We Debate: Is Organic Food Healthy? [Part 2]
In Part 1 of 'Is Organic Food Healthy?' we concluded with a look at the environmental advantages of organic foods. Today we dig deeper to develop a better understanding of the organic food movement. Read on for more clarity on issues of overexposure to pesticides, proximity and location, and how one can benefit from organic and non-organic food produce.
K C Raghu, MD, Pristine Organics, speaks about the free range and grass-fed animals, “The foods from such animals have a better fatty acid profile and more of omega 3, than the factory-farmed animals. Also, the antibiotics given to animals to induce quick growth leach into the soil and water, thus contaminating the environment. If we look at the bigger picture, environmental safety is linked to biodiversity.”
Overexposure to pesticides pollutes the air, water and soil, which could indirectly affect human health. “There are several suspicions around the harmful effects of pesticides on human health. It is commonly believed that the cumulative effect of pesticides is the cause of cancers and other debilitating diseases. Cumulative pesticide exposure is linked to neurological problems and reduced fertility in humans,” says Neelanjana Singh, Chief Nutritionist at Heinz Nutrition Foundation India (HNFI).
“The tendency of going overboard with inorganic produce can be curbed and substituted partly with organically grown products. A shift to more sustainable organic practices would be welcome,” enlightens Singh. As far as organic methods alone feeding the world in a sustainable way is concerned, Raghu says, "If organic methods are used, the yield may drop by 20%, but it can still feed everyone if wastage is reduced and if diets improve."
Neelanjana Singh advocates that the lack of pesticides in organic food makes it mandatory that it is sold and consumed within a short period of time.
Fresh produce has its own health benefits. With that calculation, organic produce that travels thousands of miles to reach you is generally inferior to the produce from local farmers, organic or not. Sheela Krishnaswamy, Bangalore-based Registered Dietitian, points out that this again depends on the kind of food that travels long distances. She says, “Quick perishable foods, like fruits and veggies are best bought from local farmers. If they are organically grown, even better! However, grains that don’t perish quickly can travel miles without getting spoilt.”
All the same, the ideal situation would be to have all edible foods grown organically and reach our homes using the least carbon miles. So ‘Go local’ is a better mantra to live by when deciding between which food to buy.
At this point, it is important to remember that organic produce or fresh inorganic produce does not necessarily equal healthy. After all, junk food could also be made using healthy ingredients! Therefore, cooking methods, other ingredients, freshness, and overall diet management and exercise are all equally responsible for our health in the long run.
Experts' final take on buying organic and non-organic food:
Sheela Krishnaswamy suggests a balance between the haves and the have-nots: "We need to look at long term benefits. If going organic is the solution to curb hunger in the long run, then it should be the preferred choice. Although organic versus non-organic has no direct relation to weight gain, I think everyone would benefit with organically grown foods."
Neelanjana Singh looks at the bigger Indian food production scenario: "It may be a good idea to advocate organic farming for those fruits and vegetables that absorb more pesticides, such as apples and capsicum. Those foods that are not prone to be attacked by pests such as watermelon, mango, onions, could also be produced organically without much effort. This way organic food production can go up and their prices will automatically come down becoming both accessible and affordable to the masses."
Our verdict: Whether you take the choice to go completely organic or mix conventional non-organic foods in your daily diet, it is important to choose a variety of foods from a variety of sources. The best way out would be to buy seasonal fruits and vegetables as much as possible and read food labels thoroughly to eliminate harmful ingredients like trans fats, chemicals, preservative, etc, before buying anything.
And yes, do wash your fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running water in order to remove bacteria, dirt and traces of harmful chemicals, if any.
Sheela Krishnaswamy is the Bangalore-based registered dietitian and wellness consultant, with a passion to promote healthy eating. She has nearly 30 years of professional experience in clinical nutrition, corporate healthcare, public speaking and writing.
Neelanjana Singh is the Chief Nutritionist, Heinz Nutrition Foundation India (HNFI) . She believes that people get confused by too many unverified pseudo-scientific theories and strongly propagates practical dietary solutions to health as well as weight problems afflicting both the young and the elderly.
Mr K C Raghu, MD, Pristine Organics. K.C. Raghu is a food technologist and the Managing Director of Pristine Organics Pvt. Ltd. He is deeply interested in organic farming and has written several articles and papers.
*Image courtesy: © Thinkstock photos/ Getty Images