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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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December 24, 2009

Is Organic All It’s Cracked Up to Be?

By Mark Sisson
38 Comments

Several months back, a major study comparing the nutritional value of organic food to conventional food made the rounds. Organic food, it found, was “no healthier” than ordinary food. There were no significant “differences in nutrient content,” and the study’s authors found “no evidence to support the selection of organic over conventionally produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority.” Hmm, so there were “differences,” but they were “unlikely to be of any public health relevance.” Okay – even if I accept that the differences were unimportant, there was a major, glaring qualifier: “nutritional superiority.” Going organic, then, doesn’t suddenly change the essential composition of a plant. A grape remains a grape (small differences aside), whether you use artificial pesticides or “natural” pesticides. I buy that, and I don’t think many people who support organic are arguing that industrial organic farms produce purer, more “appley” apples than conventional farms. They’re simply wary of ingesting the artificial chemical cocktails applied to conventional crops.

If you’re interested in just how many pesticides you may be ingesting, the PAN Pesticides Database deserves a look. It’s limited to California data, but you can obtain full listings of what pesticides were used on which crops. Go to “Tomatoes for Processing,” (soups, sauces, etc) for example, and you’ll see that over 10 million gross pounds of chemicals were applied to tomatoes intended for processing. The data is raw and admittedly incomplete (and perhaps even under-reported), but it gives you a general idea of the scale. And that’s just a single crop, in a single state, using only “reported tomato acreage.” There are hundreds more, and each one is – apparently – drenched in chemicals. Organic, then, is about much more than small micronutrient differences. It’s about avoiding the flood of artificial chemicals, which the study did not address.

The real issue is the industrialization of farming. You see, the organic label has become a big money maker. Sales of organics increase annually, and most major producers have at least one organic division. Up until the last decade or so, organic produce inhabited a tiny niche in the market. If you wanted organic, you’d probably have to grow it yourself or visit a farmers’ market that featured small, local organic family farm produce. Now, certified organic farms exist on massive scales rivaling the biggest conventional growing operations. Places like Costco carry organic produce: enormous tubs of lettuce, ten-pound bags of carrots, and drums of onions. You can’t expect Costco to get their organic produce from small, local hobby farmers who get intimate with their crops and fine tune the soil composition, take chances and try new methods; they have to rely on the enormous industrial organic farms, operations that use proven organic methods on a huge scale. These guys aren’t necessarily concerned with growing the perfect, richest, best tasting peach. They want something that satisfies the organic certification requirements, can be produced on a major scale, and can travel long distances without damage or spoilage. They aren’t handing out samples and beaming proudly like a parent.

The larger the scale, the more impersonal the relationship between farmer and food, regardless of organic status. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – it’s unavoidable with the increasing consumer demand for organics – but it does mean the organic apple you get from Costco will differ qualitatively from the apple you get from Joe down at the farmer’s market. And yes, I’d even bet there would be nutritional differences between Joe’s produce and the organic produce at Costco. The study’s authors certainly weren’t looking at farmers’ market stuff, because most organic produce is purchased in grocery stores, not farmers’ markets. For most people, “organic” means the slightly more expensive lettuce next to the cheaper, conventional lettuce in the grocery store, so that’s what they examined. Only a small subset of the population shops locally.

Despite all that, the Primal stance is generally pro-organic, the reasoning being that a plant, fruit, or animal grown without the administration of artificial pesticides, herbicides, or insecticides, chemical fertilizers, antibiotics or growth hormones (in the case of animal products), most closely replicates wild or untampered-with growing conditions. If we’re trying to eat like our ancestors, going organic might be our best shot at approximating their dietary environment. An organic, locally grown blackberry might not be identical to the berries Grok stumbled upon, but at least its producers tried to replicate the “wild” growing environment by minimizing or even eliminating the manmade chemical load.

I think we have to consider the role of organics as existing on a continuum. This is not a binary, black-and-white situation. Ideally, we’d all have access to time-traveling, foraging food merchants making weekly trips back to the Paleolithic for berries, roots, tubers, and other vegetation (and maybe the occasional auroch, or mammoth, cargo space permitting), but in reality we have to make do with the best we’ve got.

Homegrown reigns supreme, of course. You ever eat a big, plump juicy tomato that’s been showered with love and daily attention as it’s allowed to ripen on the vine by a home gardener? There is simply no comparison. It practically becomes a different organism altogether. But few people have the time or the space to produce enough vegetables and fruit to sustain a Primal diet.

Local farmers’ market fare is next. Big cities pretty much always have them, and they’re beginning to pop up in smaller markets, too. If it’s environmental impact you’re worried about, local apples trounce those organic Fujis from Chile. If it’s better taste you want, you’re better off buying spinach from the farmer who lives with her crops and takes personal pride in their quality. She earns her living based on a small, committed cadre of customers who intensely care about taste. They could hit up Whole Foods for bagged spinach, but they go to the small, local farmers’ markets for the experience and the superior quality. The farmers, then, have an obligation and a powerful financial motivation to improve the taste of their products. Take the local Santa Monica Wednseday farmers’ market, for example – all the local chefs stock up there. You’ll see their carts piled high with fruits, veggies, and local meats. These guys’ primary (perhaps only) concern is quality, but you don’t see them prowling Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. They know quality and where to find it, sort of like when you’re stuck in the wilderness and follow an animal trail to a watering hole. Wild animals know the wilderness, and chefs know food quality.

After homegrown and local, regular store-bought organic is best. They may not have any appreciable advantage when it comes to vitamins or phytonutrients, but they will be cleaner, and organic produce generally tastes better than conventional produce.

Organic meat, eggs, and dairy (if you eat it) should absolutely take precedence, if that even needs to be said. We already know the qualitative differences between pastured and grain-fed beef, and between pastured chickens and “cage free” chickens (let alone chickens in battery cages). We also know that dairy and animal fat can concentrate environmental chemicals, just as it can be a source of fat-soluble vitamins. When it comes to animal products, organic (and pastured, free-range in an ideal world) is absolutely essential.

All that said, people have to eat. And if we can’t eat organic, local, or pastured, going with conventional produce is our only option. If you’re in that position, you can mitigate your chemical load by avoiding certain choices and going with others. Grain-fed, antibiotic-pumped meat can be trimmed of visible fat (boring, I know, but probably worth it).

So, is organic worth it? Yeah, it’s worth the trouble, but buying locally is best – often for your wallet, for the environment, and for your taste buds. Just don’t beat yourself up over the question of organic versus conventional. Your ability to put food on the table and pay the rent takes ultimate precedence over the amount of pesticides in said food. It’s sad and unfortunate that we often have to make that choice, but that’s the world we live in. And, like Grok did before us, we’ve gotta make the best with what we’ve got.

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38 Comments on "Is Organic All It’s Cracked Up to Be?"

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Aaron Blaisdell
6 years 9 months ago

I remember how weird that report was when it first came out. It is like comparing children’s sippy cups that contain BPA with BPA-free cups and concluding “yup, they both hold liquids equally well!”

Cripes!

Henry Miller
Henry Miller
6 years 9 months ago

Local is often better than organic if you must choose. Often the smaller farmers can’t afford all the paperwork to call themselves organic, but they have the spirit down better.

Organic is not perfect as a standard – those big farms did their best to make sure things you don’t want on your food (even less than the chemical alternative) were organic. Still there isn’t much you can do, either grow it yourself, visit the farm yourself, or pray.

Dave, RN
Dave, RN
6 years 9 months ago
One of my new years resolutions is to grow my own veggies. I’ve got a large backyard, and when we built the house we had 15 yards of compost brought it because the natural soil here is just clay.I’ve been adding pine and other mulches for 10 years. I also put in a drip watering system and am filtering all of the fluoride out of our water right at the meter. I can now stick a 18″ long sharpshooter shovel straight down. So, I’ll add some peat, till it in, add a little fence (rabbits are a problem here) and… Read more »
Zoe
6 years 9 months ago
For me personally, choosing organic has always been about what organic doesn’t have — i.e., the pesticides, etc. One thing that I’d be curious to know is whether or not the study delved into whether or not the nutrients in the organic produce was more bioavailable than the nutrients in the non-organic produce. For example, 1,000 IUs of vitamin D2 has the same amount of vitamin D as 1,000 IUs ofo vitamin D3 but the vitamin D3 is more bioavailable and will do the body more good than the vitamin D2. My children will tell you in a heartbeat that… Read more »
jinushaun
jinushaun
6 years 9 months ago

I suspect that the taste difference has to do with the fact that a lot of organic produce is picked closer to actual ripeness, and the lack of pesticides produces a smaller more concentrated fruit.

I hate the taste of large artificially ripened fruits. Small naturally ripened fruit tastes better. Ask any cook. Smaller is better when it comes to flavour.

Jim Purdy
6 years 9 months ago

I am a long way from being a regular consumer of local organic food. Until I clean up the rest of my diet, organic wouldn’t do much for me.

For example, the aspartame in my Diet Coke is probably far worse than all the food pesticides and fertilizers I consume.

Then there are all the strange things in the food I buy in restaurants and from drive-through restaurants.

Right now, I would be happy to just consistently eat a low-carb diet. Once I accomplish that, I can think about the other stuff.

kongluirong
6 years 9 months ago

Aspartame gets broken down in your body as formaldehyde, but then quickly gets broken down into something even more toxic to humans: formic acid.

http://recipes.howstuffworks.com/question536.htm

That article talks about aspartame quite well, because although it has been tested, there is the process of how it’s broken down in our bodies.

Roland
6 years 9 months ago
I’m not saying that organic is going to be all that much better, but you’re doing yourself a disservice with this mentality. Don’t wait for “perfect” to make a change, in any stage of the game. Some local food, some organic, some grass fed, etc. is better than none. There’s never a perfect time to buy a house, get married, have a kid, diet, go low carb, buy organic, donate to charity, etc. It’s never perfect, but you do what you can, when you can. Start somewhere or you miss out on any benefits because you think it needs to… Read more »
Alec
Alec
6 years 9 months ago

On the topic of healthy foods, I’m going to try to start foraging for wild veggies and plants this year. I took a course last year on it and bought a book. Typically wild vegetables and plants have more vitamins and minerals than their domesticated cousins. Just don’t pick them too close to polluted areas like highways, railroad tracks, old industrial zones, etc.

kongluirong
6 years 9 months ago

There was a discussion in the forums about a month or so ago about this, and I had brought up that it wasn’t necessarily only about nutrients, but the actual pesticides. Someone replied that we’d come a long way from Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in the way of pesticides, but I don’t buy that.

Ed
Ed
6 years 9 months ago

In a classic case of the law of unintended consequences, the ban of relatively-benign DDT, inspired by Rachel Carson, led to the use of pesticides that were more toxic and less effective.

kongluirong
6 years 9 months ago

I wouldn’t say that DDT was relatively-benign, seeing as it can build up in your system over time. But it is true that there are worse ones out there.

OnTheBayou
OnTheBayou
6 years 9 months ago

There’s a difference between “being in your system” and harmful.

For mammals, DDT and its relatives are benign, building up in ones body or not. The reason it was banned is because birds don’t deal with it, the eggshells become very thin.

The organophospates that are dominant in agriculture now are highly toxic to mammals in some cases. Workers have to “suit up” to avoid being poisoned. Some die.

But the birds live……

Heather
Heather
6 years 8 months ago

As for DDT being relatively benign the people of Transkei in Southern Africa had the highest rate of throat cancer (per capita) in the world – I was told at the cancer hospital that it was because they used DDT before it was banned to keep their dried corn from goig mouldy. Their rates did not drop significantly for several years after the ban as the people hoarded the chemical not realising its danger.

Scott Stewart
Scott Stewart
6 years 9 months ago

Mark,

Well done! A very excellent post.

A lot of people don’t know that grass fed beef is commonly finished with corn/grain which negatively affect the Omega 3/6 balance.

I’ve searched high & low for start to finish grass fed and found very few.

Best,

Scott in SF

ps what’s the avatar below submit comment?

Dave RN
Dave RN
6 years 9 months ago
Try Burgundy Pastures, in Grandview TX. I live about 20 miles from their butcher shop, but I think they do nationwide shipping. As for the price… I did a little experiment. I have a newspaper from 1969 (kept it for the moonshot stuff) and took the price of ground beef from that paper, then entered it into an inflation calculator. The price was about the same, owing for inflation. So I’m not really paying any more for ground beef than my parents were in 1969. What that really tells me though is the effeciancies introduced in the past 40 years,… Read more »
Krys
6 years 9 months ago

Thundering Hooves in Washington State is grass-fed and finished and will ship via UPS. http://www.thunderinghooves.net

Glenn Dixon
6 years 9 months ago

Thank you for not being a black-or-white, all-or-nothing absolutist regarding this topic. It’s hard to find any sort of farmer’s market in north Texas in the winter, but I look forward to this spring!

In the meantime, I’m doing good to add fruits and veggies to my previously almost-zero-carb diet and to get my primal fitness going.

Ika
Ika
6 years 9 months ago
This is a very interesting topic! I’m glad you decided to post on it, Mark 🙂 The issue I have is that I live in Wisconsin, so I have a really hard time finding local fresh veggies from about Nov. to April. I have found potatoes(which i don’t eat anyway) and onions but thats it! 🙁 I really hate buying organic (or any) veggies from giant companies but thats what I’ve been doing. Does anyone who is in a similar situaion have any suggestions for getting fresh local veggies in the winter? From a greenhouse maybe? Or is there some… Read more »
jesse
jesse
6 years 9 months ago

hi Ika i believe? I lived in Chicago and also southern Wisconsin for a bit. I used a few different organic delivery options. Local organic farms will put seasonal fruit and veggie boxes together for you and deliver to your door. Can be pricey but most do a great job and give plenty of suggestions for using veggies you may not be familiar with. Here are a couple i remember using. Hope this helps, i used to share your frustration. http://www.naturaldirect.com http://www.freshpicks.com or check out http://www.localharvest.org

fbw
fbw
6 years 9 months ago

i think the confound here is soil quality. i suspect that getting an equal result with organic food grown on soil designed around conventional crops actually illustrates the higher quality of organic. you give it worse conditions and it comes out nutritionally equivalent (which means it is not unlikely to have been more nutritive to begin with).

so i see something very different in such comparisons because you never see them done on fields tailored for naturally grown food.

Roland
6 years 9 months ago
I’m happy they did the study, since I get tired of hearing my brother in law preach about how much more nutrition is in his organic fruit than my non-organic fruit. Can’t wait for the study that says they taste the same, too! Cuz they DO! I’ve enjoyed shopping at my farmers market, where they have a mix of organic and non-organic foods, and I choose organic when possible. The most important thing to me is buying local, when possible, then buy from small and/or family run farms, then good taste and quality, then organic. I don’t think it’s healthier… Read more »
jinushaun
jinushaun
6 years 9 months ago

Yeah, when I first read that report, I was puzzled as well. People who buy organic food don’t do it because it’s more nutritious or tastes better, they do it to avoid chemical pesticides.

I guess this was obvious to everyone else except for the people running the studies.

laurie
6 years 9 months ago

I agree, it’s the pesticide load that is the issue. Organic may or may not taste better (I think it does)or be more nutritious (I think it is), but the farms and farmers that grow organic foods are not exposed to the astronomical pesticide levels that conventional farmers are. Why not make a choice that positively affects many more lives than just your own? We pay for cheap coventionally grown food somewhere down the line – health care, taxes, insurance premiums, etc. I feel good paying a little more to buy organic, especially from my local farmers.

zal
zal
6 years 9 months ago

I believe and trust that organic produce’ the biggest health advantage – NO pesticides used. So I know that what I eat has no chemicals. About taste..I don’t care. All I care about nutritional value.
Yes, most people who buy organic, do that for the same reason, to avoid chemicals. We have them enough around without food.

Trav
Trav
5 years 8 months ago

No pesticides used? LOL! Yes they DO use pesticides in organic farming. They just don’t use SYNTHETIC pesticides. They use organic pesticides which are also often carcinogenic, except that they have to use a LOT more (up to three times the amount) to get the same results. So saying organic produce is pesticide-free is absolutely ignorant.

Richard
6 years 9 months ago

We’re lucky to have allotments literally at the bottom of the garden in England. I’m looking to grow my own veggies for a while and see how nice they are or at least start to buy locally for a while.

Marie
Marie
6 years 9 months ago

A small aside to a poster above: you may be paying the same for beef (adjusted for inflation) but % of income for housing, utilities, and gasoline has gone up… not to mention the cost of living in the 21st century (computers, internet, cell phones, cable tv, etc.)

OnTheBayou
OnTheBayou
6 years 9 months ago

I saw a new product in the liquor store the other day: organic vodka.

Really. USDA stamp and all.

baj
baj
6 years 8 months ago
Dave! Like the plug for Burgundy Beef! I live in Dallas and that’s ALL I eat. We’ve got a local organic co-op where we get produce, pastured chicken, raw milk etc if interested. Great article, but I think the forgotten element here is food VIBRANCY! We tend to focus on quantity in EVERYTHING we eat (calories, nutrients, size etc). Conventional and organic may in fact have roughly the same macro and micro nutrients, but the VIBRANCY is not there in conventional produce. We all know there is measurement of movement at a smaller level… and if a plant is bursting… Read more »
Aboo
Aboo
6 years 8 months ago
I believe in home grown food. That said I don’t believe that there is any difference between ‘organic’ and ‘non-organic’ fruit and vegetables. Here in the U.K., labelling food as ‘organic’ is regulated by the Soil Association. Interestingly, the Association allows farmers to apply ‘tried and trusted’ chemicals such as copper sulphate to crops. Chemicals known to be, for example, carcinogenic. The Association also allows plant extracts to be applied to crops, many of which contain naturally occurring pesticides, etc. IDENTICAL to those that are artificially manufactured. Unless you grow your own food and know exactly what goes on it,… Read more »
Candace
Candace
6 years 8 months ago

My boyfriend sometimes buys cheap ground beef for tortillas, and he’ll feed some to our cats… they eat it, but they sort of nibble at it over time and it takes about an hour or more for them to finish it usually. When I buy organic grass fed beef for them though, they go nuts. It’s all gone practically before I put it down.

Kimby
Kimby
6 years 1 month ago
Actually, even with a USDA label “certified organic” food does not mean that the food is free of chemicals. Organic farmers commonly use non-synthetic chemicals, or naturally occurring chemicals as pesticides. Just like synthetic pesticides, they can be harmful in large doses but systematic study has shown that in both organically grown and conventionally grown produce,levels of pesticides are consistently below the exposure levels deemed safe. Here is a link about all the different chemicals that organic farmers use: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jf980332b And, if you really think that organic food is safer, here is an article linking one of the common organic… Read more »
Trav
Trav
5 years 8 months ago

I agree.
People should have a healthy amount of skepticism about these things and research them a lot more rather than accepting something as the Gospel truth.

Trav
Trav
5 years 8 months ago

Also people need to learn about hormesis. Often times a substance that is toxic at a certain level can actually be beneficial at a much lower dose.

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[…] simple sugars versus complex carbs. Is that beef for dinner grass-fed or grain-fed? The role of organic choices. The toxic effects of pesticides on the fruit we eat. Are eggs good for us or not? Will […]

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[…] I’ve now gone as organic as I can and as local as possible with my food purchasing. Explained by Mark Sisson very well here: Is organic all its cracked up to be? […]

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