Q: Not counting benefits to the environment, is there any evidence of benefits to health from eating an organic diet?
—Jenny T., Las Vegas
A: Yes, there certainly is. First, you need to understand the differences between organic farming and conventional farming. Certified organic farmers may not use synthetic chemical pesticides, artificial fertilizers, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and unnecessary hormones or antibiotics. Instead of these toxic substances, they use practices that restore, maintain, and enhance the health of the soil and ecosystem.
This type of farming translates to more nutritious foods. Organic foods have 18–69 percent higher concentrations of health-protective antioxidants—along with lower levels of toxic heavy metals and pesticides—than conventionally grown foods, according to a 2014 meta-analysis examining 343 peer-reviewed publications in the British Journal of Nutrition.
Organic farmers don’t use synthetic chemical pesticides, while conventional farmers apply, on average, 2–12 synthetic pesticides to their crops. According to a study published earlier this year in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research, families who switched to an organic diet rapidly and dramatically reduced their exposure to four classes of pesticides—by an average of 60 percent after just six days of eating organic.
Limiting that exposure is important, especially for kids. Residues of some widely used pesticides can trigger subtle changes in a child’s development, and have been linked to a wide range of health problems including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, reduced fertility, obesity, and certain forms of cancer.
Did You Know?
Pesticide residues have been linked to several health issues in kids, so limiting their exposure by eating organic is important.
Eating Organic Lowers Risk of Cancer
A study reported in October 2018 in JAMA Internal Medicine found that eating organic can significantly cut your risk of developing cancer. The study, which followed close to 70,000 adults for five years, found a 25 percent decrease in the risk of all types of cancer among regular consumers of organic foods, compared to people who eat organic less often. The association was particularly marked in breast cancer among postmenopausal women (34 percent decreased risk) and in lymphoma (a staggering 76 percent decreased risk).
“Things like cancer don’t just happen. They happen for a reason,” says Grain Brain author David Perlmutter, MD, in the new documentary Secret Ingredients. And now we’re seeing connections between the mechanisms of cancer and mechanisms by which glyphosate changes human physiology to increase the risk of cancer, says Perlmutter.
Success Stories of Real People Eating Organic Foods
In addition to some scientific studies that show benefits, remarkable success stories of people explaining how they recovered from numerous ailments after switching to an organic diet are growing. The Secret Ingredients documentary shares personal accounts of more than a dozen people who turned around a wide variety of serious health conditions—including breast cancer, infertility, and life-threatening food allergies—after adopting an organic diet that avoided GMOs and food sprayed with pesticides.
For example, Kathleen DiChiara and her family were collectively struggling with 21 chronic diseases. Kathleen experienced a severe health crisis— sudden onset neuropathy in her legs, followed by surgery, followed by paralysis and chronic pain syndrome. Her children suffered from chronic conditions of their own. Her oldest son had autistic spectrum disorder. Her middle son had asthma, chronic bronchitis, bloating, and mood swings. Her youngest son had rashes and allergies, and eventually experienced an anaphylactic reaction. When she eliminated pesticides and GMOs from her kitchen by adopting an all-organic diet, she recovered her health so much that she no longer feels she has a disability, and her children improved their varied chronic health problems too.
This type of evidence is often called anecdotal. But, in the film, physician Perlmutter explains that multiple anecdotes make up data, meaning that each individual anecdote ultimately accumulates to a body of information that we can call data. Plus, these anecdotes really matter to those individuals, dramatically improving their lives in significant health-enhancing ways.
Glyphosate’s Harmful Effects
It makes sense that eating organic foods would upgrade health to overcome disease, says Perlmutter. The herbicide glyphosate, for example, is a metal chelator, antibiotic (that can kill good bacteria), endocrine or hormone disruptor, and probable human carcinogen. For all of these reasons, it sets up what he calls “a perfect storm” of ways it deteriorates body health.
By eating organic foods that aren’t sprayed with glyphosate and other pesticides, people remove the ingredients that cause the most toxic burden for the body’s best function. Doing that helps restore the body’s innate ability to heal itself, no matter what health condition each of us has.
In her practice in Northern California, veteran pediatrician Michelle Perro, MD, coauthor of What’s Making Our Children Sick?, has seen similar clinical data. Perro says switching to an organic diet doesn’t just help dramatically improve the health of the children who are most sick. It offers health benefits for all members of the family, some quite dramatically.
Tips for Buying Organic
The following are the top things to keep in mind when transitioning to an organic diet.
- Buying organic is an investment in health, but there are ways to make it more affordable. You may pay more than you did buying conventional foods, but if you’re careful, you may not. Just watch for sales and special discounts at natural food stores, comparison shop, and stock up on organic staples when you see a super deal.
- Eating organic can be socially inconvenient, so you have to think ahead. Always have organic snacks on hand that you can take with you, and take your own organic dishes or desserts to parties.
- Keep it simple: Eat what you normally eat, just substitute organic versions of those foods. Go from vegetables to organic vegetables, cookies to organic cookies, and so forth.
- When you can, choose foods with both the USDA Organic label and the Non-GMO Project Verified label. If you can’t, opt for foods with the USDA Organic seal.
Foods labeled with the USDA Organic seal are produced without the use of GMOs, synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, artificial dyes, artificial sweeteners, and antibiotics and artificial growth hormones (in the production of meat, dairy, and eggs).
In contrast, products that carry the Non-GMO Project Verified seal are independently verified to be in compliance with North America’s only third-party standard for GMO avoidance, including testing of at-risk ingredients. But these foods still could be sprayed with glyphosate or other synthetic pesticides and you wouldn’t know it. That is why seeking out organic foods is important.