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The Organic Food Myth

There are many other issues to be considered when making the choice as to whether or not to go “organic.”

Now I know this title might upset some people, but I feel compelled to spell out the facts… as I see them.

Many Canadians have concerns about perceived contamination in their foods. They worry about chemical residues, additives, antibiotics, nitrates… you name it. This resulted from a variety of widely publicized episodes, going back as far as the scare over cyclamates to monosodium glutamate to the current concern about antibiotics in cattle.

The root of some of these incidents is that analytical methods have improved so much that today even nanograms of “contaminants” can be found, but in such amounts that pose no threat. In terms of nutrition we have always straddled a narrow line between toxicity and deficiency. Many women suffer from iron deficiency, while adult men can suffer from an excess of the mineral. Selenium is an essential trace element, but is injurious at a level of five parts per million. I’m always amazed at water “purifiers” that promise to rid your water of minerals like calcium,

potassium and magnesium. We need those things! Nitrates exist in veggies like spinach, carrots and beets, no matter what method of farming is used to produce them, but I can recall a case in the ’70s where a condition called methemoglobinemia occurred as a result of consuming too many nitrates from organic carrot juice.

There are many other issues to be considered when making the choice as to whether or not to go “organic”; things like the environment, sustainability, possible social benefits, etc. In terms of nutrition, however, there seems to be no advantage in organic over more traditional types of farming (involving the use of man-made fertilizers). The cost of organic produce is almost always higher than the

“regular,” and that higher price doesn’t seem to be justified by more nutrients. A British study published September 2009 conducted a meta-analysis (a review of the major studies done on a specific topic) of 55 major investigations (from 162 separate surveys over a span of 50 years) into the issue of nutrition and organic foods and concluded that the amounts of important nutrients in food was essentially the same, whether the foods were certified organic or not. The nutrients they looked at were vitamin C, zinc, potassium, calcium and magnesium, among others. They did note that organic produce had higher levels of phosphorus and acidity, while the traditional crops had more nitrogen. The researchers pointed out that this could have been due to a difference in the fertilizers used and/ or the ripeness of a food when it was picked.

Organic groups dismissed the study stating that it didn’t take into account things like pesticides, herbicides, environmental impact and animal welfare, but the scientists didn’t claim to have looked at these issues, only nutrient content. The organic industry has never (as far as I know) made nutritional claims for their goods, but the Internet shows that some bloggers are more than willing to claim nutritional superiority for their products, some using scare tactics to prove their point. Cancer seems to be the biggie — almost every site I looked at claimed that one would be at greater risk for cancer unless they consumed organic foods. As far back as January of 1974 Prevention magazine claimed that “One MD in California has cured four cancer cases by putting them on a 100 per cent organic diet.” The organic movement is nothing new; what’s possibly new is that now it is seen as another way to make a buck. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. People who grow broccoli by the traditional method do it to make money as well. In fact, everything that goes into your mouth is providing somebody, somewhere, with a means to make a living.

It seems to me that many consumers have been so influenced by erroneous information from a variety of sources that the general understanding of nutrition is spotty at best. Vegetables and fruits have gotten so much attention from the media that many believe they are the heart and soul of a healthful diet. Not so. They certainly are important, but so are dairy, whole grains and meat, poultry and fish. Yes, we should consume at least six servings of fruit/vegetables each day, but in my opinion, organic won’t necessarily provide any more nutrients than the regular kind.

Helen Bishop MacDonald is a consulting nutritionist in the agricultural industry.

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