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The Organic Truth

We are inundated with a sea of synthetic chemicals. They’re rampant not only in our environment—even in the very air we breathe—but also in our food supply. It’s important that as bodybuilders we ensure that the food we eat for muscular growth is from pure, natural sources and undergoes minimal industrial tinkering. We may not be able to control industrial toxins in the air, but surely we can exert some control over what we eat. One way of doing that is to eat foods grown or processed through organic methods.

While organic usually means “containing carbon,” its meaning in a nutritional sense is considerably broader in scope. According to United States regulations, organic foods are those grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics, genetic-engineering techniques, chemical fertilizers or sewage sludge. I doubt whether people would object to barring sewage sludge from food farming, but other tenets of organic-food production are controversial.

The notion that organic food is purer and more healthful than conventionally produced food has resulted in the steady growth of the organic-food industry by about 20 percent per year since 1997, when Americans spent $3.6 billion on organic food. By 2008 that figure had risen to $23 billion. As to why many people prefer their foods organic, one survey reported the following:

• 70 percent of those surveyed wanted to avoid eating pesticides in food.

• 68 percent felt that organic food was fresher than conventional food.

• 67 percent cited greater health and nutrition benefits derived from eating organic food.

• 55 percent wanted to avoid genetically modified food.

Those who espouse organic food are willing to pay its higher cost— anywhere from 10 to 40 percent more than the price of conventionally produced food. Food labeled “organic” must contain at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients.

While it would seem that food produced under the most natural conditions would be more nutritious and cleaner than food produced using an abundance of legal but questionable synthetic chemicals, few studies have definitely proved it. In fact, one highly publicized study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that organic food is no more healthful than conventionally produced food.1 A British group from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine did a meta-analysis, or review of research, on organic-food nutrition. The group began by examining 162 studies published between 1958 and 2008. Of the 162 studies, they deemed 55 relevant to the project and found no significant differences between organic and nonorganic farming for 20 of 23 nutrient categories, though organic food was found to have more phosphorous and acidity, while conventional food proved to have more nitrates.

That raised the hackles of representatives of the organic-food industry, who questioned why the researchers overlooked many studies that did show nutritional superiority of organic over conventional food. In the original 162 papers examined, organic food had been rated higher in 11 nutrients. A representative of the organic-food industry noted that organic food contained 53 percent more beta-carotene and 38 percent more flavonoids—both associated with the prevention of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

So what is the truth about organic foods? Are they really cleaner and more nutritious? Let’s take a closer look.

The Chemical Question

More than 600 active chemicals are approved for use in the American food supply—for an average intake of 16 pounds of chemical pesticides per person each year. Critics note that the Environmental Protection Agency approved many of those chemicals without extensive toxicological human testing, meaning that long-term effects of eating them aren’t fully established. The National Academy of Sciences reports that 90 percent of the chemicals used in food processing have not been tested for long-term health effects. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration tests only 1 percent of food for pesticide residue.

On the other hand, several synthetic substances are approved for use in organic farming: soap-based herbicides, water disinfectants and insecticides, such as boric acid, lime sulfur, elemental sulfur, copper sulfate and oils. None of those compounds, however, compare in potential health risks to the potent chemicals used in conventional food production.

Animal tests have identified most of the chemicals used in conventional food production as carcinogens. Others can disrupt the endocrine, reproductive and immune systems. Some can interfere with testosterone synthesis and mimic the effects of estrogen. Still others block the activity of thyroid hormone and have been implicated in obesity.

The counterargument is that hazardous chemicals are present in foods in such minute amounts that they don’t pose a significant threat to human health. Even so, some scientists express concern about the long-term intake of such chemicals in relation to cancer. An examination of 94,000 food samples found that organic fruits and vegetables typically contain pesticide residue only one-third as often as conventional produce.

Most studies show that organic food is lower in nitrates than conventional food. Nitrates in food can combine with amino groups from protein to form nitrosamines, which have been linked to stomach cancer. About 300 nitrosamines have been tested for cancer-causing properties in animals, and 90 percent of them have proven carcinogenic. Organic vegetables are about three times more likely to contain less nitrate than conventional vegetables.

Eating nitrates in vegetables may not be as bad as it seems, however. Vitamins C and E completely block the conversion of food nitrates into nitrosamines. In addition, nitrates are precursors of nitric oxide in the body—a compound familiar to bodybuilders because of the many sports supplements touted to boost its production. Among the beneficial effects of NO are lower blood pressure and increased cardiovascular protection. From a bodybuilding perspective, NO is thought to boost blood circulation, which can favorably affect oxygen delivery to muscle, as well as boost the muscle pump during training.

One recent study even suggested that natural nitrates are an effective ergogenic aid.2 When subjects drank beet juice, a rich source of natural nitrates, for six days, they showed significant increases in oxygen delivery to muscles, along with a 16 percent increased tolerance and capacity for high-intensity exercise. The effect was attributed to an increase in NO synthesis because of the nitrate in the juice. So perhaps having fewer nitrates is not all that positive a feature.

Another suggested benefit of organic food is the absence of antibiotics and other veterinary drugs. While some vaccines are permitted in organic farming, antibiotics and growth hormones are not. The Union of Concerned Scientists says that 70 percent of the antibiotics produced in the United States are fed to animals for nontherapeutic purposes. One survey conducted in Minnesota examined 476 organic food products and 129 conventionally grown samples of produce. The foods were analyzed for the presence of pathogenic bacteria. E. coli was detected in 9.7 percent of the organic and 1.6 percent of the conventional samples. Another study found that another pathological organism, campylobacter, was found in 36 percent of conventional chickens and 100 percent of organically raised chickens. The organic chickens picked up the microbes because they weren’t cooped up and were allowed to roam. Considering how badly cooped chickens are treated, however, I’d take my chances with the free-range variety or, better yet, avoid eating chicken entirely.

Does Organic Food Contain More Nutrients?

An article in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine reviewed 41 studies that compared the nutrient content of organic and conventional fruits, vegetables and grains, finding that the organically grown versions proved superior.3 The study also found that five servings a day of organic vegetables provided the daily vitamin C requirement, while the same number of conventional-produce servings didn’t. Organically grown foods provide 21.1 percent more iron, 27 percent more vitamin C, 29.3 percent more magnesium and 13.6 percent more phosphorus than conventionally produced food.

Interestingly, organic plants produce more natural compounds related to self-protection. Such compounds aren’t produced to the same degree in conventional foods that are seeded with pesticides and other chemicals. The natural compounds produced by the plants protect them against insects, weeds and plant pathogens. The protective elements include polyphenols and flavonoids, which are natural antioxidants. When eaten, such protective natural chemicals are linked to lower rates of cardiovascular disease and cancer. Resveratrol, a popular food supplement, is produced in grapes in response to fungal infections as a means of protecting the plant.

Studies that compared organic to conventionally grown strawberries found that extracts of the organic version offered more protection against colon and breast cancers than extracts of conventional fruit. One weakness of the study was that it had an in vitro, or isolated-cell, design. Whether a similar protective effect occurs in the human body is open to question. On the other hand, certain nutrients in strawberries, such as ellagic acid, are known to destroy incipient tumors, and those elements may be present in higher amounts in organic than conventional produce.

A British study presented two years ago found that organic milk contained more protective nutrients than nonorganic milk. The organic milk contained 50 percent more vitamin E, 75 percent more beta-carotene and three times more antioxidants, including lutein and zeaxanthin. The researchers found that a pint of organic milk would provide 17.5 percent of the required intake of vitamin E for women and 14 percent of the required intake for men. Organic milk comes from cows that are permitted to graze. That tends to increase certain nutrients, including conjugated linoleic acid, which is linked to preventive effects against cancer in animals. Organic milk also contains more alpha-linoleic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid.

One frequent critique of organic foods is that you can’t compare their nutrient contents to conventional foods because of different cultivation methods used to produce them. On the other hand, a study examined rats that were fed a diet consisting of crops grown using three different cultivation methods during two seasons.4 The first cultivation method used animal manure as fertilizer and no pesticides. The second technique used animal manure and pesticides. The third method used mineral fertilizers and pesticides, corresponding to typical conventional crop production. The crops were all grown on similar soils in adjacent fields and thus experienced similar weather conditions. They were harvested at the same time. The organic crops were grown on organic soil.

After harvest, an analysis showed no differences in the presence of major and trace nutrients in any of the crops. Produce from both organic and conventionally grown crops were fed to animals for two years, and the intake and excretion of nutrients was monitored. Again, there was no difference in retention of nutrients in the rats.

Then there is the taste test. Many people who regularly eat organic food say that it is noticeably fresher and better tasting than conventional food. In a recent edition of Penn and Teller’s cable TV program focusing on organic food, a number of people tasted unlabeled organic and conventional produce. Although the taste test was conducted at an outdoor farmers’ market and those participating in the test had a previously expressed preference for organic food, all of them chose the conventional samples as being better tasting than the organic versions. While hardly a scientific test, that does suggest that taste could be in the mind of the taster.

When you add it all up, organic food does contain far fewer potentially hazardous chemicals and may contain more protective nutrients. It’s also as much as three times more expensive, and the suggested health benefits are contentious at best. Even so, the effects of the long-term intake of pesticides and genetically modified foods aren’t clearly established either. Those who are concerned about food purity and are willing to pay the price should probably opt for the organic foods. But as Penn and Teller pointed out, you may not even be eating organic food. About 20 percent of organic food is shipped in from China, a country notorious for poor quality control in its industries. If the food emanates from China, it may not only not be organic but may contain a few undeclared items, the origin of which is anybody’s guess.


1 Dangour, A.D., et al. (2009). Nutritional quality of organic foods: A systematic review. Am J Clin Nutr. 90(3):680-5.

2 Bailey, S.J., et al. (2009). Dietary nitrate supplementation reduces the O2 cost of low-intensity exercise and enhances tolerance to high-intensity exercise in humans. J Appl Physiol. 107(4):1144-55.

3 Worthington, V. (2001). Nutritional quality of organic versus conventional fruits, vegetables, and grains. J Altern Compleme Med. 7:161-73.

4 Kristensen, M., et al. (2008). Effect of plant cultivation methods on content of major and trace elements in foodstuffs and retention in rats. J Sci Food Agricult. 88:2161–2172. IM

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