Does organic food promote a healthier microbiome?
Organic food used to be sold only in natural food stores and organic farms. Nowadays, you can find organic produce and products in most conventional grocery stores, and Organic is the fastest growing sector in the food industry in the US.
People prefer organic produce for its health benefits, for its environmental advantages and for perceived improved animal welfare standards.
Organic produce is selected for what it lacks. Since organic food is grown without synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers, it reduces our exposure to these chemicals. These chemicals cannot be completely washed off and end up in our food, and are absorbed by and present in our body. Conventional growers and food producers assure us that these chemicals are safe and harmless in small amounts, but common sense says that they add nothing good to our health and that we’re probably safer without them. Organic practices also prohibit the use of hormones, GMOs and the indiscriminate use antibiotics.
Organic farming is better for the environment. An organic farm doesn’t contribute to the growing problem of chemical fertilizer run-off contaminating rivers, lakes, oceans and drinking water, which affects wildlife as well as humans. An organic farm maintains soil fertility without using fossil fuels (fertilizers are fossil fuel products). An organic farm promotes biodiversity and uses less energy. Organic farm workers on farms aren’t subjected to a work environment heavily contaminated by pesticides.
But is organic produce more nutritious?
Regarding the nutritional value of organic foods, previous research centered on nutrients: macronutrients, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals in organic vs. conventional. The main advantages of organic produce are in the content of antioxidants.
But another aspect of food, we’ve come to realize, is how it feeds and interacts with our microbiome, the society of microbial life within us, the trillions of microorganisms that coexist within us.
We used to think of bacteria in the context of pathogens – disease-causing germs. Most microorganisms are, however, not pathogens, and are either neutral or beneficial to our survival and wellbeing. Microbes help us digest food, synthesize B and K vitamins and short chain fatty acids, fight inflammation, regulate immunity and protect us from harmful bacteria. The study of the human microbiome is revealing a link between certain microbes and obesity, mood and many diseases.
How to promote a healthy microbiome? The general advice centers on eating good prebiotics: whole plant foods with plenty of fiber, avoiding unnecessary antibiotics and perhaps adding probiotics – fermented foods like yogurt, miso and pickles.
But the way plant food is grown may also make a difference.
Does organic food contain superior microbes?
Plants, just like us humans, are teeming with bacteria, fungi and viruses that support and interact with them – plants and their microorganisms are partners sharing a functioning home. Raw fruits and vegetables are a source of microbes for our own gut.
Since organic farming promotes biodiversity and biological cycles in soil, one could imagine that the microbial life of organic soil, and therefore in the plants growing in this soil, would be richer and more varied. Studies have shown that organic farming enhances total microbial abundance and activity and that the soil microbiome of organically grown grapevines is richer in species of microbial communities.
A new study in Frontiers in Microbiology compares the microbial life inside organic and conventional apples.
The researchers from Austria extracted microorganisms from every part of conventional and organically grown apples: from pulp, peel, seed and stem. Each average apple contains about 100 million bacteria according to this study.
And the way the apple was grown affected their microbial content significantly. Organic apples had greater diversity of bacteria in all parts of the apple, and the bacterial composition was distinct, with bacteria such as Escherichia-Shigella found only in conventional apples and Methylobacterium only in organic ones.
Microbiome research is a relatively new field, and we’re just beginning to understand how important gut microbes are to our overall health. What’s certain is that what we eat influences our gut microbiome. Organic produce delivers products with fewer chemicals, preservatives, additives, antibiotics and hormones, and the environmental reasons to go organic are compelling.
If there are microbiome health benefits this would be yet another added bonus.