
One study reviewed in the article stated that women in the highest quartile of pesticide residue intake from fruit and vegetables had 18% less chance of pregnancy and 26% lower probability of live birth when compared to the lowest quartile.
That’s pretty massive if you’re trying to get pregnant and make it through to a healthy delivery.
It doesn’t stop there.
Several observational studies revealed that those following an organic diet have a reduced risk of metabolic syndrome (precursor to diabetes), fertility issues, birth defects, allergies and childhood illnesses.
There is, however, no definitive statements on the long-term health benefits of eating an organic diet, but there’s clearly something going on here.
Organic food: health versus cost
I personally am happy to pay a bit extra for organic food (about 10 – 20%) but there is a ceiling. I can’t afford to pay twice the price. I’m not sure many can.
What we’ve realised is that even where it is slightly more expensive than conventional food, where you buy your organic food can affect the price you pay.
Here in Brisbane, for example, we’ve found a local supplier who delivers organic fruit and vegetables for cheaper than some of the conventional options offered at the major supermarkets. Sure, we have to plan ahead and take the time to put our order in, but we have a young son, we hold health in high regard and we want to avoid chemicals and toxins wherever possible.
Health has a cost, at some point. If the science is right, it may be possible to reduce later health costs by choosing to spend a little more upfront.
But as with everything, no guarantees.
Making the choice to eat organic food
Essentially, at the end of the day the choice is up to you. There are many battles to fight in life, many approaches.
A doctor friend of ours specialises in nutrition and advises many of her patients to choose organic to help improve their health. But how does she get them to shift their mindset?
She asks them if they would drink from a bottle of poison that had a skull and crossbones clearly displayed on it. Not the whole bottle, just a little sip. A little sip every day.
If the answer is no, then she gets them to think about the difference between this and eating conventional produce. Because that conventional produce – as it grows – is likely sprayed with stuff that comes from a bottle that displays a skull and crossbones.
It definitely gets you thinking.
Is eating organic food important to you or do you need to see more evidence before you’ll make the switch? Let us know in the comments below.
References and further resources
- Vigar V, Myers S, Oliver C, Arellano J, Robinson S, Leifert C. A Systematic Review of Organic Versus Conventional Food Consumption: Is There a Measurable Benefit on Human Health? Nutrients. 2019;12(1):1-32. doi:doi:10.3390/nu12010007