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Is Eating Organic BS? (Part II)

Penn and Teller’s: BS

As promised, here is Part II of Monday’s article on organic foods. I examined an episode of Penn & Teller’s: Bulls**t in which they called “BS!” on the whole organic food craze based on these five factors:

  1. Environment
  2. Pesticides
  3. Nutrition
  4. Taste
  5. Small Business Farmers

You can read Part I here.

Today I will be discussing nutrition, taste, benefits for the small farmer and conclude with the absolute best option when purchasing raw produce.

Better Nutrition

One reason people cite for choosing organically grown food is because it has a higher level of nutrition than conventionally grown produce.

Penn and Teller

The show quotes a 2009 LA Times’ article quoting (I know, a lot of quotes) a study conducted by researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in which they concluded that there was no significant difference in nutritional quality between organic and conventional food.

From the LA Times article:

Surveying 50,000 studies conducted over 50 years, the authors focused on 55 that met their standards of scientific rigor. The studies that led to the group’s controversial conclusions covered a wide range of crops and livestock that are raised and marketed under organic standards.

For 10 out of 13 food crops studied, the researchers found no significant differences. Where they did find differences, those were attributed to differences in fertilizer use (say, the use of nitrogen vs. phosphorus) and the ripeness level at which the crops were harvested. The authors judged the differences observed “unlikely” to “provide any health benefit” to consumers.

My Comments

While the study draws an interesting conclusion, the results really depend upon the farm and the farming methods, whether organic or not (e.g. the soil quality, when the fruit is picked, etc.)

That’s why I highlighted the portion of the quote regarding ripeness; I believe the ripeness level of the food to be the real key. The closer the food is to being tree-ripened, the more nutritious it will be.

This is especially important for fruits that do not continue to ripen after being picked. It’s also one reason your best option is to eat locally sourced produce, but we’ll get to that a bit later.

For now, let’s take a look at the fourth criterion.

Better Taste

I’m sure you know this one! How many times have you been told (or maybe told others) how AMAZING organic produce tastes compared to conventional?

Penn and Teller

For this portion, the show conducted a blind taste test for which they had multiple people tasting two different unlabeled plates of food (conventional and organic apples, tomatoes, and bananas) and then asking them which one was organic.

In each test, the majority of the people chose the conventional fruit because it was tastier and so they figured it was organic!

My Comments

The last test was my favorite part of the show. A girl—a raw vegan, actually!—was given half of an organic banana and half of a non-organic banana and asked which one tasted better.

She was very enthusiastic about the organic half, exclaiming that it tasted more like a banana than the conventional banana. In actuality, both halves came from the same conventionally grown banana! It was just one banana!!!

I know, pretty mean, but she was a good sport.

When it comes to fruit, I have to agree with the taste testers. Organic fruit is typically less tasty than conventional. And while the quality has definitely been improving over the years and I’ve had some tasty organic fruit, it still isn’t miles and away better than any conventionally grown fruits I’ve ever had.

Greens, on the other hand, are another story. Organic greens are almost always tastier than their conventional counterparts. I’ve also had bitter organic greens—in that case I throw them out—but usually the quality is very good.

Benefits for the Small Business Farmer

Lastly, many people interested in eating organic do so because they believe that they are lining the pockets of small business farmers.

Penn and Teller

According to Penn and Teller, this is BS. Now that the organic food movement is such a profitable industry, most (if not all) of the organic farms are owned by large companies.

My Comments

While it is definitely true that the organic foods you find in your local grocery store mostly come from corporations, you can still support small businesses by purchasing produce from local farms at farmers markets—or from the farms directly—in your area.

Which brings me to…

The Best Option

By far the best choice for fresh, tasty, nutritious, environmentally friendly produce is to buy locally.

Why?

The closer the produce is to where you live, the less distance it will have to travel to get to you (environment). Also, the fresher and higher-quality it will be because the farmer will not have to worry about the food decomposing on the way and will be able to pick as close to ripe as possible (nutrition).

As far as pesticides go, each farm is different. However, it has been my experience that while many of the farms at the farmers markets are not USDA certified organic, they practice many sustainable methods (i.e. no sewage sludge, no genetically modified seeds, and no irradiation) and use as little harmful pesticides (or even none!) as possible.

There actually IS a certified organic farm at one of my markets, but the prices are ridiculous and the fruit tastes no different than what is offered at the other farms.

Oh, and taste! Fresh, ripe fruit is always tastier than fruit that was picked early to ship, wait in a warehouse, sit on the store shelves, and finally find its way into your kitchen.

The absolute BEST tomatoes, peaches, cantaloupes, watermelons, and blueberries I have ever tasted were not certified organic, but were grown just a few miles (in many cases, less than 30) from where I live.

The best part about buying local produce? You actually get to communicate with the people growing your food and buy directly from them! You can ask them all about what produce they grow, their prices, their farming methods, etc.

To find farms and farmers markets in your area, check out www.pickyourown.org and www.localharvest.org

Final Words

Bruce Ames, famous biochemist and creator of the Ames Test (a test that screens chemicals to see if they cause cancer) quoted in this NY Times article:

Everything you eat in the supermarket is absolutely chock full of carcinogens…But most cancers are not due to parts per billion of pesticides. They’re due to causes like smoking, bad diets and, obesity.

And here again in a Reason Magazine interview:

I just think all this business of organic food is nonsense basically. We should be eating more fruits and vegetables, so the main way to do that is to make them cheaper. Anything that makes fruits and vegetables more expensive may increase cancer.

In other words…

Stop obsessing over organic and EAT MORE FRUIT!!! :D

UPDATE: Judy brought up an excellent point: home growing!  Growing your food yourself is even better than sourcing locally grown produce, for obvious reasons: you have complete control over the seeds you buy, the composting you use, the soil, pesticide management, etc.

Thanks, Judy! :)

Go raw and be fit,

Swayze

P.S. Need help filling up on fruit?  Check out my healthy and tasty raw recipe book below:

Low Fat, Fruit Filled, High Fun Raw Recipes

P.P.S This is the 100th post on Fit On Raw! :D

11 comments

1 Raw.la - Raw Food in The News and Around The Web { 06.25.10 at 6:30 am }

[...] Is Eating Organic BS? (Part II) [...]

2 Gerry { 06.25.10 at 6:59 am }

I totally agree with your conclusion, any fresh fruit or greens will always out perform processed and cooked food.

The food processing brigade are making money out of re arranging cheap starches and soy based mulch, not
mindfull if they cause ill health from their profit taking.

3 Brian { 06.25.10 at 10:05 am }

What would be the draw back of stocking up on the delicious locally grown tomatoes, blueberries etc and canning them yourself while they are in season and at the peak of their flavor? This way you know what’s in the preserved fruit, where they came from, and you get to support your local farmers (local economy) and you can have them year round?

This would allow you to not have to get your fruit from far away places during winter and when fruit is not in season locally (environmental and better taste).

Does the minimal processing that goes into home canning really remove that much of the good stuff? If it does then why couldn’t you eat more of that home canned (locally grown and preserved in the peak of it’s freshness) fruit?

Swayze Reply:

Great point, Brian. Unfortunately, it isn’t just about the water, fiber, etc. that is removed from food when it is cooked. Cooking actually alters the food – carbohydrate molecules are fused together when heated (i.e. carmelized) – making it impossible for our bodies to utilize all of the vitamins, minerals, etc. and caloric energy from the food.

Yet another factor is that acrylamides, a carcinogen, are produced by cooking high carbohydrate foods (i.e. fruits). While many will argue that this chemical is only found in foods heated to a high temperature and do not effect steamed and boiled foods, this is not true. Small doses have been found in foods heated less than 120 degrees Celsisus. Even the World Health Organization admits that they “don’t know exactly at what temperature acrylamide is formed in food”

Cooking issues aside, it would be impossible to store enough canned food (especially considering many of these fruits are low in calories) and receive enough calories.

Brian Reply:

I do agree that fresh fruits have more vitamins etc, my concern would be when fruit is not in season it seems there would be a large environmental impact getting that fruit to one of my local markets. I guess my question is: would using home canning to supplement (not eliminate) the diet during the off season reduce some of this environmental impact and still achieve the same end goal?

A few items you mentioned I also wanted to comment on just for the sake of clarity:
The World Health Organization quote that you pulled said in the very next sentence: “However acrylamide has so far not been found in food prepared at temperatures below 120 degrees Celsius, including boiled foods.” This really refers to baking, and cooking where the temperatures can be above 120C where as canning is done at 100C so the fruit/vegetables being preserved aren’t subjected to these higher temperatures.

Also sugars don’t start caramelizing until over 160F which is not reached during the home canning process.

Thanks for the information.

Swayze Reply:

If someone is really concerned with their environmental impact, freezing their fruit (once ripeness has occurred) would be a better option than canning. However, this would still be difficult due to the fact that: a) it takes a lot of fruit to sustain oneself on this diet and b) these fruits are usually low in calories (i.e. strawberries, blueberries, peaches, cantaloupe, etc.). I’m speaking of those of us in the non-subtropical portions of North America, of course.

Really, the best way to be environmentally friendly is to live in the tropics or subtropics. That way, you have access to lots of locally grown, calorically dense fruits year round.

Yes, except small amounts actually have been found at those temperatures. There was an FDA presentation in 2003 in which the acrylamide level in boiled potatoes was measured at <30ppb (the EPA limit in drinking water is .12). It was not stated which test was used (there are two) for measuring acrylamides, but both are criticized for being highly insensitive at measuring acrylamides below a certain level. This is why certain tests find none in boiled and steamed foods and is also why the EPA has recommended a new test be developed.

That said, there's no question that canned fruits are far superior to most of the packaged foods you will find in the supermarket. :)

4 Joan { 06.25.10 at 2:20 pm }

Thanks! Good info…

5 JUDY M ARQUETTE { 06.25.10 at 7:35 pm }

I agree with your conclusion and the only thing I would add is that the very best source of wholesome food is to grow your own. That way you know how it is grown and it is as local as you can get!

Swayze Reply:

Ah, I can’t believe I forgot about growing your own! I added a little update to the post. Thanks! :D

6 Becky { 02.13.12 at 9:36 pm }

Interesting study about the raw vegan and the banana. I have heard of other studies with – chimpanzees I believe – and a organic vs. conventional bananas. The chimps would eat the conventional banana if that was their only choice. But given the option between a conventional banana and an organic banana, the chimps chose the organic banana.
For me personally, I try to buy and eat organic as much as possible. The stores around me only have 2 options – conventional and organic. To me, organic is the better choice. I have bought and eaten non-organic bananas, citrus, avocados, etc. because I am not eating the skin and it is more convenient to buy them at the store by my house than to drive across town to Whole Foods. But things like apples and cucumbers – they put wax on those and I don’t want that in my body if I can at all avoid it. I would say eat conventional if you must, but avoid the dirty dozen if you can. Of course animal products like meat and dairy have more concentrated pesticides than plants, so just eating vegetarian or vegan is a great way to avoid pesticides.

Swayze Reply:

“Of course animal products like meat and dairy have more concentrated pesticides than plants, so just eating vegetarian or vegan is a great way to avoid pesticides.”

Exactly. Too many people get caught up in the organic movement. They think they’re doing themselves a world of good by buying organic chicken or organic flour instead of conventional. Meat is still meat and flour is still flour. A conventionally grown peach is always far superior to an organic turkey leg.