Can Organic Keep You Healthy?

Posted on February 9, 2012


Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor.  The opinions expressed below are purely my own and do not constitute medical advice of any kind.  Thank you.

In the post Can Organic Heal the Earth, we discussed conventional and organic farming methods and their effects on the health of the larger environment. In this post, I’d like to look at the effects of conventional and organic agriculture on a smaller ecosystem; the human body. We’ve all heard the expression, “You are what you eat.” The truth of this is obvious to most people. If you choose processed foods high in fat and sugar you are more likely to become overweight and experience associated health problems. Whole foods with a high nutritional content can provide your body with the fuel it needs to stay healthy and strong. But what about the chemicals we put on the food that we eat? Or the products we apply to our skin? Do these less direct methods of consumption affect our health too?

“The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that agricultural workers suffer from the highest rate of chemically related illness of any occupational group. Pesticides can injure field workers through direct spray, drift, or the residue left by pesticides.  Workers who mix, load, and apply pesticides suffer illnesses from spills, splashes, or inadequate protective equipment. …In addition to the immediate danger of acute poisoning, many pesticides have been epidemiologically linked to longterm effects, such as cancer, birth defects, and damage to the kidneys, liver, and nervous system.” ¹

It’s not just farm workers who are affected by these chemicals either.  Members of their immediate families are routinely exposed to pesticide
residue. Toxic chemicals are carried into the home on clothing, skin, and hair. They may cling in the form of soil or dust which then travels from the floor to toys to hands, and eventually into children’s mouths. ² There are even a few long-term studies being carried out, most notably the
CHAMACOS study, in an attempt to understand the repercussions of exposure during prenatal and early development periods on children’s
growth, neurodevelopement, and overall health. These pesticides are also carried far from farms and into our bodies via water (leaching from soil into groundwater) and by the crops themselves.

Pesticides and waxes present on the skin of fruits and vegetables can often be removed by rinsing or washing.  Taking care to clean fruits and
vegetables before eating (even if they are organic) is definitely an important part of maintaining proper food safety.  But what about pesticides that aren’t limited to the skin of the fruit?  Systemic pesticides cannot simply be washed off. They are designed to be absorbed by the plant and permeate its tissues so that any pest which takes a bite will die. These products aren’t just applied externally. Insecticides produced by Genetically Modified (GM) plants are also present throughout the organism, and a recent University of Sherbrooke study suggests that they are absorbed from the plants into the human bloodstream. ³

As with plants, our skin isn’t only a barrier protecting us from external influences; it’s an interface through which we interact with the world.  Skin’s ability to move substances into our bloodstream is well-known. Nicotine patches, topical hot flash treatments, and the birth control patch all work by transferring substances into our bodies directly through the skin. Given how easily these products are absorbed, do we really want to be putting things like mercury, coal tar, formaldehyde, phthalates (fragrance), or diethanolamine (DEA) onto our skin?  All of these products are currently allowed in skin care and cosmetics. Use of the word “organic” in body care is not currently regulated, but if you look for formulas containing USDA Certified Organic oils and plants, and try to choose products containing ingredients you can identify without a degree in chemistry, you can significantly reduce your exposure to these toxic compounds.

Chemicals and additives enter our food system during processing as well. The filler, composed of fatty trimmings, used in most conventional
hamburger meat is “sterilized” through exposure to ammonia. 4 The chemicals dichloromethane and ethyl acetate are used to remove caffeine from coffee (not true of water-process Decaf) and produce decaffeinated varieties.  Recently, people have become aware that the cellulose in many foods, like ice cream or muffins, is essentially wood pulp. These are only a few of the ways in which various non-food, sometimes
downright hazardous, substances make their way into our kitchens and onto our plates.

The foods we put into our bodies and the products we place on our skin affect our health. The more identifiable the items on an ingredient list
are, the less likely a product is to contain something potentially harmful. Whole foods contain fewer additives than processed ones.  Organic and locally produced products are manufactured more transparently, contain fewer additives, and allow us greater insight into what our food goes through before it reaches our plates. Knowledge of what is in, on, and passed through our foods is one of the best tools we have for controlling our personal health. Choosing organic can help us gain that knowledge and take control of our diets.

Next installment: Can organic feed the earth?


This article was adapted from one first published in the GreenTree Cooperative Grocery Newsletter of Winter 2011.