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Is An Organic Raw Food Diet Necessary?

Is an organic raw food diet necessary for optimal health?

While we know that raw fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds will prevent aging, fight disease, and let you avoid all the problems associated with cooked food, picking out organic produce at the grocery store will not always be your best bet.

Whether a food has been sprayed with chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides can't function as an absolute litmus test for its superiority because organic is but one important qualifier among many. We need to examine the question from different angles to get a better sense of the importance of chemical-free food.

 The Organic Raw Food Diet: Chemicals Do Matter

There's no question that the chemicals commonly applied to food can have a disastrous effect on our bodies, especially when we're exposed to them in large doses.

Chemical contaminants are present in 95.6 percent of Americans ages 6 and up, most of which originates from our food (1).

Organic Raw Food Diet Tomatoes and Watermelons

The food industry tries to pass these chemicals off as harmless, but pesticides and fungicides are very simply intended to kill living organisms, and their effects on us are not benign.

One major area of concern is organophosphate pesticides, of which there are 40 approved for use in the United States (2). More than 73 million pounds of organophosphates are dumped onto farm fields each year.

These pesticides have been shown to damage nervous system function by blocking acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme that stops nerve cells from firing. When nerve cells fire unceasingly, acute poisoning or long-term nerve damage can result. 

The damage appears to begin in the womb, and prenatal organophosphate exposure is associated with increased risk of developmental disorders, as well as delays in mental development at 2 to 3 years of age (3), (4).

Researchers at Harvard University have found increased risk for attention deficit-hyperactive disorder among children exposed to typical levels of organophosphates. For every tenfold increase in dimethyl alkylphosphate (an organophosphate metabolite) in the body, there is a corresponding 55 to 72 percent increase in the odds of ADHD diagnosis (5).

Beyond organophosphates, the Environmental Protection Agency reports that the majority of pesticides now in use are probable or possible cancer causers (9).

Their use has also been specifically linked to Parkinson's Disease (6), prostate and stomach cancer (7), and infertility (8).

The Organic Raw Food Diet: Don't Overlook The Power Of Fruits & Vegetables

Although chemical-laden foods do bring about many problems, the salient point to remember is that fruits and vegetables, whether organic and conventional, bring about massive improvements in our bodies.

Hundreds of studies performed with typical pesticide-treated produce demonstrate that consuming fruits and vegetables lowers your chance of getting cancer and protects you from numerous other diseases. This seems to suggest that the health benefits of eating phytochemical and nutrient-rich food greatly outweigh any risk pesticide residues might pose.

The Organic Raw Food Diet: Does Organic Equal Nutritious? 

Organic Raw Food Diet Veggie MixIs an organic raw food diet packed with more nutrients than a conventionally-grown raw food diet?

A review of the published literature show inconsistent differences between the nutrient content of organic and conventionally-grown foods, with the exception that organic foods tend to have more of certain minerals and ascorbic acid, and less nitrates (10, 11, 12, 13).

However the data is difficult to interpret because there is no consistent method of sourcing, sampling, or analysis used by the investigators.

Some use produce grown in rich soil and find organic food to be dramatically more nutritious, while others use produce grown in the degraded soil of factory farms and find it to be about the same as conventionally-grown foods.

Some use just-picked produce, while others test stuff that's been sitting on supermarket shelves for days.

This, as I'll explain, is one of the big issues with food selection: Many factors influence how good a food is for you.

The Organic Raw Food Diet: The Attributes Of Healthy Food

If you had to give a robot instructions for picking out the the best foods for you, what would you tell it to consider, and how would you prioritize those factors?

I might come up with a list that goes like this: "Fresh", "raw", "organic", "whole", "plant foods", and "easily digestible raw". You might add in more, such as "grown in  composted, mineral-rich soils," and "grown in a polycultural system that builds soil and environmental richness"

If you are a strict vegan, "not grown with animal manure" might be important to you. You might have other factors you value, such as "grown by people who earn a sustainable wage."

But since it's rare to find food that meets all these criteria, you'd have to prioritize them so the robot would know which ones to select.  After all, if you only told the robot that you wanted organic, he might return from his shopping trip with free-range organic beef.

Personally, I would order them like this:
  1. Plant Foods
  2. Raw
  3. Fresh
  4. Easily Digestible Raw
  5. Whole
  6. Organic
  7. Grown in rich soils.
  8. Grown in a polyculture
I have no objection to the use of properly-treated manure for fertilizer, and so I wouldn't list that, and I have views on wage levels that preclude my being concerned with fair trade practices, so that wouldn't make the list either. We all have our own personal ideal and thoughts to consider.

The Organic Raw Food Diet: Freshness Matters Just As Much

Organic Raw Food Diet Girl With BananasSure, no one wants their lettuce laced with pesticides, but what if the leaves of that pesticide-sprayed lettuce are fresh and green, while head of organic lettuce sitting next to it is wrinkly and brown?

I frequently run into this freshness vs organic prioritization scenario when buying produce, and it's one of the main reasons why I'm so cautious about universal praise for organic food.

Perhaps because less volume of it is purchased compared to conventionally-grown produce, organic seems to sit around longer on shelves.

Outside declining taste and texture, less-than-fresh food also begins to drop in nutrient content dramatically.

There can be as much as a two-week window between when produce is picked and when you eat it. During that window of time, fresh vegetables can lose a large part of their nutrient content. One study found that green beans can lose up to 45 percent of their nutrients, broccoli and cauliflower 25 per cent, garden peas up to 15 per cent, and carrots up to 10 per cent (14).

The Organic Raw Food Diet: What Your Local Farmer Does

The best produce I've ever eaten has come from my garden and the garden of other organic gardners. I grow my produce in rich soils, apply no chemical pesticides or fertilizers, pick it at its peak, and eat it within hours. I'd be hard pressed to find something fresher or tastier.

Yet the winter brings an end to my garden, and there is a limit to how much I can grow in my limited space, even in the summer. By necessity I need to buy more from outside, and that usually means trade offs.

One great thing about buying from local farmers and farmers/gardeners markets is that you can talk to the growers to find out exactly what was sprayed onto the food.

Normally nonorganic apples have a high chemical residue content, yet there is a local farmer one towns over from me that always does his best to apply only minimal amounts of it. I ask him every season what types and amounts he sprays on, and it's usually only small quantities of the some of the least damaging types. It's not perfect, don't get me wrong, but I'd rather buy those "slightly inorganic" apples that were picked the day before than ones picked two weeks before in Washington or New Zealand from a possibly heavily-sprayed orchard.

Usually I look to prioritize an intersection between freshly picked and least chemical use, but I might also inquire about soil fertility and check out the soil if I'm on the farm.

Organic Raw Food Diet: Animal Foods Vs Produce

Organic Raw Food Diet Leafy GreensLuckily, fruits carry a relatively small quantity of the toxic substances that pollute most peoples' bodies. The biggest impact you can have on your intake is to simply give up meat, dairy, and eggs. While roughly 89% to 99% of the foreign chemicals found into our body originate in our food, most are sourced from animal products like meat (especially fish, due to mercury contamination) and dairy (15), (16), (17).

The conditions of factory-farmed animals is appalling. To help keep them alive in unsanitary, cramped, sun-free pens, many are directly sprayed with chemicals to keep the parasites which thrive in these conditions from killing them before they reach maturity. They are often injected with a barrage of medicines and vitamins as well.

Animals also eat 40 percent of the grain raised around the world (18), much of which is grown to a lesser standard than grains intended for human consumption. These grains can be treated with pesticides banned for human use, and many of the grains are genetically modified to contain pesticide-like characteristics.

Studies comparing vegans to omnivores have found vegans have significantly less contamination from organochlorines, a very dangerous chemical pesticide applied to animals (19), showing us that this dietary difference carries over into our bodies.

Organic Raw Food Diet: Produce Tips

Outside of avoiding animal foods, The next best thing you can do to avoid contamination when organic foods are not affordable, available, or fresh, is to avoid purchasing non-organic versions of the produce traditionally sprayed with high-levels of chemicals.  

Farming and pesticide-use practices differ from country to country and climate to climate, and different weather and pest-predation patterns can change how much chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides farmers use.

A good rule of thumb is that anything that is enclosed in a skin, rind, or peel which you discard carries a much lower chemical level than those which have skins you consume. So, for instance, peaches tend to carry more than bananas.

In the US, The nonprofit Environmental Working Group scours USDA pesticide level reports to put together a yearly assessment of the most polluted fruits and vegetables. Here is their 2010 review. I've listed the ones likely to be included in a healthy raw food diet.

Most Polluted Produce

(Most Polluted To Least Polluted)

Fairly Clean Produce

(Least Polluted To Most Polluted)
Peaches Sweet Corn
Strawberries Pineapples
Apples Mango
Blueberries Sweet Peas
Nectarines Asparagus
Sweet Bell Peppers
Kiwi Fruit
Kale Bananas
Collard Greens
Spinach Cantaloupe
Cherries Watermelon
Grapes Grapefruit
Lettuce Papaya

By simply avoiding the purchase of non-organic versions of the most polluted types of produce you can dramatically cut down on the harm you're likely to receive from buying nonorganic produce. The items on the most polluted list should be purchased organic when possible.

If you're going to buy conventional, concentrate on the fairly clean list.

Organic Raw Food Diet: Scrubbing and Peeling?

Organic Raw Food Diet ApplesScrubbing a food with soap and water only removes minor quantities of pesticides.

Scrubbing away pesticides is one of those useless make-work-to-feel-better tasks people are assigned to make them feel safe.

It's analogous to school children in the 1950s being told to hide under their desks in the event of nuclear bombing. After all, if water could wash away these chemicals, the farmers would have to reapply them after every rain shower.

However, many of the chemicals stay on the outer skin, rind, or layer of produce. Some fruit, like watermelon, have their rinds discarded so there's nothing you have to do. However, peeling away the skins of chemical-treated vegetables can remove significant quantities of chemicals.

Whenever I eat nonorganic leaf vegetables I always discard the outer leaves, which should theoretically remove the worst of the contaminants. When possible, though, I always try to buy organic leaf vegetables because they're generally far more polluted than rind-covered fruit.

Organic Raw Food Diet: Complications

As I hope you've learned, an organic raw food diet isn't necessarily the best. Organic is but one factor among many that we need to consider when making food choices. This article does not even begin to delve into the many ways we could approach this topic, such as the fact that large-scale organic farms apply "organic" pesticides which may be unsafe for human consumption.

If all things were equal, an organic raw food diet would be a must. Yet we live in a world where organic sometimes means old, ratty, prohibitively expensive, reduced-nutrient foods, and some other factors sometimes take priority.

I urge you to select organic when you can, but only only after considering these other factors.

Organic Raw Food Diet: Following Up

Learn how to adopt a healthy raw food diet.

Read how an organic raw food diet fits in among the other nutritional considerations we must think about.

Check out what foods are ideal for human consumption.

Organic Raw Food Diet: Sources

1) CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). 2009. Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals. Department of Health and Human Services
2) US Environmental Protection Agency. Pesticide reregistration status for organophosphates. Available at: http://www.epa.gov/oppsrrd1/reregistration/status_op.htm Accessed January 15, 201
3) Rauh VA, Garfinkel R, Perera FP, et al. Impact of prenatal chlorpyrifos exposure on neuro- development in the first 3 years of life among inner-city children. Pediatrics. 2006; 118(6). Available at: www.pediatrics.org/ cgi/content/full/118/6/e1845
4) Eskenazi B, Marks AR, Bradman A, et al. Or- ganophosphate pesticide exposure and neurodevelopment in young Mexican- American children. Environ Health Per- spect. 2007;115(5):792–798
5) Bouchard M, Bellinger D, Wright R, Weisskopf M. 2010. Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Urinary Metabolites of Organophosphate Pesticides. Pediatrics 125: 1270-77.
6) Costello Sadie, Cockburn Myles, Bronstein Jeff, Zhang Xinbo, Ritz Beate Parkinson's disease and residential exposure to maneb and paraquat from agricultural applications in the central valley of California.. American journal of epidemiology. 2009; 169(8): 919-26.
7) Cancer Trends Reporter 2009/2010 Update. National Cancer Institute. http://progressreport.cancer.gov/doc_detail.asp?pid=1&did=2007&chid=71&coid=713&mid. Accessed: March 15/2011
8) Swan SH, Study for Future Families Research Group. 2003. Semen quality in relation to biomarkers of pesticide exposure. Environ Health Perspect. Sep;111(12):1478-1484.
9) Sanderson WT et al. Pesticide prioritization for a brain cancer case-control study. Environ Res. 1997;74 (2): 133-144.
10) Woese K et al. A comparison of organically and conventionally grown foods -
results of a review of the relevant literature. J Science Food and Agric 1997;
74(3): 281-293.
11) Bourn D, Prescott J. A comparison of the nutritional value, sensory qualities, and
food safety of organically and conventionally produced foods. Crit Rev Food Sci
Nutr 2002; 42(1): 1-34.
12) Worthington V. Nutritional quality of organic versus conventional fruits,
vegetables, and grains. J Alt Comp Med 2001; 7(2): 161-173. COMMUNIQUÉ, Inc.   9
13) Brandt K, Molgaard JP. Organic agriculture: does it enhance or reduce the
nutitional value of plant foods. J Sci Food Agric 2001; 81: 924-931.
14) Poulter, Sean. "Why Fresh Vegetables Are Fresher Than Fresh." Daily Mail. March 5 2010. Accessed on March 27 2011.http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1255606/Why-frozen-vegetables-fresher-fresh.html#ixzz1HmXpcPfn
15) Duarte-Davidson R.  Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the  UK population: estimated intake, exposure and body burden.  Sci Total Environ. 1994 Jul 11;151(2):131-52.
16) Liem AK. Exposure of populations to dioxins and related compounds. Food Addit Contam. 2000 Apr;17(4):241-59.
17) Rivas A, Cerrillo I, Granada A, Mariscal-Arcas M, Olea-Serrano F. Pesticide exposure of two age groups of women and its relationship with their diet. Sci Total Environ. 2007 Aug 15;382(1):14-21.
18) Leitzmann C. Nutrition ecology: the contribution of vegetarian diets. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003 Sep;78(3 Suppl):657S-659S).
19) Arguin, H. Et al. "Impact of adopting a vegan diet or an olestra supplementation on plasma organochlorine concentrations: results from two pilot studies." Br J Nutr. 2010 May;103(10):1433-41. Epub 2009 Dec 24.

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