“An apple a day keeps the doctor away”… My mother used to chant this popular proverb when I was just a little girl. So you can imagine how delighted I was to hear a respected professor from Harvard University, Chensheng (Alex) Lu, Ph.D., confirm the maternal mantra.
Lu, a professor of Environmental Exposure Biology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, addressed a group of curious dietitians, hungry to know more about the benefits of organic food and farming.
Lu recited the familiar saying, but added a cautionary caveat: the apples should not be sprayed with dangerous pesticides. Then he shared his startling research.
In 2005, Lu discovered that simply switching children from a conventional to an organic diet, resulted in an “immediate protective effect” against exposure to potentially harmful pesticides. The researchers witnessed a “dramatic” drop in pesticide metabolites, or breakdown products, in the children’s urine. (1)
Lu’s research team later collected over 200 non-organic food samples typically consumed by American children. Nearly one-fifth of the samples measured had at least one pesticide, and more than one-quarter of those contained multiple pesticides. (2) Yuck.
According to the National Research Council, children and pregnant women are most vulnerable to the harmful effects of pesticide exposure. Therefore, one could argue that it is not “safe” for susceptible populations to consume diets containing pesticide residues.
However, when it comes to the topic of “food safety,” most of our conversations tend to focus on harmful bacteria, such as Salmonella contaminated eggs, and E. coli tainted hamburger or spinach. Granted, these bacteria make the headlines for good reason. They can cause serious acute illness with chronic and crippling life-long consequences, and even death. (3, 4) That’s why it’s critical that we practice safe food handling techniques from farm to fork. But, it is also important for us to expand our horizons, and think about food safety beyond bacteria.
For example, food isn’t safe if it’s contaminated with mercury, bis-phenol from plastics, or antibiotic and hormone residues. Food ingredients and additives, such as trans fats and artificial food dyes can also pose a food safety risk. These compounds may not sicken us right away, but instead, can lead to illness over time or worsen pre-existing conditions.
Case in point: The President’s Cancer Panel Report links exposure to environmental chemicals, including pesticides, to increased cancer risk, and makes clear recommendations to choose food grown or produced without pesticides, chemical fertilizers, antibiotics, and growth-hormones. (5)
When I invite new friends over for dinner, I always ask if they have any food allergies, so I can plan my menu accordingly. I promise that our meal together will be delicious, “safe,” and fun. My invitation opens the door to a broader discussion about what food safety really means.
I assure my guests that my food won’t make them sick from an offending allergen or bacteria. I won’t temperature abuse or cross contaminate, and I wash my hands religiously. Because the food I serve is organically raised and produced, I can also provide extra assurance that my visitors won’t be consuming genetically modified ingredients or dangerous pesticide residues. Our meat and dairy will come from animals that have never received GMO feed, hormones, or antibiotics.
In addition, multiple studies show that organically produced food contains higher levels of assorted heart-protecting, cancer-fighting nutrients, such as minerals, antioxidants, and polyunsaturated fats – true preventive medicine. (6)
I like to think of organic farming as an investment in clean and safe food for us and our larger environment — a traditional way to keep the doctor away.
~Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.
1. Organic Diets Significantly Lower Children’s Dietary Exposure to Organophosphorus Pesticides, Lu, C., et al. Environmental Health Perspectives. February 2006.
2. Assessing Children’s Dietary Exposure – direct measurement of pesticide residues in 24-hour duplicate food samples, Lu, C., et. al. Environmental Health Perspectives. November 2010.
3. Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention.
4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Foodborne Illness.
5. The President’s Cancer Panel Report.
6. The Organic Center. “State of Science Reports.”