Photo of an organic poster
Eating an organic diet can reduce pesticide levels, as measured in your urine

The best way to reduce your pesticide intake? Eat organic!

1 May, 2014

In a toxic world how do you even begin to reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals?

There are so many things we don’t have control over. Traffic pollution, electromagnetic pollution, and water pollution are big ones. But diet us something we can all control and an amazing new study has shown that if you want to avoid pesticides not only is eating organic your best choice, it can work really quickly to help your body detox.

Some believe that ‘on the basis of the precautionary principle alone, choosing organic food appears to be an entirely rational decision’.

Australian researchers at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) have shown it’s true.

In a study published in the journal Environmental Research, 13 adults were randomly allocated to consume a diet composed of at least 80% organic or conventional food for seven days and then switched to the alternate non-organic diet for a further week.

Urinary levels of six metabolites, or breakdown products, of organophosphate pesticides known as dialkylphosphates or DAPs) were analysed on the eighth day of each phase. The small-scale trial found that just one week of eating mostly organic food reduced organophosphate pesticide levels in the participant’s urine by 89%.

The small study is the first of its kind that compares diets in adults; past research only looking at children. And those too have shown impressive results.

For example, a study known as the Children’s Pesticide Exposure Study (CPES) reported reductions in urinary pesticide metabolites in children consuming organic produce. This study included measurements of select metabolites of organophosphates (OP) and pyrethroids (PYR) in 23 children aged 3–11 years over a 15-consecutive-day sampling period.

The children consumed their usual conventional diet with an organic intervention phase for five consecutive days, at which time organic food items were substituted for most of the children’s conventional diet (fruit, vegetables, juice, wheat and corn products).

The organic intervention resulted in a decrease in certain pesticide-specific OP metabolites to non-detectable or close to non-detectable levels and a reduction of approximately 50% in PYR exposure.

“Recent studies have raised concerns for the health effects of these chemicals even at relatively low levels.

“Our results show that people who switch to eating mainly organic food for just one week can dramatically reduce their exposure to pesticides, demonstrating that an organic diet has a key role to play in a precautionary approach to reducing pesticide exposure.

“While the clinical relevance of reducing pesticide exposure requires further studies conducted on a larger scale, this study is an important first step in expanding our understanding about the impact of an organic diet.”

In 2003 another study reported that children who consumed organic fruit, vegetables and juice had a mean total urinary dimethyl alkylphosphate metabolite (DMAP) concentration (a non-specific measure of OP exposure) that was approximately 9 times lower than children consuming conventional foods.

This took the children’s exposure to these substances from above to below the US Environmental Protection Agency’s guidelines, shifting the health risks associated with exposure to these substances from uncertain risk to negligible.

Studies of organic diets have also shown other measurable benefits for children. In one study the consumption of organic dairy products within the context of a general organic diet was associated with a 36% lower risk of infantile eczema in children who exclusively consumed organic dairy products (i.e., weaned on organic milk, cheese and yoghurts and who were breastfed by mothers eating organic dairy products).

It’s not certain whether this reduction was because of the increased levels of omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid in organic compared to conventional milk or the likely reduction in pesticide – or both.

We are, obviously exposed to pesticides in many places, in our gardens, parks, workplaces, and in cars, buses, trains and on public walkways. Studies show that levels in our food are also rising. And while it can feel like we are helpless, what the results of these studies show are that we are not helpless, what is more we can get quick health gains, simply by choosing better quality and pesticide-free food.

If you want to make the switch to organic there is a wide world of choice out there. Of course you can find organic tea and coffee and even chocolate – you can even find organic crisps. But if you want to make real difference to your diet and overall health make your priority those foods that you know you are going to consume in quantity such as dairy products and fresh fruit and veg. In many places these are competitively priced. And if you shoo locally and at farmer’s markets – or have an organic food box delivered – they may even be cheaper.

And if you are wondering which foods are most likely to contain harmful pesticides, check out our analysis of UK foods, Five a day without pesticides, and the Environmental Working Group’s 2014 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.