Not too long ago at a popular (and pricey) restaurant here in Los Angeles, the waitress was going over the specials for the evening. What she was most enthusiastic about and tried hardest at selling was the organic mojito.
“This is very special and healthy for you, because it is made with USDA certified organic mint leaves.”
Hmm let’s see… apparently one should forget about the fact that alcohol is a known human carcinogen according to the US Department of Health & Human Services. Not just liver cancer, either. According to the National Cancer Institute it’s a “major risk factor” for head and neck cancer as well as esophageal cancer.
Apparently all that should be ignored. Because the dangers of 8 or 10 conventional mint leaves in your mojito – which you don’t even eat, it’s a drink! – are far more harmful than the acetaldehyde in alcohol, which is a Group 1 carcinogen according to the WHO (3).
Which has the potential to impact your health more – a few leaves or the alcohol?
Why organic is not that important
There’s a reason organic food is so immensely popular and it actually has very little to do with health benefits. In a bit you will understand why.
At the grocery store when in-season, a standard 4.4 ounce clamshell of fresh blueberries will cost you $2.50 to $2.99 (even here in California). But organic will still set you back $4.99 to $5.99 for the exact same size – up to double the price.
Regardless of season, processed foods follow the same trend.
The 16.4 ounce box of Post Shredded Wheat will run you $2.60 at Walmart.
The 16.3 oz. of comparable Kashi Cinnamon Harvest cereal is $3.65 – that’s 40% higher. Is organic worth the cost because it’s healthier? Let’s flip the labels and see.
Comparable fat, sodium, potassium, carbs, and both have zero cholesterol (since all plant-based foods have zero cholesterol, that’s to be expected). But it’s the organic Kashi cereal that has 7 grams of sugar versus the 0 grams in the conventional, which many consider to be less healthy. That added sugar also tacks on a few more calories.
But certainly the Post cereal ingredients must be hiding something big, bad and scary?
Both are made with whole grain wheat. The only difference is that Kashi uses organic wheat. How important that is will be addressed in a moment.
On a related note, don’t worry about non-GMO because all wheat for sale today is non-GMO.
The sugar (or lack thereof)
As far as the sugar in Kashi, don’t be fooled by it being in the form of “dried cane syrup.” Previously known as “evaporated cane juice” throughout the industry, until a couple years ago the FDA cracked down on the name since it was never really juice to begin with. The allowed name for it now is dried cane syrup, which is the same thing as the previously popular evaporated cane juice. Since it is dried (as in, the water is gone) it’s almost the same as normal cane sugar. Dried cane syrup contains 99.0 and 99.8% sucrose according to the FDA (4).
So in other words, the glycemic impact is basically the same as 100% sucrose, or more commonly known as table sugar.
Yet plain ol’ sugar doesn’t sound healthier, does it? That’s likely a reason why so many organic food companies choose to use evaporated cane juice/dried cane syrup instead. Don’t fool yourself, it’s just as bad for you as regular cane sugar.
On the other hand, the conventional has no added sugar. This is much healthier for you and the benefits of no added sugar far outweigh that of eating organic wheat.
The head of Amsterdam’s health service has good reasons to say sugar is “addictive and the most dangerous drug of the times” (5). You already know about its addictive power, but the fact that it’s empty calories is not the worst thing about it. Here’s what is:
- Sugar promotes the creation of Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs) in your body. AGEs promote cancer and many diseases. Don’t care if you die young? Even if you only care about the superficial, then you will care about how sugar glycation may contribute to aging skin (6).
- Processed and refined sugars are some of the worst drivers of inflammation in your body, possibly even the worst. Why is inflammation bad? The Harvard Medical School summarizes it best (7):
“Chronic low-grade inflammation is intimately involved in all stages of atherosclerosis, the process that leads to cholesterol-clogged arteries. This means that inflammation sets the stage for heart attacks, most strokes, peripheral artery disease, and even vascular dementia, a common cause of memory loss.”
- Diabates. Type 1 diabetics – those who are not obese, but have not had a working pancreas their entire lives – already know the importance of avoiding sugar. Type 2 diabetics are those who give themselves diabetes from poor diet and insufficient exercise. When you regularly consume large amounts of sugars and give yourself blood sugar highs and lows, you are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
Of course the 7 to 15 grams of sugar in your cereal in and of itself is quite a mild dose, but less is always better. You would be better off buying the Post cereal and then sweetening it yourself with monk fruit, which has no glycemic impact and doesn’t have that nasty stevia aftertaste.
This might be the only strike Post has going against it, but it’s easily avoidable.
BHT is a synthetic antioxidant. It’s not used in the food, just the bag.
To date there is no scientific evidence showing BHT side effects from the amounts which are used in many packaged food linings. Because it’s an antioxidant, it reduces oxidation of the food. That is actually a good thing for you.
Though prudent avoidance of chemicals – even when they’re not shown to be dangerous – isn’t a bad idea, out of an abundance of caution.
Even though Post uses BHT in their cereal linings, we would wager they will likely phase it out in the near future. Why? Because General Mills and Kraft Foods already have, not because of health reasons but because consumers were scared seeing that on the ingredient labels (8).
So if you wanted to avoid BHT, you don’t need to buy organic food to do so. Simply switch brands.
What about the pesticides in conventional?
Recently while attending some nutritional lectures, over lunch a couple older ladies at our table were talking about how scary the protective gear is that is worn when spraying pesticides and herbicides on crops.
“They have to wear a hazmat suit to spray it! That must be very dangerous for us to eat!”
That is true, it would be very dangerous for you to eat, if you were eating those crops a few minutes later.
If you can remember your high school chemistry, you will remember what a half-life is. It’s the length of time required for 50% of any compound to decay into another.
For example the half-life of caffeine is 3 to 7 hours (9). That means it takes somewhere between 3 and 7 hours (depending on your metabolism) to break down 50% of the caffeine into other compounds. The remaining 50% is still in your bloodstream.
The pesticides used nowadays have relatively short half-lives. Several decades ago that wasn’t so, but thanks to technological advances and stricter regulations by the USDA and EPA, not all, but most of what we use on food degrades quickly.
Published in Environmental Science & Technology, this chart from the study titled “Variability of Pesticide Dissipation Half-Lives in Plants” is a good typical representation (10).
95% of all pesticide half-lives are between 0.6 and 29 days. As you see, most are just a few days.
Pesticides have much more of an impact on fresh fruits and vegetables than on dry goods and many shelf-stable products. The time between harvesting an apple and eating it might be a week or two, while the time between processing grains for cereal/crackers/chips and the time they enter your mouth may be up to 6 months or even longer.
This graphic puts it into perspective.
Let’s say the average half-life of the pesticides on your conventional food was 7 days.
5 half-lives = 5 x 7 days = 35 days
After 35 days, only 3% of the pesticides would remain on your food.
And remember that is 35 days from time of last spraying. When the grains/veggies were harvested, many days may have already elapsed since the last treatment.
But even if you count 35 days from time of harvest, it’s highly unlikely the grain is turned into cereal, transported to your supermarket, and put on the shelf in that amount of time. More likely a couple months have passed, at least. Especially considering that grains are often stored for long periods of time before they are even milled and turned into processed foods.
Then there is the whole conundrum of conventional crops grown adjacently. Is organic food really organic if the field next door is being crop dusted with chemicals? That is allowed you know, but we will save that discussion for another time.
Whistling past the graveyard
Let’s say you have two identical foods – an organic honeycrisp apple and a conventional honeycrisp apple. In that scenario, is organic food better? Yes, because you are comparing the items on an apples to apples basis (no pun intended).
But that’s not how most people operate.
Instead of choosing the overall healthier choice (i.e. no sugar cereal), they choose the organic version, even if it is loaded with things which are far worse for them than any pesticide reside which is in parts per million.
That would be laughable if it weren’t for the harm people are doing to their bodies by choosing organic versus non-organic, while completely ignoring the other toxins.
1. HCAs and PAHs
Most people know that back in 2015, the World Health Organization declared processed meats as being a Group 1 carcinogen. They also classify red meat as Group 2A, meaning it’s probably carcinogenic (11). But did you know that when you cook meat – whether it’s red, white, or fish – you create these two toxic substances:
Heterocyclic Amines (HCAs)
HCAs are found exclusively in cooked meat. Four of the most prevalent in them are classified as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” by the U.S. government (12). On cancer.gov – the National Cancer Institute’s website – they say this about them (13):
“Researchers found that high consumption of well-done, fried, or barbecued meats was associated with increased risks of colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancer.”
Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs)
Similar to HCAs, but in addition to cooked meat, these are found as environmental pollution since they are created through the burning of organic matter, whether that’s fossil fuels like the coal used in your BBQ or the wood burning oven used to make your pizza.
One of the most common PAHs in meat is benzo(a)pyrene, which the World Health Organization puts in the same category as asbestos, mustard gas, and formaldehyde: Group 1 carcinogens, which is the worst ranking possible (14).
The PAHs in meat are created when their fat and juices drip onto the fire of a barbecue or during other high-temperature cooking methods. Smoked meats are some of the worst.
Where else can you find PAHs? In the exhaust coming out of your car as well as cigarette smoke.
Carcinogens? Who cares about those so long as my grilled chicken is certified organic! See the ridiculousness in that mindset? But that is the way most people think about organic food… they treat it as if it’s the most important thing when it really isn’t. The science says HCAs and PAHs are much more troubling!
It wouldn’t be fair to only pick on the meat eaters and give the vegans a free pass.
Just like HCAs and PAHs, acrylamide is another form of Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs). However unlike the other two, acrylamide is found primarily in cooked carbohydrate rich vegetables. Especially those which are fried or baked.
However the vegans and vegetarians still win, because…
“In contrast [to the meat group], carbohydrate-rich foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and milk contain relatively few AGEs, even after cooking.” (15)
But less of something bad is still bad!
The cancer link to acrylamide is less conclusive than HCAs and PAHs, but still scary nonetheless.
Numerous animal model studies have shown a relationship between acrylamide intake and cancer (16). Though since it’s used for some industrial applications, there are more dangerous (higher) sources of it that humans are exposed to. The World Health Organization classifies it as Group 2A “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
In food, things like french fries, potato chips, burnt or even just crispy bread are the worst sources. In short, just about any carb-rich food which is heavily cooked – especially at temperatures above 300° F – might produce a lot of acrylamide.
You would think the vegan restaurants would care about something that is “probably carcinogenic to humans” but they couldn’t care less. At many of them here in LA, they serve charred bread and black bottom pizzas, actually boasting about those characteristics in their marketing! In the same breathe they exclaim how it’s made using organic and non-GMO gluten free grains.
Like the organic mojito vs. alcohol, there is something much more concerning here than whether your pizza crust is organic! More important is whether or not it’s cooked extra crispy with black spots.
Next time you’re at Whole Foods, we challenge you to look at the jars of organic spaghetti sauce. Look at every single one on the shelf. How much sodium do they have? Most will have around 300 to 700 mg per serving, with 6 to 7 servings per jar.
However since the serving sizes they list are so small, if you’re like us, you’re probably using the equivalent of 2 or 3 servings at a time… that might mean 900 to 2,100 of sodium per day.
You’re in trouble unless that sauce – without any noodles – is literally the only thing you’re eating all day. The American Heart Association advises you to keep your sodium intake below 1,500 mg per day total (17).
“That level [1,500 mg] is associated with a significant reduction in blood pressure, which in turn reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke.”
It’s not just tomato sauce. Check out the organic tortilla chips, which are often high sodium AND likely to be high acrylamide. Or the organic salsa. We literally cannot find a salsa anywhere – Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, independent health food stores, or online – which is both organic and low sodium. Yet there are a few conventional ones which have little to no salt (we buy those instead). Is organic food really healthier for you if you’re having all that excess sodium with it? It seems like a scam to us.
Is organic food worth it?
That depends. To make a blanket statement that you should always buy organic would be simple to say, but not take into account your personal circumstances. Specifically, the first criteria on our list for weighing the decision… your finances.
If you make several hundred thousand a year, then definitely buy organic 100% of the time. You can afford it.
However if you’re struggle to make rent payments and have little in savings, buying organic probably isn’t the best use of your money.
Instead, you would be better off buying the conventional produce which is known to have the least amount of pesticides.
You’ve probably heard of the “dirty dozen” fruits and veggies to always buy organic. How about the clean dozen?
According to the EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, out of all the fruits and vegetables they rank, these 12 below have the least amount of pesticide residue, with avocados being the best (18).
- sweet corn
- frozen sweet peas
- honeydew melon
If your budget is tight (and whose isn’t these days) then buy these 12 as conventional.
2. Worst offenders
Next on the list is the dirty dozen – those which are known to have the highest amounts of pesticide residue on them, according to the same source. Even on an average income, these are worth buying if you can afford it.
- sweet bell peppers
- cherry tomatoes
3. Fresh vs. processed/dried
After understanding how the half life of pesticides work, you can see why buying organic fresh food is probably more important than a processed item that has been sitting on the shelf for a while.
Frozen conventional produce is likely worse than conventional fresh.
Why? Because frozen produce is processed almost immediately after harvesting. Once something is frozen, degradation of everything – from nutrients to pesticides – will stop. That means whatever was on and in them beforehand will be there when you eat them several months later.
Compare that versus what you buy fresh… that broccoli may have been picked 1 or even 2 weeks ago, sadly. The one good thing about that (and there is only one) is that since more time has elapsed, more degradation of the pesticides has occurred.
When it comes to organic though, typically frozen fruits and veggies are more nutritious than fresh.
What it comes down to is this
It’s not that organic is a scam or bad for you. Obviously it’s healthy. But the benefits versus non-organic food may not be worth the cost in every scenario. The big scam going on is that people assume if something has that USDA certified seal, it automatically is a better choice, even when it’s not.
We said at the start the the reason organic food is so popular has little to do with health benefits. Want to know the real #1 reason it’s so in demand?
The reason organic food is so popular is because it’s the easiest health trend to adapt. It requires zero sacrifice – just a change among two identical items which taste the same. Few people are willing to accept the truth and change their diet for the things that really matter. Because that would actually require a sacrifice. – Superfoodly
Stop lying to yourself and get real. An organic mojito is not healthy. Your $20 pizza may be vegan and GF, but it’s still charred on the top and black on the bottom. Your organic cupcakes can still make you fat and diabetic. Whether your BBQ chicken is organic or not should be the least of your concerns.