Organic justified: Are we living in a toxic world?
Brillant – Savarin once said: “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.” Should his insight be applied to a typical contemporary consumer, then we all may well be hibernating into novel assemblages of unfamiliar molecules that can mutate into unpredictable forms. Cancer and other by modern lifestyle caused diseases are on the rise. Because of the inseparable nature of many of the control factors it is challenging to study precisely what caused these deadly scavengers of our lifespan. Yet, many research experts and bestselling authors such as Michael Pollan point at our food, daily lifestyle habits and mainly to the more concentrated toxic substances invented by men. In the age of abundance, millions of people now already supply their bodies with an excess of what they need. This natural system sabotaging quantity is magnified by another burden – the toxins in our air, clothes, cosmetics, the environment (household, workplace, public buildings), food and water. The body is heavily taxed for its existence in the urban world.
Wisdom of our ancestors
Time travelling two millenia into the past, Plato allegedly said: “The first and greatest of necessities is food, which is the condition of life and existence.” The philosopher probably took clean air and access to uncontaminated water for granted. In his time, the chemical industry did not alter the environment in which humans lived, antibiotics and hormones were not fed to animals, while the later were consumed with a greater restraint. Therefore, we need an updated look at the state of our existence in the face of the current circumstances.
With the rapid progress of science and it seems like a better understanding of the chemistry of our body, Plato’s wisdom can be expanded to a claim that a better quality of life can be achieved through food. Not the processed, with vitamins enriched powders, cookies and fried snacks, but the real food that we have been familiar with throughout our existence as Homo sapiens. Even though there are millions of natural toxins, the too recent manmade additions have the potential to synergise and create a havoc in our b0dy and the environment.
Until very recently, nature used to be our pharmacy. My great grandmother collected herbs in season, naturally dried them in her attic and brewed into decoctions, syrups, and infusions sweetened by honey. She knew no white sugar, never added artificial colors or flavours into her ocassional cakes, and sparsely ate meat, because the only meat she consumed was raised by her and the family. Almost any basic ailment could be cured through her homemade remedies.
Our ancestors also knew what food combinations have the innate ability to enhance or curb their potency. For example, cooking fish with sorrels or in a banana leaf makes the calcium from its bones available for our body’s absorption. The antiviral and antimicrobial properties of garlic added to raw, unpasteurized or untreated volatile food most likely prolongated the Mediterranean inhabitants life spans. Food was not conceived as a fuel only, but its effects on human body and mind were notably observed.
The fruit that shocked America
Modern nutrition tries to elaborate on these deductions with the scientific and statistical stamp of approval. Yet, an apple, one of the symbols of health, proved that what used to be beneficial does not need to remain so in the world where change means a fluid stream of coincidences. Forget the popular saying: “an apple a day, keeps the doctor away”. In America, this fruit shocked the health conscious, when a study revealed that the conventionally farmed apples tested had 98% of pesticide residues on them even after 10 seconds of washing! The throne of the so-called “dirty dozen” raw ingredients that were guilty of receiving too much spraying was usurped by the fruit believed to be good for you. Departing from the ancestral knowledge accumulated over the millennia of cultural advancement, we were blinded by the rapid progress and thrust out lives into some barely tested industrial inventions.
Survival above progress
The efficiency and profit-driven sprawl of the past two centuries introduced more concentrated chemicals into our lives. As their effects on our health and the Earth manifest themselves, we are slowly realising that this is not the right path for a sustainable future. Research is hardly catching up with the tens of thousands of the newly introduced chemicals into our utility chain. Some of the products we daily use and come in direct contact with are now labeled as the black sheep of our consumption. The parabens in our sunscreen that were created to protect us from the skin cancer disrupt our endocrine system and potentially cause other serious health problems. The recyclable soft plastic bottles release BPA when exposed to high heat. The phtalates in perfumes and cleaning household products also confuse our hormones.
The problem is that we invent more chemicals than we are able to test reliably before they flood the market space. The unsustainable practices of most quick profit-seeking businesses are rooted in the dog eat dog corporate culture, their hunger for growth and focus on destroying their competition. Take Monsanto, the grandmother of the GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) pushy experimentation in the US. Discontent is bubbling in the conscious consumers’ well of tolerance. Some companies, like the Austin-born Wholefoods, have set an ambitious goal to eschew GMOs totally from their wide-ranging offer. On the other hand we are oversensitive to the ocean of information on the internet. We must learn to discern good from bad science, and this is not easy.
The chemistry in nature and our body
Cognisant of my pharmaceutical education, what is real is another latent threat – the synergic, cumulative effect of certain chemical substances when present in our bodies together. Therefore, studying pesticides separately cannot cast a clear light on their safety. It is also difficult to prove or disproove whether organic food and drinks are better for our health. What we know for sure is that the conventional farming methods are depleting our soil of nutrients, cause erosion and in many cases fatally affect the farm workers and their children that are in frequent contact with pesticides.
Some industrial chemicals leak to nature and are bioaccumulative (resistant to degradation) as well as when ingested by the human organism. We acquire them through fatty fish, meat and high-in-fat dairy since many of them are fat-soluble. These potentially harmful substances become long-term residents in our body fat deposits, breast milk, in blood, but also in bone, muscle, or the brain. The more of the contaminated drinks and food we consume, the more is stored in our system. To complicate it further: “Even if their production and use are discontinued, many years may pass before their concentrations have sufficiently declined so that they no longer pose risks.”
The only way to clean, detox, funnel them out of our system are chelating agents. Many of them though are quite aggressive on our delicate intestinal flora, that is indispensable for adequately responding immune system. A little bit like a chemotherapy destroying cancer but also some of our healthy cells.
The common and proven slow killers in our consumer system are:
Asbestos – this bioaccumulative substance is present in older buildings, but elsewhere in poorer countries with weak control systems.
Benzen & other petrochemicals – Hexachlorobenzene is bioaccumulative, so dwells in for its chance to harm you.
Bisphenol A (=BPA) – not just in most of plastic bottles and materials, but also on our shopping receipts, it has been proven that it disrupts our endocrine functioning by mimicking the estrogen.
Formaldehyde – proven carcinogen is found in building material, furniture, medicines, cosmetics, glue, a nail polish and remover, but also used as a preservative in foods (certain cheeses, dried food, and fish). Buying cheese from small artisanal producers and freshly caught fish directly from the fishermen is a better choice.
Lead – bioaccumulative; in some paint pigments particularly in developing countries such as China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, which have no restrictions on their use.
Mercury – in fish high in the food chain; bioaccumulative and harmful for a pregnant women’s’ foetus.
Parabens – conservatives in cosmetics and some foods that keep these products stable for longer, but are a potentially causing birth defects in newborn babies.
Phtalates – in perfumes and cleaning household products affect our hormones, potentially leading to various cancers.
Flame retardants (chlorine, bromine) – in furniture coatings, mattresses (for a “healthy sleep”) and clothes. In California, these were obligatory until recently when it was proven that, “When foam with flame retardants burns, it produces much higher levels of carbon monoxide, soot, and smoke.” Further, “These toxic gases (not the actual fire) are the major contributors to fire death.” [as stated by the Center for Environmental Health based in the US]
The list grows with new research confirming their toxicity. Frances Moore Lappé, one of the pioneering American critics of the evolving modern food industry, adds artificial colorings that are either unsafe or poorly tested along with Brominated Vegetable Oil, BHT, Caffeine, Quinine, Saccharin, Sodium Chloride, Sodium Nitrite and Nitrate and processed sugar. Also check the website of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) for updates.
Organic certification is not enough to clean the world
Organically certified produce does not mean that it is toxin-free, neither it guarantees zero pesticide residues. Why is that? The soil, water and air are interconnected and one can introduce unwanted substances into another. Location counts, in this case, more than it may be apparent since there is a different meter for each of the certifications. The European Union is the strictest, Australia is quite tough too but in the US, ten times more pesticides are tolerated for the USDA Organic labelling. The little print is a tiresome, yet revealing read.
“100% Organic” means that all ingredients are organic according to the specified country’s regulations;
“Organic” means that at least 95% of the contents are organic, while “Made with Organic Ingredients” means that a minimum of 70% is organic.
In all these above calculations water and salt are excluded from the equation. Let’s hope that filtered, antibiotics and hormone-free water was added since often it is the major component in the processed foods.
Pesticides are a double sword. The necessity for constantly increasing doses for their efficiency against pests is like an eye of a hurricane – calm around the seriously damaging storm ‘eyewall’. Its spiraling up causes an unprecedented harm. Starting in the morning, just consider the pesticide residues on your slice of lemon, in the milk served with tea, with breakfast or in the cheese, meat and of course lettuce and strawberries – the dirty dozen sinners! This may sound like a ‘chemophobia’, yet there is an evolutionary reason behind it. We are wary of toxins as our survival alarm goes off. We fear nuclear accidents, pollution from large factories and in our water system, rare poisonous plants, yet we do not think about what we daily put on our skin, into our mouth, inhale into our lungs and what is funnelled through our pores into the inner body.
In the “Organic” certified produce you can be assured that GMOs are out of the game, that forbidden pesticides and fertilisers are not used (some deemed safe are allowed as they are naturally occurring pesticides), the soil benefits, and that the animals are treated better, without antibiotics and growth hormones, than is common in the conventional livestock production.
Then come allergies and sensitivities developed throughout our constantly consuming life cycle. Sulphur naturally occurs in some soils (volcanic soils in particular), and even the ‘natural wines‘ you are sipping on contain some, but in most wines it is added excessively to preserve the wine and that causes discomfort at least, skin rashes, but in some sensitive individuals also major health problems. The Organic label considers this marginally while biodynamics goes beyond the organics. Coined by Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian agriculturist, this system strives to emulate nature and support its innate clock and is rooted in the millennial wisdom of the human race that was more in touch with the natural cycle than we are. Living in the virtual reality behind our computers, detached from the real world we blind ourselves towards the heralds of chaos and imbalance in the real world.
What can clean our food system
Transparency in our food system, legally binding rules assuring safety and the ingredients’ origin traceability is the first step in increasing the consumers trust in store-purchased food. The more processed the product, the less predictable is its effect on our health. Buying whole and seasonal foods would benefit us, but it decreases the profit margins of the big food industry, so it will hardly be advertised. We need to rediscover the traditional, healthier diet of our ancestors.
A small farmer has no budget for ads, so you must put an effort into finding him or her. The easiest and shortest path to the source is buying locally grown and raised produce, so we can personally check and experience what the farmers sell to us. More than organic labelling, local, seasonal, and small-scale sustainable farming should be supported.
Not only the consumers and the soil benefit from organic and even more biodynamic farming but also the farmers and workers who come in direct contact with the chemicals. Recently the storm of discontent blitzed through Bordeaux, the reputed French wine region, where a wave of protests against the use of pesticides flushed through its towns. Many farmers were being conflicted by serious health problems caused by these additives and they cry for change.
The Japanese zen lifestyle calls for harmony with nature. Seasonal hyper-local produce is inherent to the Japanese culinary tradition, and really any food tradition. The country takes sustainability seriously also in its architecture and well-established businesses such as the cosmetics brand Fencl offers a holistic lifestyle experience. Fencl just does not sell organic cosmetics, but also feeds the customers at two cafés in the heart of Ginza. Beauty equals health, which stems from not just what we apply on the surface, but also what we put inside our bodies.
Food safety neglected
Farming, eating and using daily organic products do not alone assure safety. Sustainable, no chemicals leaking packaging, poor hygiene, and oversight by independent bodies are as important for the holistic system as the produce in itself. “Contamination of food by harmful bacteria and other pathogens can also cause illnesses, including contamination by unsafe production and processing practices, by plastics and other materials used in storage and production, and by chemicals found in food ingredients.” (source: ceh.org)
Marion Nestle, a respected nutritionist and food industry insider in the US, wrote in her book What to Eat that you will serve yourself best when buying the ‘Seafood Safe’ labelled fish tested by independent laboratories. She warns that: “Even the most ‘organic’ of stores pay more attention to seafood sustainability than they do to safety.” Freshness, source and handling of seafood are the most important information a consumer needs to know in order to minimize his/her safety risks.
It is ironic, that buying and consuming organic produce is more associated with the affluent population, when just until recently it was an inherent lifestyle of the villagers and people unspoiled by the urban consumerism. Whether you produce it itself or purchase from others, chemicals-free food is more expensive and it is trendy. Apparently, large food corporations want to fill their pockets on this emerging “new normal”, but clean, sustainable food should not be a movement just for the rich. Regularly buying seasonal plants and locally raised meat just occasionally as our ancestors did, is cheaper than the imported exotic ingredients available throughout the year. In the season, ripe produce also tastes better. Just compare the succulent and sweet strawberry in May to its bland November hybrid (the Southern hemisphere has it in reverse). Food, for most of the human existence, was not cheap and thus consumed in moderation. The processed items we eat these days are too cheap because they are not real food – the industry secret is revealed.
Eat to live long
The places where people live the longest are all rural areas, where organic, sustainable and by seasons driven lifestyle are the norm. Affordable, locally produced, but also appreciated because the effort behind the production of the food is directly felt by the community. Read about the Blue Zones in my very first editorial musing.
Detox or cleansing our bodies from the toxic chemicals and excesses of our overindulgent lifestyles, is not a new phenomenon. Millennia ago, many religions have established fasting as a regular purification of the body and soul.
Yet, today we need to remove more toxins from our bodies, ease the negative impact of the mind-fogging stress and find an unpolluted environment to purify our lungs from the industrial air we breathe. We have created the world in which we live now. As the clock ticks louder approaching the environmental midnight disaster even the hyper-politicised governments agree that how we leave now is not beneficial to our well-being and for our future generations.
Taking responsibly not just for ourselves and our bodies, but also for others, we should pursue a more sustainable path. We need to start somewhere and if more groups embrace the organic lifestyle then, perhaps, we can clean our Planet from the allergens, carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, neurotoxins and other harmful substances. Particularly, over the past century, we let off the genie out of the bottle in a concentrated dose. It may be too idealistic to think that we can reverse the damage we have caused so far, but at least we can lessen its impact. Stick with the trend, not just this year when ecological, organic and sustainable lifestyle is fashionable.
The organic myth of superior health benefits is worth believing in since it may prove once to be indeed better for all of us. How would we be otherwise motivated to support what is good for the Earth, the farmers and the animals?
What to do to start balancing your polluted lifestyle:
- buy local produce from farmers – ask if they use any treatments if not certified
- reduce your intake of heavy metals by boycotting rice from developing countries (arsenic) and the mercury in tuna and other fatty fish higher in the food chain
- avoid by antibiotics-fed farmed salmon and eat seasonal cold water wild fish as well as occasionally (max once per week) include grass grazing animal produce
- buy processed foods sparingly, give your money to organically certified fresh whole foods without additives, colorings and preservatives
- scan the ingredients in body care and toothpaste, often less is more here, so the shorter the list, the more likely it is made from natural substances
- use only eco-labeled household products; vinegar and salt do wonders with stains!
- furniture – check manufacturers website and demand information about flame retardants and if other chemicals such as formaldehyde were used to treat it
- include healthy sustainable daily activities such as cycling, walking, working in a daylight, outdoor motor-free sports (use eco-cars if you must). These will not pollute the air your breath around you more than it already is.