Organic Not So Good?

Question: What's all this I read in the newspapers about a study showing that organic food isn't more nutritious than the regular stuff? I thought organic was always better?

Studies on organic vs. non-organic food are all over the map, with some studies showing no nutritional differences, some showing a lot. And different studies investigate different sets of nutrients, so they're hard to compare.

For example, one study found that organic vegetable soups contain almost six times as much salicylic acid (the active ingredient in aspirin) compared to nonorganic vegetable soups. And research in 2001 found that organic crops had higher average levels of twenty-one nutrients including vitamin C and iron.

Other studies haven't shown much difference in nutritional composition. Interesting, not one study has ever shown that conventionally grown food is better than organic – the best they can do is show it's no worse.

However, this misses the point. We don't really eat organic food simply because it has more nutrients, though that's very possible and hotly debated. We eat it because of what it doesn't have: poison.

Conventional crops are grown with a massive amount of pesticides and, no matter what they say, some of it remains on the crops and winds up in our bodies. Make no mistake, some of this shit does wind up on organic crops, but there's a lot less of it.

Consumers Union did a study in 2002 analyzing three large data sets of twenty major crops and found that conventionally grown samples had pesticide residues way more often than organic, and that the amounts of pesticides were higher in the conventional crops 66% of the time.

So I think much of the debate about the nutrient content of organic vs. non-organic is misfocused. You could say omega-3's are useless because they don't prevent divorce, but that's not why we eat them, is it? And we eat organic food primarily to minimize our intake of the crap they spray on regular food, not because it necessarily has more vitamin C.

When all is said and done, only about 2.5 percent of food eaten in the US is organic, and

let's face it, organic costs a lot more. It may be much more important to focus on eating more fresh food – organic or non-organic – than to have endless debates about marginal benefits of one over the other.

If you want to dig deeper, check out the book America's Food by Harvey Blatt.

Question: In the new Special K cereal commercials, they promote eating a bowl of their "Chocolatey Delight Special K" as a healthy post-dinner snack. What do you think? And while we're on the topic, what about those Special K protein drinks?

What a bunch of horseshit.

That "healthy" post-dinner snack has sugar, trans-fats (check the label: partially hydrogenised palm kernel oil is right there, despite the "no trans-fat" claim) and high fructose corn syrup with about all of one gram of fiber and two grams of protein.

On what planet is that a great snack? Oh yes, I guess if you compare a bowl of this crap to two pints of ice cream and three chocolate brownies then the cereal is a better snack, but not by much!

Sad to say, the protein shake is probably an improvement over what most of America consumes for breakfast. But that's like saying Froot Loops are good because they're an improvement over donuts.

Anyone serious about nutrition shouldn't waste their time with crap like this. It's got 10 grams of protein, but that comes with 29 grams of carbs and a list of ingredients that include sugar, canola oil, corn syrup, and a whole bunch of other highly processed stuff.

Why anyone reading T NATION would even consider this shit is beyond me! If you want a protein shake, just get some high quality whey protein powder and mix it in a blender with some berries and water and call it a day.

Question: I think I remember my mom doing that dumbass "grapefruit diet" when I was a kid. While that diet has been debunked, I heard something recently about grapefruit actually being good for fat loss and health? What's up with this?

Yup, I remember that too. In fact, pre-Internet days there was a diet passed around called "The Mayo Clinic Diet" that was basically grapefruit at every meal followed by some bastardized (and not very good) version of the Atkins diet. People swore by it despite the fact that it had absolutely nothing to do with the Mayo Clinic (which has completely disavowed it).

The grapefruit was believed to have some special magical "fat burning" properties, and I remember spending an awful lot of time explaining to people why that was a bunch of crap.

Now it turns out there may be something there after all. In 2006, a study from Scripps Clinic in La Jolla investigated the effect of grapefruit on weight and insulin resistance. (1) They took 91 obese patients and divided them into four groups. Group one got grapefruit capsules before meals; group two got grapefruit juice; group three got half a grapefruit, and group four got a placebo.

The placebo group only lost one-third of a pound, but the other three groups lost between 1.1 and 1.5 pounds. Only the fresh grapefruit group reached "statistical significance" but among a sub-group of patients with Metabolic Syndrome (pre-diabetes) all three lost significantly more weight. And insulin resistance improved in all of them.

The authors admitted that they really didn't understand the mechanism by which it worked, but the fact is that it did.

Either way, grapefruit is a whole food with low calories, high volume, and good enzymes. It can fill you up and be a part of any good fat-loss program. The red and pink varieties even have some cancer-fighting lycopene.

Question: What do you think of soy as a health food, particularly for we musclehead types?

I'm underwhelmed. The amino acid profile is so-so, and even though the phytoestrogens in soy are weaker than estrogen itself, they're still estrogens. Do you really need estrogens in your diet? Much better to use whey or casein, or a combination of both.

And most soy foods – soy milk, soy lattes, soy burgers etc. – are junk food and no healthier than the crap they replace. (However, traditionally fermented soy products such as miso and tempeh can be healthy.)

An interesting note, for my book, The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth, I interviewed fifteen notable nutrition experts and asked them to list their top ten favorite health foods. How many listed soy? Not a single one!

I wouldn't go so far as my friend Charles Poliquin – who, as I recall, said an unprintable version of "Soy is for sissies" – but I think soy is pretty overrated as a health food. Bodybuilders would obviously be better off looking elsewhere!

Question: What's your opinion on these new compounds like polydextrose that are finding their way into every food source imaginable? I've read that food companies are inserting it into their products because the FDA allows polydextrose to be classified as fiber. Is it garbage or does my ice cream really have two grams of legit fiber in it now?

There are a number of these ingredients that manufacturers use in food products that are showing up as "fiber" on the nutrition facts label, and to my mind, the jury is still out on them. The best known are polydextrose and inulin. (More on those in a minute.)

The Institute of Medicine classifies fiber into two large categories: dietary and functional. Dietary fiber comes in three flavors – soluble, insoluble, and the new trendy one called resistant starch.

As the name "dietary" implies, they come from real food. These are the fibers your grandmother used to call "roughage" and which are associated with a lot of health benefits.

"Functional" fiber refers to both man-made substances like polydextrose and natural substances like inulin.

Polydextrose is a kind of sugar substitute made from dextrose and sorbitol. It's low- calorie and low-glycemic which makes it appealing for many people. It's perfectly legal to list polydextrose under "fiber" on the nutritional facts label in the US, so manufacturers do it.

But although it's classified as a "functional fiber," truth is we don't really know if it confers the same benefits as the old-fashioned kind from vegetables and fruits. (In Canada, their version of the FDA – known as Health Canada – doesn't allow it to be listed as a fiber on the nutritional facts label.)

It's hard enough to separate the health benefits that come from fiber from the well-known health benefits that come from eating high-fiber foods like beans, fruits, vegetables, oatmeal, etc. No one seems to know for sure the benefits, if any, of adding these man-made substances to food.

At least one study shows that consumption of polydextrose significantly improved bowel function (2) and others show that it promotes the growth of probiotics, so it certainly isn't a bad thing – though whether it's equal in value to food fiber is an open question.

Inulin, the other fiber that's showing up on these products, is a natural soluble fiber that acts as a pre-biotic, meaning it feeds the "good" bacteria in your gut (probiotics). For that reason alone, it's good stuff. It also seems to lower glucose and insulin response.

Question: You've written here at T Nation that canola oil as a health food is a total con. What about palm oil? I thought it was bad shit, but now I'm seeing it in health food stores.

Like coconut oil, palm oil got a bad rap because it's relatively high in saturated fat. But unless it's been hydrogenated (i.e. "partially hydrogenated palm oil"), there's absolutely no reason to avoid it.

Good organic red palm oil is about 10% omega-6, 40% omega-9 (monounsaturated fat) and about 50% saturated fat, and it has a high smoke point (450 degrees) making it pretty darn stable for cooking. It's red because of its high beta-carotene content.

I wouldn't make it my only oil, but I see no reason not to use it occasionally. I trust the kind sold by Tropical Traditions.

  1. Grapefruit and weight loss
  2. Jie Z et al. Studies on the effects of polydextrose intake on physiologic functions in Chinese people. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000;72:1503-9.