Ask the Doctors

Dear Doctor: Are organic foods better for you than ordinary foods? I say yes because there are no hormones or pesticides involved. My husband says that once you wash your produce carefully, the only difference between an organic peach and a regular one is the price tag.

Dear Reader: Welcome to a long-running and robust debate. Whether organic foods provide health benefits over and above those grown by conventional methods has been under discussion for decades. (And here we're being polite -- both sides of this battle can get pretty worked up.)

Before we wade into the fray, let's take a stab at some definitions. That's actually easier said than done. At its most basic, when something is organically grown, it is understood to have been raised without the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers; without antibiotics; and with seeds or products that have not been genetically engineered or altered.

Dig a little deeper (sorry) and the word "organic" takes a detour into the legal realm. In order to market their products as organic, farmers must adhere to specific guidelines put forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. So to simplify our discussion, let's go with the basic spirit of the word. That is, fruits and vegetables raised without conventional pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, and farm animals raised without the use of hormones, and with access to the outdoors and to pasture.

Are organically raised foods better for your health? Studies say maybe. Will we ever get a definitive answer? Probably not. The challenge is that the topic is so vast as to be virtually unmanageable. Even studies that have broken the question down into discrete parts come up with mixed results.

So what is known for sure?

When you buy organic produce, you're getting fruits and vegetables with measurably less pesticide residue than when you buy the same produce that has been conventionally grown. But before you take a victory lap, conventionally grown produce in the United States generally exceeds the minimum tolerance levels for pesticides set by the Food and Drug Administration.

As to why organic produce has any pesticide residue at all, some have been OK'd for organic farming. Drift from conventional farms, plus lingering DDT in the soil, are believed to account for the rest of the pesticide residue found on organic produce.

Studies show that organically grown produce also has higher levels of antioxidants and lower levels of the heavy metal cadmium than does conventional produce. And when it comes to beef, the FDA's feeding guidelines that call for organic cattle to be raised on grass and alfalfa lead to meat that is higher in omega-3 fatty acids. Increased levels of omega-3's are also found in organic dairy and eggs. On the minus side: Organically produced milk tends to be lower in iodine, an essential nutrient, than conventional milk.

In a paper published this year, researchers did the heavy lifting and systematically examined the published literature on the benefits of organic versus conventional food. Their findings: "It is therefore currently not possible to quantify to what extent organic food consumption may affect human health."

Bottom line: The "organic vs. conventional" battle rages on.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

More like Ask the Doctors