What would happen if you switched from conventionally grown food to organic-only? One family of five found out after participating in an experiment run by Swedish grocery chain, Coop, and the Swedish Environmental Research Institute.
It's not news that organic farming beats conventional practices when it comes to the health of the environment. But this small pilot experiment sought to address what kind of immediate difference eating organic food can make inside the body.
During the first week of the 21-day experiment, the Palmberg family ate a conventional diet and then each member submitted a urine sample to the SERI laboratory, where analysts found a number of insecticides, fungicides and plant growth regulators. Then, the family switched to an organics only diet, including soaps and personal care items, for two weeks. During the organics phase, the researchers took daily urine samples.
The results were dramatic: The pesticide loads in the family members' bodies dropped in ways that were observable after a single day, according to the report. And by the end of the two weeks, there was very little evidence of the pesticides and other compounds in their follow up urine samples.
Previous research has established that organic food can pack more nutrients into the same piece of produce than conventionally farmed foods. A recent study from Newcastle University found that concentrations of antioxidants like polyphenolics in organic produce can be 18 to 69 percent higher than in their non-organic counterparts. But according to the Mayo Clinic, one of the main considerations in choosing organic food isn't the increased nutritional value, but rather the reduction in pesticide exposure. Organic food does indeed pose a much smaller pesticide consumption risk, but what that means for health is still up for debate.
At the beginning of the video, Anette Palmberg explains how her family has chosen to eat conventional because it's less expensive for their big family. However, she said she was reevaluating that tradeoff by the end of the experiment. "When you hear this, you think about your children," she said, according to a translation. "There were a whole number of chemicals removed from my kids' bodies, and I don't want them back."
It is important to note that the experiment was commissioned by a for-profit food company, with an eye toward storytelling rather than rigorous science: Just one family was evaluated. And yes, organic food is typically more expensive than conventional food, so Coop stands to gain from a consumer base that eschews "conventional" fare in favor of the pricier stuff. What's more, the initial pesticide levels found in this family were considered well within the range of what is considered safe for humans, the researchers noted.
That said, we don't know a great deal about long-term pesticide exposure and human health: "We know very little about the long-term effects of eating food treated with pesticides," says Jorgen Magner, a researcher at SERI, in the video above. "Especially if you consider that chemicals can be much more harmful when combined together than they are on their own."
A recent meta-analysis of studies looking at the effects of heavy metal cadmium on the human body and the contaminated produce that often carry it revealed that organic crops (as opposed to conventionally grown varieties) have almost 50 percent less of the harmful substance. James DiNicolantonio, a cardiovascular research scientist at St. Luke's Hospital, then evaluated this new data with potential health effects of this difference in mind.
"We predicted that this reduction in consumption of cadmium (with organic crops versus conventional) may lead to a 20 percent reduction in mortality (due to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer)," DiNicolantonio told The Huffington Post in an email. "We also predicted a 35 percent reduction in cardiovascular risk based on the flavonoid content. While we were unable to find evidence to calculate the health benefits of lower pesticide residue, it is likely that this will also lead to better health outcomes. This is not to say that conventional crops aren't healthy, but that organic crops are probably that much healthier."
While we are unsure of the potential role cadmium played for the family tested in the video above, this research provides a clear example of the ways in which pesticides from food can, in fact, prove harmful to human health.