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Organic choices clarified: exclusive coverage of the latest organic research.

Organic (Or gan/ik): Based on a system of farming that enhances soil fertility without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides or synthetic fertilizers.

For many consumers, the word "organic" connotes food that is inherently healthier. Historically, a relatively insignificant amount of research has been done to back up that claim, but times are changing. A growing body of scientific evidence points to many reasons why choosing organic food can be extremely beneficial to human health. And while a great deal of time and effort will continue to be put forth toward scientifically proving its benefits, there are significant reasons right now for choosing organic.


On October 21, 2002, federal regulations went into effect governing the labeling of foods produced using organic agriculture. Under the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic certification, all products labeled "organic" have been verified by an accredited certification agency as meeting or exceeding USDA standards for organic production. Only food products that contain 95 percent to 100 percent certified organic ingredients may use the USDA seal. The organic industry worked hand-in-hand with the USDA to develop these stringent standards, which are both federally mandated and regulated.

Reasons for selecting organic produce and products are largely personal. Long-term environmental damage is a key reason for thinking twice about conventional products. For pregnant women and children, there are many reasons why choosing foods grown without the use of toxic and persistent chemicals is the logical choice. And finally, growing scientific evidence indicates that certain organic foods may contain more antioxidants than their conventional counterparts.


Organic agricultural production benefits the environment. Crops are grown without the use of toxic and persistent chemicals. Pesticide and herbicide impact on the environment is wide-ranging and the resulting contamination is a public health concern. Pesticides are intended to kill or control pests, but many are highly toxic to organisms other than those targeted. In the environment, these include beneficial insects like pollinating bees as well as birds, fish, and earthworms.

According to insect ecologist David Pimentel, many pesticides kill beneficial insects and may actually reduce crop yield. "The percentage of crop loss to insects has actually increased during the last fifty years of pesticide use," Pimentel says.

In his report, Environmental and Socio-Economic Costs of Pesticide Use, Pimentel adds, "Most benefits of pesticides are based only on direct crop returns. Such assessments do not include the indirect environmental and economic costs associated with pesticides. It has been estimated that only 0.1 percent of applied pesticides reach the target pests, leaving the bulk of the pesticides (99.9 percent) to impact the environment."

Pesticides and herbicides are also contaminating groundwater. Tough to Swallow, a 1997 study conducted by the Environmental Working Group, found that more than 10 million people in 374 communities across 12 states were exposed to at least one weed killer in their tap water. One pesticide, atrazine, was found in 96 percent of all surface water systems tested by the pesticide industry itself. "Hundreds of Midwestern communities are exposed, often unknowingly, to multiple pesticides in a single sample of tap water," said EWG analyst Brian Cohen, an author of the study. "We found that over 100 communities drink tap water contaminated by five or more pesticides."


Pesticide residues are prevalent in every aspect of the environment. Consequently, we are exposed to multiple chemicals each and every day. In mammals, including humans, some widely used pesticides can alter fetal development, impair immune function, and trigger health problems that can take many years, even decades, to develop.

In May of 2004, The Organic Center for Education and Promotion released key findings of a new report, Minimizing Pesticide Dietary Exposure Through Consumption of Organic Food. According to the report, "Anyone eating more than one serving of conventional fruits and vegetables a day is likely to consume one or more pesticide residues. Those who follow USDA's dietary guidelines--consuming at least 'five-a-day' servings of fruit and vegetables--are ingesting six or more pesticide residues on most days."

"By simply eating your daily recommended intake of fruits and vegetables organically, you can significantly reduce your overall pesticide exposure," says Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Center. "This is particularly crucial for infants, children, and expectant mothers who can be most affected by pesticide exposure."

From conception through the first years of life, children are much less able than adults to detoxify most pesticides, and they are highly vulnerable to endocrine disruptors and developmental neurotoxins. Multiple pesticide residues are commonly found on nine "kid friendly" fruits and vegetables (see sidebar). Conventional samples found with no residues are uncommon, and in some cases, rare.

A growing body of epidemiological data links prenatal pesticide exposure (crossing the placenta during fetal development), as well as exposure during the first years of a child's life, to a variety of health issues including low birth weight, birth defects, abnormal neurological development and reproductive problems.

A May 2004 study titled Chemical Trespass: Pesticides in Our Bodies and Corporate Accountability released by Pesticide Action Network North America (PAN) analyzed data of testing conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine the presence of chemicals, including 34 pesticides, in human bodies. The PAN report found that among those tested, the average person had thirteen different pesticides in his or her body. Further, the data showed that children and women of childbearing age, the populations most at risk, carried the heaviest "body burdens" (amount in the body) of pesticides. For example, the data show that the average 6- to 11-year-old sampled is exposed to the nerve-damaging organophosphorous (OP) pesticide chlorpyrifos at four times the level U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers "acceptable" for a long-term exposure. Chlorpyrifos and other OP pesticides are used widely on "kid friendly" produce items such as peaches and apples.

In August 1996, the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) was signed into law and directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to assess the risks of pesticides to infants and children consistently and explicitly as part of risk assessments generated during its decision making process, including the setting of standards to protect public health and the environment. The pesticide tolerances that were in place as of August 1996, when the FQPA was signed, are all subject to reassessment. This 10-year reassessment process is scheduled for completion in 2006.

Despite great fanfare when the FQPA was signed and the stronger regulatory powers given to the EPA in the new law, very few high-risk pesticides have been taken off the market. In fact, some of the most toxic insecticides on the market will be sprayed on more acres in 2004 than they were in 1996 when the new law came into effect.

Even more worrisome, the share of pesticide residues accounted for by imports has actually risen in the past ten years. Many of the conventional fruits and vegetables consumed by children in the United States are imported from countries with less strict pesticide regulations and very modest enforcement programs. As a results, imported produce often contains much higher average levels of chlorpyrifos and other pesticides than U.S.-grown produce.

"The current state of science continues to indicate that eating organic foods can support healthy development in young children and also lower the frequency of some health and reproductive problems that tend to strike later in life," says Charles Benbrook, Ph.D., author of the Organic Center's report.


Epidemiological evidence has confirmed that diets rich in fruits and vegetables are associated with reduced frequency and severity of several health problems. An intense search has been underway for about two decades to identify the specific ingredients in fruits and vegetables that account for their many health-promoting benefits and, increasingly, that search points to combinations of secondary plant metabolites, many of which are antioxidants.

A team of Italian scientists studied differences in antioxidant levels in conventional versus organic peaches and pears (Carbonaro et al., 2002). As part of the overall study, they measured total polyphenols and polyphenoloxidasc (PPO) levels, which serve as general indicators of total antioxidant capacity. The scientists found that organic peaches contained about one-third higher concentrations of polyphenolic compounds than conventional peaches, while PPO activity in organic pears was more than three times higher than in conventional pears. The differences in polyphenol and antioxidant levels were all statistically significant.

Within numerous scientific studies, such as the one referenced above, reviewed by the Organic Center for an upcoming State of Science Review, there were fifteen direct comparisons of antioxidant levels in organic versus conventional fruit and vegetables. The studies showed that organically grown produce had higher levels in thirteen out of fifteen cases, or about 85 percent of the time. On average, the organic crops contained about one-third higher antioxidant and/or phenolic content than comparable conventional produce. Some studies found levels of specific flavonoids and antioxidants at twice or three times the level found in matched samples of conventional food.

Organizations within the organic industry are diligently working toward completing new scientific research that will continue to prove the many benefits of organic agricultural production methods. In the meantime, there is certainly compelling evidence and numerous reasons for choosing organic for you and your family.

The Organic Center for Education and Promotion (, a non-profit organ-ization founded in 2004 is dedicated to helping consumers, policy makers and researchers understand the benefits organic products provide to society. The Center highlights credible, peer-reviewed scientific research about the organic benefit.

For more articles on organic foods visit

Most-Contaminated Crops Include Some That Children Eat Frequently

A few conventional fruits and vegetables stand out as most heavily contaminated with pesticides, including some foods that are frequently consumed by infants and children.

Fruits: Apples, Pears, Peaches, Nectarines, Strawberries, Cherries

Vegetables: Celery, Spinach, Sweet bell peppers

Source: Minimizing Pesticide Dietary Exposure Through Consumption of Organic Food, The Organic Center for Education and Promotion, May 2004
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Author:Marquez, Theresa
Publication:New Life Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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