Last fall, many people were outraged when Stanford researchers concluded that organic food was no better because the nutrient content did not surpass conventionally grown crops. Those of us who recommend organic foods were furious that they had missed the point and misled the public. Indeed if you read between the lines the study revealed an 81 percent lower incidence of pesticide residues in the organic foods. Nowhere is this distinction more important than when it comes to preparing for conception and during pregnancy.
We know that pesticide residues on foods serve as endocrine disruptors, making it harder to conceive and easier to miscarry. They also increase the risk to the child of a range of serious ailments from autism to leukemia. The best way to reduce exposure to pesticides is to go organic The second best is to use the Environmental Working Group’s list of the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen and select carefully from the least contaminated conventionally prepared foods.
But choosing organic alone is often not sufficient. While organic products protect us from pesticides and GMOs, they don’t address production practices that could impact fertility. Take milk as an example. In the United States, we milk pregnant cows very far into pregnancy. This is not the traditional milking practice, but does allow farmers to maximize their profits. Cows, like all mammals, produce increasing amounts of hormones as they advance in pregnancy; this is perfectly “natural”, but drinking this hormone-laden milk is not ideal for humans, especially those trying to conceive. Even organic dairies tend to milk their cows far into pregnancy. To select the companies with the best practices I direct my patients to the Cornucopia Institute, which rates dairies. I also recommend that my patients buy milk in glass bottles (rather than plastic with its endocrine disrupting chemicals) if at all possible.
Organic foods do not fully control the state of the soil or the water. This creates a different set of concerns about organic meat. Grazing animals are exposed to persistent organopollutants (POPs.) These are chemicals that were used from the 1940s to the 1970s, when most were eventually banned. They include PCBs, DDT, and others that contain a halogen molecule (like chlorine or bromine). Synthetic halogens were added to these industrial chemicals to help prevent breakdown; an unintended consequence, was that these chemicals “persist” in the environment in soil and water, and are eventually absorbed and stored in animal fats. When we eat fatty meats we also ingest these legacy chemicals. The more you can cut out animal fats, the more you will eliminate these halogens, which act as endocrine disruptors disturbing thyroid function as well as fetal brain development.
Organic standards do not address food packaging either. Bisphenol A (BPA) is used in plastics and in the lining of cans. It is a known endocrine disruptor, as are the phthalates used as plasticizers. Whenever possible, it is preferable to purchase in glass container and to store in glass or ceramic. Some companies have gone the extra mile and sell food in BPA free cans.
The good news is that when we switch to healthier packaging we reduce our environmental chemical burden. A 2011 Environmental Health Perspectives study provided five families with all their meals. The food was prepared using fresh, organic ingredients, and avoided BPA-containing food packaging. Over a three-day period BPA levels measured in urine samples, dropped by 60 percent and phthalate levels dropped by more than 50 percent.
As an integrative women’s health expert, I believe we need to advocate to keep the term organic meaningful. The national organic list of allowed substances keeps growing, and many of us are concerned about the influence Big Food has on organic standards. At the same time, we must remember that organic does not address all of the environmental chemicals that pose risks for our own and our children’s health. Is it time for us to move beyond organic and develop a new clean food standard?
About the Author:
Victoria Maizes, MD is the executive director of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and a Professor of Medicine and Public Health. Her newest book Be Fruitful: The Essential Guide to Maximizing Fertility and Giving Birth to a Healthy Child is now available on Amazon. For more information visit her website victoriamaizesmd.com or follow her on Twitter @vmaizes.