bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Colour me surprised: Organic foods may contain pesticides!

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Last week consumers of organic produce got their knickers all in a knot over news reports of pesticide residue being found on “organic” produce. Now, I thought that we all knew by now that purchasing organic produce didn’t guarantee avoidance of pesticides. Apparently not.

Just a reminder… Organic food is not grown in isolation. There are pesticides in the soil, the rain, the air. Organic foods are not shipped and sold in isolation. There are many stages at which they may become contaminated with pesticides. Indeed, organic foods may also have pesticides deliberately applied during the growing process. Pesticides are allowable in organic farming, provided that they are not synthetic. For a list of permitted substances in organic farming see this from the Government of Canada.

Before we all give-up on organic produce, it’s worth considering a couple of things. One, it appears that the number of samples was quite small (the image at the bottom of the CBC article shows a sample size of 30 for the grapes). This could mean that the numbers are not an accurate reflection of the state of pesticide residue in produce in Canada. Two, only 1.8% of organic samples exceeded allowable limits for pesticides; 4.7% of non-organic samples did. In fact, less than half of the samples of organic produce tested positive for pesticides at all. While 78.4% of non-organic produce tested positive. Considering the numerous opportunities for organic produce to becomes contaminated with pesticides the number showing residue is actually quite small.

Yes, you’re taking a risk that your food is going to be contaminated with pesticides. That risk is present whether you choose organic or not. However, that risk is considerably greater if you choose non-organic produce. It’s also worth taking into consideration that by choosing organic produce you’re choosing to have fewer synthetic pesticides put into the environment. Over time, this may mean that your organic food will be less and less likely to be contaminated with synthetic pesticides.


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Is organic milk really better than conventional milk?

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Last week it was all over the news that organic milk is nutritionally superior to conventional milk. Don’t you just hate that non-organic is commonly known as “conventional”? When did the use of pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, and genetic modification become conventional anyway? I really think that we should have a more nefarious name for it. Anyway… I digress. The purpose of this post is not actually to bash non-organic farming. Nope, not today. Today I want to rant about this study.

First off, who sponsored the research? Oh, just CROPP, only the “nation’s largest and most successful organic farmer cooperative” according to their website. Oh sure, they had no influence over the design and results of the study but do you think it would have been published if it hadn’t found that organic milk was superior to non-organic milk? This is not unbiased research.

And let’s just talk about the finding that organic milk is much better for you than non-organic milk. The newspapers were reporting that organic milk contains significantly more omega-3 fatty acids, and significantly fewer omega-6 fatty acids, than non-organic milk. So, we should all drink more full-fat organic milk to obtain our omega-3s. Now, scientific significance is a funny thing. In this case it showed that there was a bit more than twice as much omega-3 in the organic milk, and about 1/4 as much omega-6. Wow! That’s a HUGE difference! Is it though? When we’re comparing 0.0321 g of omega-3 in organic milk and 0.0198 g in non-organic milk (per 100 g). No, no it’s not. And when we read the small print at the bottom of the graph stating that the results were biased because unreported small values were entered as zero this could make for a comparatively large margin of error. Especially when the researchers reported that they obtained more samples of organic milk than non-organic. This could quite easily have skewed the results to make the values appear lower in the non-organic than in the organic.

As the researchers point out, there was a great deal of seasonal variability in the fat-profile of the organic milk. This indicated that the increased omega-3, and decreased omega-6, was more likely a result of consumption of a grass and forage based diet rather than a grain-based diet. Basically, the miniscule benefit from consuming organic milk is a result of the diet composition, not the fact that it was organic.

I’m a big supporter of organic food and products. However, from a nutritional standpoint, there is little reason to choose organic milk over non-organic. There may, however, be some reason to choose grass-fed dairy products over grain-fed dairy.


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Shocker: Organic food no more nutritious than non-organic!

Yet another study has shown that organic food is not more nutritious than “conventionally” grown food. The only thing that I’m surprised about is that this is big news. This should be common knowledge by now. I’ve blogged about it before. But perhaps it bears repeating. There are good reasons to buy organic foods; better nutrition is not one of them. If you want to protect the environment and reduce your exposure to pesticides then you should buy organic foods whenever possible. If you want to support your local economy and have fresher (and arguably more tasty) food then you should buy local organic foods. If you want to get more nutrients out of your food then you should eat more whole foods, regardless of whether or not they’re organic.


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Will eating organic foods make you mean?

Is it true that organic food consumers are self righteous? A new study provides some evidence to support this theory. The researchers simply had people look at photos of organic food or “comfort” food or non-comfort food. They then asked participants to judge fictional situations and how much time they would devote to helping a stranger. It was found that those individuals who were exposed to the organic foods judged others more harshly than those in the other two groups. It was also found that they were less willing to devote time to assisting a stranger (13 minutes) than those in the other groups (24 minutes for the comfort food group and 19 minutes for the control group). The author of the study surmised that the exposure to organic foods somehow made people feel superior and as if they had already done their good deed so they didn’t need to devote as much time to helping a stranger as those in the other groups.

I wish I was able to access the journal article without paying an arm and a leg. Sadly, I can’t so I’m going to have to speculate a little here. I wonder what the organic foods were that were shown to the study participants. It sounds like they were packaged foods with “moral” names such as “Honest Tea, Purity Life, and Smart Balance”. I doubt the same result would have been seen if participants were exposed to organic fruits and vegetables. Also, the “comfort” foods used sound more like indulgences to me. They used things like cookies and brownies. I wonder if this group was seemingly more altruistic because they felt guilty about their exposure to these treats. And how were the neutral foods chosen? Oatmeal definitely sounds like a comfort food to me. I’d like to see how a group with no food exposure would respond to the scenarios.

I’m not sure what the point of this study was. Are we trying to deter people from consuming organic food? Are we trying to instil people with the belief that people who eat organic food are condescending jerks? Don’t let this dissuade you from eating organic foods if you want to.


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To buy organic or to not buy organic…

Myth 1: Organic foods are the safest and healthiest choice for you.
What Dietitians of Canada says:
“Organic foods may have more, about the same, or less nutrients than non-organic foods. And both organic and non-organic foods are grown and produced under strict regulations to make sure they are safe for you to eat.”
What I say:
It’s been documented that many organic foods are contaminated by pesticides, either during the growing process through contaminated air, rain, and soil, or post-harvest during storage. I think that in that regard, many of the foods we currently produce are not particularly safe to eat as pesticides accumulate in our bodies over time. However, I agree that the nutrient value of foods within each category (i.e. organic and non-organic) is likely to vary more than the nutrient value between the two groups. From a nutrition standpoint there is little benefit to consuming organic foods. However, from a flavour standpoint, and from an environmental standpoint, there are benefits to choosing organic foods.