Recently, a number of plant oils have been exalted for their health benefits. Healthy plant-derived fats, such as coconut oil, olive oil, and avocado oil, are appearing in various news articles outlining the numerous health benefits of these oils. While it is refreshing for consumers to gain an understanding of healthier products they can incorporate into their daily diet and beauty regimen, a problem that will continuously plague consumers is the argument over organic versus non-organic. The consumer is inundated with studies from every viewpoint – studies citing organic is healthiest, conventionally-grown is not a health risk, organic is an equal or greater health risk, or there is little difference between organic products and conventional products.
Background of the Organic Movement
The debate over whether to consume organic products or conventionally-grown products is longstanding. It is commonly believed that the organic movement is a fad or revolution, when in fact, it is a rebirth, or renaissance. Prior to the 1920s, organic farming practices governed agriculture. Farmers relied solely upon natural and nontoxic means of soil fertilization and pest prevention.
Non-organic, or conventional farming practices, were popularized around World War II, when research on chemicals used in nerve gas were shown to be effective insecticides. DDT, the first line of insecticides, was developed in 1939. After this development, farming practices changed drastically, relying heavily on synthetic chemicals, and undermining organic farming practices.
The organic movement began at the birth of industrialized agriculture. In the 1920s, a group of European farmers and consumers took it upon themselves to avoid industrial farming methods, and to continue using organic practices and purchasing organic products.
During the 1960s and 70s, three factors contributed to the spread of organic markets and organic farming methods. Consumers were increasingly interested in health and nutrition; the green movement began; and environmental concerns were pushed to the forefront of politics. Consumers became concerned with the environmental hazards of synthetic chemicals, as well as health risks and side effects of using these chemicals on their food and in household products.
What Is Organic?
Organic crops are farmed using sustainable practices, ensuring that the soil remains fertile and that erosion is prevented. This maintains a healthy environment in which plants can continue to grow, and creates a more nutrient-rich soil, resulting in nutrient-dense crops. Synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers are not permitted for use on organic crops. Instead, disease and pests prevention methods include good soil health, selection of more resilient plants, crop rotation, companion planting, beneficial bugs and predator insects. Farmers may also use crop covers, weeding, or remove insects by hand. Plant-based oils or plant-derived pesticides can be used as insect repellents or natural insecticides, and animal and plant manures are used for fertilizer.
Organic crops are not genetically modified. Genetic modification is prohibited in the processing and manufacturing of any organic products. The long term health risks of artificial genetic engineering are currently unknown. There are studies favoring and opposing the practice, and over twenty countries, such as those in West Europe and Latin America, Have banned genetically engineered crops.
After crops are harvested, they are handled in ways that do not damage or degrade the plant or finished product. Organic crops are not exposed to radiation because radiation is thought to destroy nutrients, and radiation levels pose a potential risk of cancer. Also, organic products are processed without the addition of any chemical additives, such as colors, flavors, and preservatives. These synthetic substances degrade a product, adding toxins and decreasing the nutritional value.
Studies have been conducted on whether organic products contain more nutrients. Some have found that these products are more nutrient-rich, while others have concluded the nutrient content is equal in organic and conventional products.
The Cost of Buying Organic
While many people acknowledge that organic products are healthier, there is also the complaint that these products cost considerably more than conventionally-grown products. This is generally true, and this cost difference is well-reflected when consumers seek out organic oils. Organic oils range from costing 50 to 300 percent more than conventional oils.
The reason for higher pricing of organic products is the organic certification. Companies must go through a rigorous process to label their products “Certified Organic,” and that cost is reflected onto the consumer.
Treatment of Conventional Products
Conventional farming practices incorporate the use of genetic modification and synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. The primary reason behind these methods is higher crop yields. Due to the use of synthetic chemicals, plants are made to resist and survive disease and infestation, can be grown larger in a shorter amount of time, and reproduce quickly.
Proponents of conventional farming argue that organic farming allows for certain synthetic pesticides, and that synthetic pesticides used in conventional farming are less dangerous because they are made to have high strength in small doses, whereas synthetic pesticides in organic farming require higher quantities to achieve the same results. Also, all substances are harmful in large doses, but pesticides are consumed in small quantities. Synthetic chemicals should not be harmful so long as they are used properly.
In addition, irradiating is said not to pose a health risk. This practice is used on non-organic produce as a means of killing off potentially harmful microbes. But conventional products have not been found to contain cancer-causing radiation from this practice.
Dangers in Conventionally-produced Oils
Consumers buying organic produce tend to concentrate on choosing a food containing less pesticides and no genetic modification. However, consumers selecting oils, are not only aware of pesticides, but also chemical additives. This is the single largest disparity between organic and conventional products. Organic products do not contain the chemical additives found in their conventional counterparts.
Chemical additives include artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, fillers, trans-fats, enhancers, stabilizers, and sweeteners. The purposes of these chemicals are to enhance visual appeal and palatability, and extend shelf life. Many of these chemicals present health risks and are known to accumulate in the body, eventually reaching toxic levels and resulting in medical problems. These substances are used on conventionally-grown whole produce, and are found in byproducts such as plant oils.
Common Chemical Additives
Hexane, commonly used in the extraction or distillation process for oils, is a product of gasoline manufacturing. It is notorious for being an air pollutant and for causing brain damage.
Popular preservatives added to many fats and oils are BHA and BHT, or Butylated Hydroxyanisole and Butylated Hydroxytoluene. These chemicals are derived from petroleum, and are added to prevent spoilage. These are carcinogenic substances, linked to high cholesterol, immune deficiencies, liver and kidney damage, infertility, and behavioral disorders. Propyl Gallate, a preservative commonly used with BHA and BHT, is a carcinogen associated with bowel inflammation, hormone disruption, and liver and kidney damage.
There is controversy over whether the pesticides used in organic products are more toxic or less harmful than those used in conventionally-grown products. And evidence of whether or not genetic engineering poses a health hazard is foundation for confusion and uncertainty. However, organic products are guaranteed not to contain infamous chemical additives found in their conventional counterparts.
For those who do not consider pesticides a health risk, using conventional oils will not seem problematic or harmful. But if avoiding toxic chemical additives and potentially harmful genetic engineering is a priority, organic oils are the alternative.