Organic food costs a lot more than regular food. Is it really better? Are there certain foods that matter more than others? The question about eating...

Organic food costs a lot more than regular food. Is it really better? Are there certain foods that matter more than others?

The question about eating organic food reminds me of a story a colleague told me once about malaria. Long before scientists proved that mosquitoes carried malaria people had observed that using a mosquito net prevented the illness. In fact, in the first century B.C. the Romans had a law that people were not allowed to live in mosquito-infested areas for that reason. It was common sense.

But then research got involved. In the late 1800s, scientists hotly debated the issue (for about 30 years, actually). In the meantime, people living with mosquitoes — and malaria — had a choice. Either they could wait until medicine argued out all the details, whenever that was, or they could just continue sleeping under mosquito nets.

The fact is that our common sense is often way ahead of science. And in the case of organic food, I think that is definitely true. It makes perfect sense to most people that eating things that poison innumerable living things and ecosystems would not be good for your health. That fact is not always obvious to science.

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In addition, as humans we are part of a web of life. When we damage the ecosystems around us, it inevitably comes back to haunt us. Being conscious about the environment is not about saving the Earth. It’s about saving ourselves. The Earth will still be here, whether we poison ourselves and the creatures around us out of existence or not. So while some people prefer bumper stickers like “Save the Planet,” it might be more accurate to write, “Save the Humans.”

That said, let’s go through some specifics about what we know, and don’t know, about organic food.

Q: What does “certified organic” mean?

A: For crops it means no conventional pesticides, genetically modified organisms, artificial fertilizer or sewage sludge, no ionizing radiation or food additives are used. For animals, it means being raised on organic food without antibiotics or growth hormones. In the future, cloned animals likely will also be prohibited.

Q: Do pesticides cause cancer?

A: At this point, we don’t have proof, and I am not sure we ever will because doing the best quality studies would take a tremendous amount of money and time. However, there are plenty of issues that raise my concern. Here are just a few:

• Many pesticides cause cancer in animals. Recently, I reviewed 22 of the top pesticides used by agriculture in 2000 and 2001 on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Web site. More than half of those chemicals were considered likely, probable or possible carcinogens (meaning that they are linked to cancer development), and five of them had not been studied enough to know for sure one way or the other.

• Population studies suggest links between pesticide exposure and different cancers. Of 99 human studies summarized in a comprehensive scientific report by the Lymphoma Society, 75 found a connection between pesticides and lymphoma.

• Atrazine is the most commonly used herbicide in the United States, with about 60 million pounds used per year, mostly on corn. It has been banned by the European Union because of concerns that extremely low levels cause sexual abnormalities in frogs, and an increased rate of prostate cancer in atrazine-production workers.

Q: What foods have the highest level of pesticides?

A: Animal products probably have the highest levels overall. In a Romanian study, meat was six times higher in total pesticides than vegetables. Milk products were three times higher.

Remember that animal products often have hormones and antibiotics in addition to pesticides, which is another issue entirely. If you want to avoid all this, I recommend getting certified organic meat, eggs and dairy products. Note that “free range” and “natural” meat is not the same as organic; you need to look for the actual word “organic” on the label.

In terms of pesticides on vegetables and fruits, the worst are apples, celery, cherries, nectarines, peaches, pears, spinach, strawberries and sweet bell peppers. In my opinion, though, it’s probably safest to eat everything organic if you can.

Q: Is organic food really lower in pesticides, or is it just a marketing gimmick?

A: Consumer Reports did an analysis in 1998, and found that organic food had consistently minimal or nonexistent pesticide residue.

Q: Is organic food more nutritious?

A: In one peer reviewed summary of 41 studies, there was more vitamin C and minerals in organic food. Based on this analysis, five servings of organic vegetables (lettuce, spinach, carrots, potatoes and cabbage) met the recommended daily allowance for vitamin C, while their conventional counterparts did not.

Q: Does washing or peeling eliminate pesticides?

A: Somewhat, but it’s not as good as buying organic because some pesticides leach into the food.

Dr. Astrid Pujari is a Seattle M.D. with an additional degree as a medical herbalist; she practices at the Pujari Center and teaches as part of the residency programs at Virginia Mason and Swedish/Cherry Hill hospitals. Her column is a weekly feature in Sunday Northwest Life. Send questions to for possible use in future columns.