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Are Organic Foods Really Healthier?

There is an overdose of information in this age, most of it invalid and not backed by any research whatsoever. The series of MYTHBUSTERS continues. And the focus continues on two of the largest health epidemics in India, which are actually related – obesity and diabetes. Weight-loss is one of those industries that has seriously boomed in the past few decades and probably one of the largest industries in the health sector today – including both the organized and the unorganized players. In a previous post on this blog, we did go through some of the myths created and we will go through a few more here.

The statistics from WHO and elsewhere covered in the previous post also highlighted the fact that obesity has reached pandemic proportions only in the past few decades and despite hundreds of products and ‘healthy’ food promises, it has only risen further. Most of the weight-loss products have been a major success in terms of their sales – people flocking to find an easy fix to their problem – but have not been a major success in terms of their achievement. In addition to these so-called miraculous products such as creams, potions, pills, belts, etc., there has also been a surge of misinformation around diets – to the extent that people who have tried it themselves are strongly recommending it to others. The worst advice is unsolicited and inexperienced advice.

Along with the surge in the weight-loss industry through multiple products, there is also a rush for ‘healthy’ alternatives, nutritional ‘supplements’, ‘superfoods’ and ‘organic’ foods. Let us examine each one and a few more. Nothing is healthy as far as processed and packaged food is concerned, although there has been a worldwide call for reducing the fat, sugar and salt content in processed foods, especially those foods aimed at children and teenagers. The call to reduce fat, sugar and salt (sodium) in processed foods is fully justified, but then again it still isn’t a substitute for natural home-cooked food. There is no study that proves that added vitamins and minerals in processed, packaged food has any benefit.

The first thing to understand is that fat, but itself does not make you fat. In fact, our body requires small quantities of the right kind of fats like white butter, ghee, cold-pressed oils and those from fruits and vegetables. It is an excess that does harm, but an excess of any macro-nutrient will inevitably harm you – not just fat. Fat acquired a ‘bad’ reputation primarily because of excessive fried food readily and easily available, in both packaged and street versions, throughout the year; processed and packaged food including those prominently advertised as ‘low fat’ and junk food that has become so popular. Think for a moment – our ancestors were consuming fats for thousands of years and yet obesity is rampant only in the past few decades.

Let us turn to ‘organic food’ that is the current craze – people are willing to pay anywhere from a 15% to a 70% premium on the same product if it has been labelled ‘organic’. To begin with, I am not sure how a consumer can ever be sure that a product (example tur dal or masoor dal) has actually been grown organically or not – the only ‘proof’ is the packaging. According to the USDA, to be called ‘100% organic’, food must be grown without synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or genetically modified organisms.

Most people erroneously assume that organic food does not have any pesticides. In reality, both conventional foods and organic foods have pesticides – the difference being that conventional foods are grown using synthetic pesticides whereas organic foods are ostensibly grown using non-synthetic or natural/organic pesticides. Whereas I scoured the internet to find conclusive evidence that conventional foods have pesticide levels which are higher than permissible levels (could not find any), there is also no scientific evidence that natural pesticides have NIL adverse effects as compared to synthetic pesticides. What does happen however is that you, the consumer, pay more for ‘organic’ food.

If it is not for the pesticide use, surely organic food must be more nutritious – or at least, that is the general belief as people shell out anywhere from 15% to 70% more for the same food items. You must remember that this article is limited to plant-based foods and not diary or animal foods, where the rampant use of antibiotics has been conclusively proven to reduce the nutritive quality of meats and diary products. But then, the adverse impact of antibiotics on human beings is well-known too, so it should be no surprise. To come back to the nutrition aspect, a recent study by the Annals of Internal Medicine concludes there, contrary to popular and widespread belief, there is no nutritional benefit in organic foods as compared to foods that are conventionally grown.

People, who suffer from health issues, often turn to organic food as a healthier option. Here are three major reasons (and truths) for the preponderance of organic food as a better alternative:

  1. They are purportedly safer – whereas livestock raised under organic practices are not exposed to growth hormones and fed antibiotics and this is indeed safer, foodgrains, lentils, fruits and vegetables labelled as organic are grown by using non-synthetic pesticides and have not been proven to be superior to those grown with synthetic pesticides. You do pay far more for the product though.

  2. They are supposedly more environment-friendly - This could be true since organic farming is designed to be more sustainable, emphasizing conservation and reducing pollutants.

  3. They are ostensibly healthier and more nutritious – as mentioned above, this is not true, except in case of non-vegetarian food which are bred without the use of antibiotics and growth hormones.

And never you forget – as a consumer, you have NO WAY of knowing whether the food is organically grown or otherwise – except for the label on the product.

To reverse obesity-fuelled diseases, including Type 2 diabetes, spending more on high-quality food is not the answer. In fact, for permanent weight-loss and a lifetime of weight management thereafter, as we have learnt through research and self-experimentation, no esoteric practices are required, just an understanding of proper diet and nutrition that our forefathers probably knew all along. Through this blog, we hope to create more awareness amongst the masses; at the same time allowing all those keenly interested to register with us here.

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