At some point during my nutritional counseling sessions with patients, especially my patients with cancer, the subject of organic foods comes up. Many are already choosing to buy organic, at least some of the time, and they often ask:

  1. Is buying organic really as important as it seems?
  2. Should even more of my food purchases be organic?

I explain that buying organic isn’t so much about how nutritious their food is, since the scientific “jury” remains out on that subject, and, further, there are so many factors that determine the nutrient levels in that carrot or this broccoli spear, including nutrient levels in the soil, the weather that year, the general climate, the specific variety of carrot or broccoli, when it was harvested, how long it was stored, whether (or how) it was cooked, and so on.

My primary reason for advising patients to buy organic as availability and food budget allows, is to reduce their overall exposure to environmental toxins. Yes, even though pesticides used in this country are approved for use on foodstuffs and are thought to be safe for human consumption at set levels, I see a few issues with that:

  1. Pesticides are not always used exactly as they are approved to be used.
  2. When you consider the sum total of various pesticides we are exposed to from conventionally-grown foods (produce, grains, animal), and add that to chemicals we are exposed to from vehicle exhaust, cleaning supplies, off-gassing from building interiors (paint, carpet, furniture, cabinets), secondhand smoke, leaching from plastic that comes into contact with our food and water (water bottles, plastic wrap, can linings, frozen meal trays, storage containers), how can we know that our overall toxic load is safe? Even if it is safe (i.e., not enough to cause disease on its own), how can we know that it is healthy? There’s a huge gray area between being dead and being optimally healthy.
  3. It is not an unheard of event to have a pesticide or other chemical be ruled as unsafe for human consumption/exposure years or even decades after it was first ruled to be safe. Whoops!

I don’t buy organic 100% of the time, but I do more often than not. When I need to prioritize my organic purchases, I go with animal-based foods, because pesticides and other chemicals generally accumulate in fat, and with produce that can’t be scrubbed (leafy greens). Honestly, I’m not sure washing or scrubbing does much, anyway.

Yes, you can always peel conventional apples, removing the waxy coating and any pesticide residue trapped in it, but you then lose a lot of the super-healthy phytochemicals found in apples, as they are concentrated in the skin. One reason why I choose organic apples maybe 95 percent of the time.

I also talk a lot about phytochemicals with my patients. Phytochemicals are compounds produced by plants, often as part of the plant’s defense system, that have myriad health benefits for humans. Many have anti-cancer benefits, whether by acting as antioxidants or through other mechanisms. So I was naturally intrigued by a recent meta-analysis that suggests that organically grown produce contains more polyphenols (a class of phytochemicals) and antioxidants.

The study, published last month in The British Journal of Nutrition, is available for free online (which is not always the case). If scientific journal articles make your eyes glaze over (maybe you need to eat more carrots?), you can read a less-science-heavy write up on Food Tank.

Related: “Much ado about organics,” On Nutrition, The Seattle Times, May 26, 2013