Your Healthy Harvest
by Marjorie Flakowitz
August 15, 2004
Once frowned on by conventional
farmers, organic food has won respect from everyone
concerned about the health of both the earth and the people
who inhabit it.
Today, organic farming is considered one of the most
rapidly growing areas of American agriculture. Organic foods
sales topped $9 billion in 2002 and grew about 20%, up to
almost $11 billion in 2003 (Organic Trade Association).
So when you buy organic, you join an expanding market that
takes advantage of great-tasting, good-for-you food. Long
ago, when the practice of farming was first devised, all
farming was organic farming. So today's organic movement is
bringing farming back to its roots.
But, safe to say, that is not what's motivating most
consumers. A main reason for the popularity of organic food
derives from the reassurance that organic foods, raised
without artificial chemicals and pesticides, cut your
exposure to toxic residues. A growing body of research shows
organic food is richer in beneficial natural substances,
" Organic food and organic farming represent a philosophy
that goes beyond just the quality of the food," says Steve
Meyerowitz in The Organic Food Guide (Globe Pequot). "It
strives to maintain the integrity of the entire food
chain-plants, soil, air, water, animals and people. We are
all part of the same ecosystem."
By eating organic, you eliminate pollution both from your
body and the earth. Because our bodies are made of the
animal and plant products we consume, our internal,
physiological ecosystem and the earth's environment are
Chilling Arctic Evidence
As evidence of this connection, consider what's happened in
the Arctic. Researchers who have analyzed Arctic water, ice,
snow, soil and plants have found that chemicals used in
farming and industry in other parts of the world have
traveled north and accumulated in alarming quantity. How and
if these chemicals break down depends on sunlight and the
amount of organic matter contained in Arctic waters
(American Chemical Society, 9/11/03).
" Once pollutants enter the water column, their behavior is
poorly understood-particularly the processes that govern
their lifetime and concentrations," says Amanda Grannas,
PhD, a researcher at Ohio State University. "Such pollutants
are now being found in wildlife, from fish to seals to
whales, and even in people living in the Arctic."
Dr. Grannas and others looked at the pesticides lindane and
hexachlorobenzene (HCB), two chemicals that have migrated to
Arctic waters. Lindane is used by American farmers to treat
seeds before they are planted. HCB, banned in the US in
1984, is still used in other countries to protect wheat from
The scientists found that sunlight at the top of Arctic
waterways can help break down some pesticides. At lower
depths, however, cut off from the sun's rays, pesticides can
remain largely intact. In this research, lindane proved to
persist much more readily than HCB.
" Lindane is one of the most persistent of pollutants,"
warns Dr. Grannas. "This could be because it's
photochemically inert, whereas pollutants like HCB degrade
relatively quickly. The main message is that pollutants can
behave quite differently. These pollutants already affect
local ecosystems, and could have repercussions for human
Organics Means More Benefits
Researchers are also finding that organic produce contains
larger quantities of beneficial natural chemicals. For
instance, one study (Journal of Agriculture and Food
Chemistry 2/26/03) showed that berries and corn grown
organically can have almost 60% more polyphenolics.
Polyphenolics are antioxidants plants use for protection
against disease and which are good for humans. Researchers
believe that when crops are grown conventionally, protected
by pesticides and herbicides, they produce fewer of these
" This really opens the door to more research in this area,"
says Alyson Mitchell, PhD, assistant professor of food
science at University of California at Davis, who led the
These scientists compared levels of total polyphenolics and
vitamin C content in marionberries (a type of blackberry)
and corn grown organically, sustainably or conventionally,
and also looked at chemicals in strawberries grown either
sustainably or conventionally. (Sustainable farming falls
between the organic and conventional methods, and
concentrates on farming that's self-sufficient-for example,
feeding cows hay you've grown yourself, and then using the
cows' manure to fertilize another crop.)
They found that organic marionberries and corn had 50% to
58% more polyphenolics. The sustainably grown strawberries
had 19% more polyphenolics. And all the organic produce
contained more vitamin C.
Self-Defense for Plants
According to Dr. Mitchell, the organic crops contained the
high levels of polyphenolics you'd expect to find in wild
plants, suggesting that, on conventional farms, pesticides
reduce the necessity for plants to make these protective,
" If an aphid is nibbling on a leaf, the plant produces
phenolics to defend itself," she says. "[P]henolics guard
the plant against these pests."
Pesticides kill insects like aphids and thereby reduce the
antioxidants produced by the plant. " This helps explain why
the level of antioxidants is so much higher in organically
grown food," Mitchell says. "By synthetically protecting the
produce from these pests, we decrease their need to produce
antioxidants. It suggests that maybe we are doing something
to our food inadvertently.
" We know [polyphenolics] are beneficial [to human health],
but we don't know what types of polyphenolics are
beneficial, or in what quantities," Dr. Mitchell notes. "
Originally, the question was just really intriguing to me. I
found that the higher level of antioxidants is enough to
have a significant impact on health and nutrition, and it's
definitely changed the way I think about my food."
Vitamin C in Oranges
Meanwhile, nutritional research on the vitamin C in oranges
turns up similar results: organic oranges are richer in this
antioxidant nutrient than conventionally grown oranges
(Great Lakes Regional Meeting, American Chemical Society,
The more common supermarket oranges are significantly larger
than organically grown oranges, and they have a deeper
orange color. Because of their larger size, "we were
expecting twice as much vitamin C in the conventional
oranges," says Theo Clark, PhD, chemistry professor at
Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri.
But when he isolated the chemicals in the oranges and
further refined his search with nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR),
spectroscopy demonstrated that organically grown oranges
possess 30% more vitamin C than the conventionally grown
fruits-even though they are only about half as large.
Dr. Clark isn't sure why organic oranges are richer in
vitamin C, but he says, "...[W]e speculate that with
conventional oranges, [farmers] use nitrogen fertilizers
that cause an uptake of more water, so it sort of dilutes
the orange. You get a great big orange but it is full of
water and does not have as much nutritional value.
" However, we can only speculate. Other factors such as
maturity, climate, processing factors, packaging and storage
conditions require consideration." Along with analyzing
oranges, Dr. Clark and his research team questioned about 70
people to measure their concept of the nutritional value of
organic oranges. In this survey, 85% of the respondents
thought that organic oranges have a higher nutritional
content than conventionally grown fruit.
Dr. Clark's laboratory work shows that "they were right on."
In Dr. Clark's view, these issues are important because
consumers have a right to know the real nutritional content
of organic produce, and the fact that analyses show that
organic fruit has much more vitamin C validates the benefits
of eating organic.
Both plants and animals protect themselves from disease with
many of the same chemicals. The natural substances that, in
a farmer's field, defend vegetables from insects and
microbes before they are harvested for your dinner go to
work defending your body after you eat and digest them.
When you eat organic you bolster your health with more of
these natural wonders. No wonder organic is becoming so