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The Organic Factor
by Dr. Charles Benbrook

Six Ways Organic Food Can Help Prevent Disease Throughout Life

According to a study in Epidemiology published in January of 2009, the number of newly diagnosed cases of autism in California children rose over six-fold. Food allergies among children are becoming much more common, as is asthma. Newly diagnosed eczema cases in the U.S. increased 6.7-fold from 1977 to 2006 and diabetes is rising sharply.
What is driving these trends? Many scientists are beginning to suspect some causes are linked to what we eat and are exposed to very early in life through food, water and air--with pesticides posing more and more of a proven risk.
In March, The Organic Center released a report exploring how food and dietary choices can impact trends in overweight, obesity and diabetes, with special focus on the fetal origins of adult disease. "That First Step: Organic Food and a Healthier Future," highlights six ways in which sound dietary choices and organic food can lay a firmer foundation for healthy development and lifelong health.
Three of the six ways are grounded in the human reproductive cycle and play out in the months before a child is conceived, during fetal growth, and through adolescence. The Center's report cites over 150 studies in concluding that a well-balanced diet composed of ample organic fruits and vegetables, dairy and grain products will:

- Lay the groundwork for normal endocrine system regulation of blood sugars, lipids, energy intake and immune system functions.
- Establish and help sustain taste-based preferences in the child for familiar nutrient-dense and flavorful foods.
- Largely eliminate dietary exposures to pesticides.
Overweight and obesity are rising fastest among children. Total health care costs attributed to obesity/overweight and their complications are projected to double each decade to nearly $1 trillion in 2030, which would then account for 16 to 18 percent of total U.S. health care costs.
The Organic Center's report found that organic food may help reverse these trends by:
- Triggering or reinforcing a sense of satiety, or fullness, thereby reducing excessive caloric intake.
- Lessening or limiting the cellular and genetic damage done by reactive oxygen species (so-called free radicals) and reducing the risk of diabetes and other diseases rooted in inflammation (e.g., arthritis, cardiovascular disease) and rapid cell growth (cancer).
- Slowing, and perhaps even reversing certain aspects of neurological aging, leading to improved memory and retention of cognitive skills.

A 2009 study in Environmental Health Perspectives reported that a mother's diet plays a major role in determining how many synthetic chemicals are present in amniotic fluids and whether the levels approach those capable of disrupting normal development by, for example, predisposing the child to diabetes or reproductive problems. The diet during pregnancy can also impact the "wiring" of the child's satiety mechanism, which is the biochemical/neurological pathway in the body that transmits the crucial "I am getting full" signal to the brain. When this signal is weak or delayed, the stage is set for weight problems, diabetes, and other diseases.
Six encouraging conclusions on the impacts of organic farming on soil quality and the nutritional content of food were reached by a panel of scientists:

1. Enhancement of soil quality in organic apple production systems can lead to measurable improvements in fruit nutritional quality, taste and storability.

2. Organically farmed tomatoes have significantly higher levels of soluble solids and natural plant secondary metabolites, including flavonoids, lycopene, and vitamin C that act as antioxidants.

3. As crop yields increase, the nutrient density of the harvested portion of the crop tends to decline as a result of what is called "the dilution effect." Organic farming can delay the onset of this effect.

4. Studies of 27 cultivars of organically grown spinach demonstrate significantly higher levels of flavonoids and vitamin C, and lower levels of nitrates (a good thing, as nitrates in food can form carcinogenic nitrosamines in the GI tract).

5. The levels of vitamins and antioxidants in food appear to be driven by the forms of nitrogen added to a farming system as fertilizer, as well as the ways in which nitrogen is processed by the biological communities of organisms in the soil. The nitrogen cycle on organic farms is rooted in substantially more complex biological processes and soil-plant interactions, and for this reason, organic farming offers great promise in consistently producing nutrient-enriched foods.

6. Organic soil fertility methods, which use less readily available forms of nutrients, especially nitrogen, improve plant gene expression patterns in ways that lead to more efficient assimilation of nitrogen and carbon in tomatoes. This leaves plants with more energy to produce beneficial vitamins and antioxidants, compounds that promote plant health as well as human health by preventing the damage caused by reactive oxygen species, or so-called free radicals.
Literally hundreds of studies point to a variety of reasons why the generally higher concentrations of antioxidant phytochemicals in organic food can promote healthy development and graceful aging. A 2009 study in the Journal of Agricultural & Food Chemistry found that the flavonoids rutin and coumaric acid reduced the buildup of insulin in rats on a high-fat diet by 48-68%, reductions that would virtually guarantee blockbuster status for a new human drug.
Government has important roles to play in financing necessary changes and conducting the careful research needed to identify priority challenges and calibrate the direction of change. But the bulk of responsibility will fall upon individuals, especially parents, who need to think deeply and strategically about what they feed themselves and their families in order to tip the odds in favor of healthy development and lifelong health.

Dr. Charles Benbrook is the chief scientist at The Organic Center
Reprinted from Organic Processing Magazine, May/June 2009, with permission of the publishers. 2009 by The Target Group 

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