Going organic, Part 1: Man-made chemicals in our produce can be harmful to human health
Science of Food
Editor’s note: This is the first in a monthly series of columns about the benefits of eating organic food.
There are three main classes of pesticides, according to their chemical structure, currently used in conventional agriculture: organophosphates, organochlorines and the relatively new class of chemicals called the neonicotinoids. According to research, current pesticides have the potential to cause cancer and to disrupt normal functioning of the endocrine system.
The endocrine system involves our hormones, and pesticide use is known to interfere specifically with normal reproduction in fish and mammals. For example, a study published in 2015 from the Harvard School of Public Health correlated lower sperm counts and a greater percentage of morphologically abnormal sperm in men eating fruits and vegetables with higher levels of pesticide residues.
The widespread use of pesticides in the food supply can cause adverse biological effects in humans and the environment, and we are collecting more and more data that supports the elimination of such toxic chemicals in modern agriculture.
Three classes of pesticides
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Glyphosate is an example of an organophosphorus and is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. It was recently touted as the most heavily used agricultural chemical in the history of the world, despite the fact that it is banned in many countries due to mounting evidence that it causes health problems, including the World Health Organization’s 2015 study concluding that the synthetic agent “probably” causes cancer in humans.
Many organophosphate insecticides were discovered initially as nerve agents during World War II, as they act on ion channels and receptors in the central nervous system. Their use in agriculture increased in the 1970s after many organochlorine pesticides were banned.
The notorious DDT is an example of an organochlorine pesticide. It was this chemical and the famous book “Silent Spring,” written in 1962 by Rachel Carson, that launched the public debate about using potentially dangerous chemicals in our food and in the environment without fully understanding the effects on human health. DDT is known to cause cancer by forming free radicals inside the body and mutating genes, not too different from the chemistry of how chloroflourocarbons work to destroy the atmosphere. It is the carbon-chlorine bond that can metabolize to from free radicals in the body, a fundamental chemical reaction of molecules containing such bonds.
DDT and organochlorine compounds, in general, are also known to disrupt normal endocrine function and are especially prone to bioaccumulation, as they store well in the fatty tissues of the body. Molecules containing carbon-chlorine bonds were very rare in nature until man started synthesizing such unique molecules, and we now know that they persist in the environment. In fact, the government’s latest pesticide residue study still showed traces of DDT in our food supply, even though it was banned in 1972.
The third class of pesticides is the neonicotinoids. Chemically similar to nicotine, they act on neurological receptors in the brain. Imidacloprid is one of the top chemicals used around the world. It and others in this class are under much scrutiny currently, as neonicotinoids are being linked to honey bee colony collapse and other ecological devastation. Despite this scientific evidence, we continue to use these pesticides in modern agriculture.
The U.S. government has a Pesticide Data Program led by the Food and Drug Administration that attempts to monitor if conventional and certified organic produce meets standards. In reality, the government cannot enforce all the rules and regulations and, therefore, does periodic sample testing to determine if the food we are eating is safe. The Food and Drug Administration’s most recent Pesticide Data Program studied samples collected from 2010 to 2012 and analyzed more than 195 different pesticides. It showed that produce often contains significant residues, with amounts being highly dependent on the type of produce and place of origin.
Many violations were noted with levels exceeding the maximum tolerated levels that are set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Note that it is possible that some plants actually take up the chemicals into their cells, which is quite different than having a residue on the outside and was not accounted for in this type of study.
Be aware that just because something claims to be organic, there may still be pesticides applied that are classified as “natural” agents. These naturally derived pesticides are typically safer than any of the synthetic chemicals listed above, but know that the food may still have a residue, so proper peeling and washing of produce is important. There are various lists that advise consumers which conventional fruits and vegetables to completely avoid due to high levels of pesticide residues. For example, apples, spinach, berries, potatoes, rice and peppers are often found on these lists and are known to have higher levels of pesticide residues. Do a quick Internet search to find such lists.
Organic food can be more expensive than conventional, which is especially difficult for those on a low budget. However, the extra money you invest now in buying quality, organic whole foods will pay off later. Your body and your mind will be healthy and happy, as you are taking measures to prevent cancer and other chronic diseases that can incur huge medical costs.
This is not a trendy fad. I myself choose to buy organic food since I know this powerful information, and I encourage you all to start exploring organic options. In considering also the adverse effects to the environment, the fish, the honey bees, our drinking water and our precious Earth, there are innumerable reasons why it’s worth buying organic.
Lisa Julian, Ph.D., has a passion for organic chemistry, the “molecules of life,” and its application to food and health. She’s the owner of Elevated Yoga & Holistic Health in Frisco and teaches science and nutrition at the University of Colorado Denver and Colorado Mountain College. She can be reached at 970-401-2071 or email@example.com.