A few weeks ago, a new reader of my On Nutrition column in The Seattle Times asked me why I didn’t mention eating organic foods in my column on heart health. His reasoning was that if we all stayed away from conventional food we not only wouldn’t develop chronic inflammation (which as I mentioned in my column is a significant contributor to heart disease), but a whole list of other health problems (some of which don’t actually have links to chronic inflammation, but that’s neither here nor there).
“I don’t get why you don’t preach this—how can you be a nutritionist if your [sic] not telling people to eat sustainable food.”
The word “preach,” along with the flawed logic in his argument, got to me, so I had to respond, starting with this: I don’t preach because nutrition is not a religion, it’s a science.
Beyond Beliefs: Looking At the Evidence
I pointed out that while I support organic food (and in fact grow my own organic vegetables), that had nothing specifically to do with the topic of heart health. As for the claim that eating only organic food will prevent chronic inflammation, I have not seen one shred of scientific evidence to support. Yes, exposure to toxic chemicals is one of many factors that can contribute to inflammation, and it stands to reason that pesticide residues may also contribute, but eating excess sugar, excess saturated fat, excess refined carbohydrates and excess calories are also known (by way of scientific evidence) to contribute to chronic levels of inflammation in the body.
I can walk into Whole Foods or PCC Natural Markets and point to any number of organic foods that would in fact promote chronic inflammation: organic potato chips, organic white flour bread and pastries, organic ice cream, organic soda, organic candy, and so on. I would rather see my patients, and my readers, eat conventional fruits and vegetables than organic junk food filled with sugar, sodium and refined flour.
Why Buy Organic?
That said, I generally recommend buying organic as budget and availability allow, and specifically recommend prioritizing buying organic animal products (meat, milk and eggs), because some pesticides accumulate in fat, as well as anything on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list (which changes each year, fyi).
While I buy organic as much as I can, I know that organic produce isn’t necessarily more nutritious. For that reason, I favor local produce (organic or conventional) over industrial organic, because transportation and storage conditions can erode many nutrients. That said, there is evidence that organic produce may have higher levels of phytochemicals, those plant compounds that protect a plant against threats in its environment, and may in turn have benefits for human health (including anti-inflammatory benefits). And, results of a recently released study suggest that organic milk and meat is higher in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are heart healthy and anti-inflammatory.
Moving away from matters of personal nutrition, buying organic has benefits for the environment, as well as for the workers who harvest our food.
So, yes, there are a number of reasons to buy organic when possible. But buying organic can become unbalanced and unhealthy if someone fears eating anything that’s not organic, when they assume that if it’s organic it’s healthy (leading to overconsumption of highly processed, albeit organic, foods), or when shopping organic becomes less of a buying preference and more of an identity. In other words, when organic becomes your religion.
- My May 26, 2013 column on organics
- A related blog post
- My April 5, 2015 column on the recommendations made by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), in which I pointed out that the DGAC made the courageous move to address sustainable agriculture and the environmental impact of our food choices.
- My June 16, 2015 “Where Does Your Food Come From” post on bananas.
- My November 25, 2015 column on the Finding Common Ground conference, which addressed sustainability, among other issues
- My January 20, 2016 column on the new Dietary Guidelines, in which I criticized the fact that the political process squashed the DGAC’s recommendations regarding sustainability.