If you’re looking to boost your health by eating more helpings of fresh fruits and vegetables, research shows that not all of these foods are created equal. Organic produce is better.
Studies now indicate that organically grown foods are richer than conventional, non-organic items in some of the most important nutrients your body needs.
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In some cases, organic food is twice as high in certain nutrients.
There’s more to it than vitamins and minerals
The anti-cancer compounds that scientists are examining in organic and non-organic crops go beyond merely looking at their vitamin and mineral content – although those, too, are important for keeping your health on a steady track.
Much of the research has looked at nutrients like flavonoids – phytonutrients in plants which have been shown to keep cancer from growing and spreading.
According to researchers, the versatility of flavonoids for preventing and combating cancer includes:
- Stimulating cells to produce protective enzymes that decrease cancer risk.
- Keeping cancer cells from invading organs.
- Increasing cancer cells’ rate of apoptosis (self-destruction).
- Restricting the formation of new blood vessels that can feed developing tumors.
- Preventing the harmful oxidation and mutation of DNA.
- Generally limiting oxidative (free radical) stress.1
Two of the most important flavonoids discovered in food are quercetin and kaempferol, substances contained in a wide range of produce including tomatoes.
When researchers at the University of California Davis compared the levels of quercetin and kaempferol in conventionally grown and organic tomatoes, they discovered that the organic variety possessed, on average, levels that were about 80 to 100 percent higher.2
According to researcher Stephen Kaffka, the increase in these flavonoids in organic tomatoes could be linked to how the plants were fertilized. The fertilizer applied to non-organic tomatoes supplied nitrogen to the plants in a form they could rapidly absorb.
In contrast, the organic tomatoes derived their nitrogen from compost and manure, materials that have to undergo decomposition by soil microbes before the nitrogen assumes a form that the plants can take in. Because of the necessity of decomposition, the organic tomatoes could only take in nitrogen very slowly.
That process slowed the growth of organic tomatoes, and, the theory goes, that more gradual growth encouraged the plants to make more flavonoids as the tomatoes developed.
What protects the carrot can protect you, too
Now, chances are good you’ve heard about the beta-carotene in carrots (the very word carotene was originally derived from the word carrot), but you may not have read much about another important chemical carrots contain: polyacetylene.
Of course, beta carotene and the other carotenoids (which are pigments that give food their color) found in carrots are important for health. They act as antioxidants and are important for protecting the eyes from the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation.3
But the polyacetylenes are a class of natural chemicals that are drawing attention for their powerful anti-cancer potential.
When researchers at Sheffield Hallam University in England analyzed the usefulness of various carrot compounds in lab tests to see which might be effective against leukemia, they found that the polyacetylenes offered the best defense. They were toxic to leukemia cells, induced the cells to self-destruct (apoptosis) and limited their growth into tumors.4
As you might suspect, carrots don’t make polyacetylenes to help humans lower their risk of cancer. They produce these substances to discourage insects from devouring their tissues as well as act against bacteria and viruses. (These natural chemicals are also found in ginseng, celery and parsnips.)
However, when carrots and other food crops are raised by conventional farmers, they are doused with pesticides to chase the bugs away. The insecticides relieve the plants of having to fend off insects by themselves, and the conventional carrots then have no stimulus to create their own bug-fighting natural chemicals.
Organically raised plants, in contrast, have to be more self-reliant and may therefore produce a greater amount of polyacetylenes and other protective substances.
Whatever the reason, a study at the Swedish University of Agricultural Science shows that carrots fertilized with fresh compost produce the most polyacetylenes.5
To get the most polyacetylenes from your carrots, don’t peel them – some of the compounds are located primarily in the outer part of the carrot, as you might expect, if their function is to ward off insects.
And research on the phytonutrients in carrots shows that the purple variety has the “highest polyacetylene content and other important antioxidant phytochemicals.” 6
Organic meat is more nutritious, too
When you venture into the meat and dairy section of the supermarket, you are likewise better off going with the organic items. A review study performed by an international group of researchers led by scientists at the University of Newcastle in England found a wide range of nutritional advantages in organic milk and meat.7/8
In this research:
- Organic meat and milk had 50% higher levels of omega-3 fats than did non-organic items. Omega-3 fats can boost immunity and help the body resist cancer.
- Organic milk had 40% extra conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) a nutrient that, in lab tests, has been shown to limit the growth of skin, colon and breast cancer.
- Organic meat contained less myristic and palmitic acid, substances that are linked to heart disease.
- Organic milk contained more carotenoids and vitamin E.
“Omega-3s are linked to reductions in cardiovascular disease, improved neurological development and function, and better immune function,” notes researcher Chris Seal, who teaches food and nutrition science at Newcastle. “Western European (and American) diets are recognized as being too low in these fatty acids… But getting enough in our diet is difficult. Our study suggests that switching to organic would go some way towards improving intakes of these important nutrients.”
Researchers believe that organic meat and dairy are higher in omega-3 fats and CLA because the animals are grass-fed. Conventionally grown animals are often fed corn and other grains.
According to researcher Carlo Leifert, who is also with Newcastle, “Several of these (nutritional) differences stem from organic livestock production and are brought about by differences in production intensity, with outdoor-reared, grass-fed animals producing milk and meat that is consistently higher in desirable fatty acids such as the omega-3s, and lower in fatty acids that can promote heart disease and other chronic diseases.”
For a few dollars more
Of course, anyone who’s done any supermarket shopping has experienced sticker shock at the prices of organic foods. If at all possible, I would recommend eating organic food anyway, even if it means cutting some luxuries elsewhere.
We spend a tiny percentage of our income on food compared to people a hundred years ago or even fifty years ago. At one time, the typical family spent half its income on food.
Thirty years ago, the average household spent about 17% of its budget on food. Today the figure is only 11%. We’re not going broke because we spend too much on food.
I was indifferent to organic food 15 years ago. Then I began to gradually make a transition – I was a big cereal eater in those days, and I began to eat only organic brands, with organic milk. From that small first step, my diet now is perhaps 90% organic, or more.
As noted above, organic food contains more nutrients. Quite often it tastes better. But above all: IT DOESN’T CONTAIN PESTICIDES AND HERBICIDES.
I’ve stopped eating poison. I recommend you do the same. If you think those poisons are safe for humans – that some government agency has checked everything out – you’re dreaming. It’s not so.
If you’re living on a very limited budget and feel you can’t afford to buy organic, then eating conventionally grown fruits and vegetables is better than eating no fruits and vegetables at all. But even on a limited budget, I suspect most people have a lot of room to reallocate resources from things we don’t really need to good healthy food.
Just think of it as an investment against spending more of your future dollars at the doctor’s office. Or better yet, ask yourself this: How much is an extra year of life worth to you? I’m at the age (64) where that question crosses my mind. If I’m lucky, I have 20 years left. If I’m VERY lucky, 25.
An extra year – a good, healthy year where I’m able to get around and enjoy life – is worth a lot. It’s certainly worth the price difference between conventional carrots and organic carrots.