Naturopathic Sacrilege: The real reason to buy organic

Jacob Schor, ND

July 28, 2007

The real reason to eat organic fruits and vegetables is not that they are less toxic but that in an odd way, they are actually more toxic. Bear with me as I explain this apparent sacrilege.

Why do plants make all the miscellaneous and odd chemicals they contain? It is because plants cannot run away from their predators. Their major defense mechanisms are chemical; they make chemicals because they do not want to get eaten. Over the past hundreds of millions of years, plants have worked hard to perfect these chemical defenses, best described as bio-pesticides; they target insects. We have known about some of these chemicals for years.

Take rotenone. This is a plant derived neurotoxin traditionally used to stun fish, kill insects and currently under investigation as a treatment for neuroblastomas. [i] Interestingly another plant derived chemical, myricetin, antidotes rotenone's toxic effect [ii] . Another example is camphor, which has been used since prehistory to repel insects and other noxious animals. Chemists figured out how to synthesize camphor in 1903, a product now known as mothballs. [iii] Strychnine, nicotine, caffeine, [iv] indole-3-carbinols, and glucosinolates, [v] xanthotoxins and even digitoxin, [vi] all appear to exist in plants to dissuade insect consumers.

High doses of some of these phytochemicals are carcinogenic and neurotoxic but we routinely eat or employ low doses as food and medicine because they are ‘healthy.' Insects and animals have adapted to the presence of these myriad chemicals and evolved ways to adapt to their presence in food.

These chemicals do not have to kill the hungry critter, all they need to do is discourage the animal from eating the plant. Many of these chemicals target insect nervous systems; often they taste and smell especially bad to bugs. Taste and smell receptors can detect exceedingly small amounts of these chemicals. This way, the plant can have a pronounced effect with only a little chemical; one good example how a little bit can go a long way of course is capsaicin.

If these bio-pesticides are bio-toxic, why are they good for us to eat? Think of lycopene, resveratrol, alpha-tocopherol, ginkgo, and ginseng. We swallow capsules filled with these chemicals because of their neuro-protective effects.

Recall that old theory of toxicity, the Arndt-Schulz Law, from a century ago, that preached a biphasic dose-response: low doses have beneficial effects in contrast to high doses which can harm. Low doses of these plant chemicals induce adaptive responses in the organism; they trigger the expression of stress resistance genes that code for protective strategies. In other, simpler, words, a little poison triggers a protective response by the critter that ate the plant; this reaction protects the eater against the damage that a larger portion could inflict.

It is not just insects and animals that harm plants. Ultraviolet radiation from sunlight can disrupt DNA. While animals often keep their sex organs private, plants often flaunt them. Ovaries and stamens are held high so insects will see them and do the pollination thing. In the meantime, these sensitive organs are bombarded by sunlight. Many plants produce bluish-purple pigments of a hue that absorbs and reflects ultraviolet light; these same chemicals can prove useful at countering genetic damage.

Resveratrol is an example of purple- blue, UV absorbing stuff. This phytophenol, found in large amounts in red grapes and wine, is all the rage these days. Besides reflecting ultraviolet light, resveratrol protects grapes from mold. [vii] The presence of mold in a vineyard triggers increased production of resveratrol by all the vines nearby. [viii] Resveratrol doesn't just fight mold attack in grapes, it also has an antifungal effect in humans. [ix]

Resveratrol's apoptosis stimulating effect in cancer cells is well established. The more resveratrol made by the plant, the louder the message to its dividing cells, ‘fix any DNA problems or else drop dead.' Recent articles suggest that resveratrol can extend life span, at least in the short lived animals that have been tested so far. Resveratrol activates histone deacetylase Sir2 and triggers the expression of various genes involved in stress resistance pathways. This makes resveratrol the first chemical to mimic the chemical effects of a caloric restrictive diet. [x] The plants are not making this for our benefit.

Think of the plant chemicals we frequently use in treating cancer; curcumin, epigallocatechin gallate, allicin, sulforaphane. Plants produce them as pesticides. Turmeric which seems so beneficial in cancer treatment is also an effective topical treatment for scabies. [xi]

Plants make these chemicals when they are under stress. The stress can be an insect chewing their leaves, a mold infecting their roots, or even nutritional deficiency. This is probably why we have always valued wild crafted medicinal plants. They struggle to survive more than their wimpy cultivated cousins do.

Back to this business of organic stuff being more toxic. We want to eat plants and fruits that contain lots of these chemicals. Plants respond to attack. The more insects nibble at them, the more bio-pesticides the plants exude. Spray them with a commercial pesticide and they do not need to make their own pesticides. They get lazy

Take tomatoes for instance.

A 10-year study conducted at the University of California , Davis , comparing organic tomatoes with those grown conventionally will soon be published.

Levels of the flavonoids quercetin and kaempferol were 79 and 97 per cent higher, respectively, in organic tomatoes. The researchers explained this difference in flavonoids as a stress reaction to less readily available nitrogen in their fertilizers. It's harder for a plant to get nitrogen out of compost than from commercial fertilizer. In a way compost is a stress to the tomato plant. In response to this stress, it makes more flavonoids. The poor organic tomatoes were starved for nitrogen and were simply stressed and ‘hungry.' Of course, tomatoes and other plants didn't evolve living on commercial fertilizers; this ‘lower' flavonoids content isn't their natural state; it's rather a flavonols ‘anemic' state. Many of these same chemicals impart taste to food. Ask anyone raised on real tomatoes to comment on the lack of flavor of our store bought varieties, there is no doubt something is missing.

Back in 2005 when researchers found higher levels of phenols in some organically grown vegetables, they theorized that it was not the organic production methods that made the difference. Instead, they suggested that, “the organic system provided an increased opportunity for insect attack, resulting in a higher level of total phenolic agents” [xii]

Organic tomato ketchup can contain as much as three times the lycopene as non-organic ketchup. A 2005 study reported on lycopene levels and antioxidant activity in 13 ketchup brands: six popular ones, three organic, two store brands and two from fast-food chains. Organic ketchups won easily, with one brand containing 183 micrograms of lycopene per gram of ketchup. Non-organic brands averaged 100 micrograms per gram, with one fast-food sample containing only 60 micrograms per gram. There's a reason we call it junk food. [1]

Heinz ketchup came out with an organic version recently. The reason to pop it into your shopping cart is not reduced pesticide content. The reason to choose it is that it contains more phyto-pesticides like lycopene. It also tastes more like ketchup should.

My suggestion is that the greater benefit of organic vegetables and fruits is not what they don't contain but what they do contain. They contain higher levels of biologic pesticides and lower levels of manmade synthetic pesticides. There is little doubt that our readers will forward articles on the danger posed by pesticide residues in non-organic foods. Yet stay with me a moment longer. If these beneficial neutraceuticals increase in fruits and vegetables in response to stressors, could we purposefully bring specific stressors to bear on these crops? Could we release specific insects into fields knowing their presence will stimulate production of specific neutraceuticals? Could we underwater, under fertilize, or even just walk down the rows of plants thrashing them with a stick?

As I ponder this, I recall that Israel supplies much of the lycopene for the nutraceutical manufacturers. Do Israeli tomatoes produce larger quantities of lycopene than American tomatoes? Is it the climate that stresses and trigger this increase? Or is it just that everything is stressful in that part of the world? I don't have the answers to any of these questions yet, but what interesting things to wonder.









[1] Journal reference: Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (DOI: 10.1021/jf0401540)

[i] Pest Manag Sci. 2002 Mar;58(3):268-76.

The effects of phytochemical pesticides on the growth of cultured invertebrate and vertebrate cells.

Salehzadeh A , Jabbar A , Jennens L , Ley SV , Annadurai RS , Adams R , Strang RH .

Division of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Institute of Biomedical and Life Sciences, University of Glasgow , Glasgow , UK .

A range of cultured cells of invertebrate and vertebrate origin was grown in the presence of a number of phytochemical pesticides to test the effect of the latter on cell proliferation. The main observation was that azadirachtin was a potent inhibitor of insect cell replication, with an EC50 of 1.5 x 10(10) M against Spodoptera cells and of 6.3 x 10(9) M against Aedes albopictus cells, whilst affecting mammalian cells only at high concentrations (> 10(-4) M). As expected, the other phytochemical pesticides, except for rotenone, had little effect on the growth of the cultured cells. Rotenone was highly effective in inhibiting the growth of insect cells (EC50:10(-8) M) but slightly less toxic towards mammalian cells (EC50:2 x 10(-7) M). Neem terpenoids other than azadirachtin and those very similar in structure significantly inhibited growth of the cell cultures, but to a lesser degree. The major neem seed terpenoids, nimbin and salannin, for example, inhibited insect cell growth by 23% and 15%, respectively.

PMID: 11975173 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]


[ii] Brain Res. 2004 May 29;1009(1-2):9-16.

Neuroprotective effect of fraxetin and myricetin against rotenone-induced apoptosis in neuroblastoma cells.

Molina-Jiménez MF , Sánchez-Reus MI , Andres D , Cascales M , Benedi J .

Departamento de Farmacología, Facultad de Farmacia, Universidad Complutense, Plaza de Ramón y Cajal s/n, 28040 Madrid, Spain.

Rotenone-induced apoptosis is considered to contribute to the etiology of Parkinson's disease (PD). We try to prevent the apoptosis induced by rotenone toxicity with 50 microM myricetin, 100 microM fraxetin and 100 microM N-acetylcysteine (NAC) that protect against reactive oxygen species (ROS), on SH-SY5Y human neuroblastoma cell line. Morphological changes induced by rotenone and intracellular ROS were assessed in live SH-SY5Y dopaminergic cells by confocal microscopy using the fluorescent dyes, dihydroethidium and 2',7'-dichlorofluorescein diacetate (DCFH-DA). DNA fragmentation was assayed as index of apoptosis. We also investigated oxidative stress parameters such as the glutathione redox status and lipid peroxidation. The exposure of the SH-SY5Y cells to rotenone 5 microM for 16 h produced severe morphological changes, DNA fragmentation and significative increases in the levels of hydrogen peroxide and superoxide anion. These increases were reduced by a 30-min pretreatment with fraxetin 100 microM or NAC 100 microM. DNA laddering produced by rotenone treatment was also inhibited by fraxetin and NAC. Treatment with 5 microM rotenone induced loss of reduced glutathione (GSH) and increased cellular levels of oxidized glutathione (GSSG). Fraxetin and NAC treatments restored glutathione redox ratio diminished after rotenone challenge and decreased the levels of lipid peroxidation. These results suggest that the natural antioxidants, such as fraxetin, may prevent the apoptotic death of dopaminergic cells induced by rotenone and mediated by oxidative stress.

PMID: 15120578 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]


[iii] Yakushigaku Zasshi. 2003;37(2):128-34.

[Camphor in the Edo era (4) moth repellent, deodorant, and fungicide]

[Article in Japanese]

Hattori A .

Konishi Pharmaceutical Co., Kamiishikiri-cho, Higashioska.

A troublesome task in the daily life of the Edo era was ridding houses of harmful insects such as mosquitoes, fleas and clothes moths. People commonly drove away mosquitoes by making smoke. They hung their clothes or books in the air to keep them free from moisture. This was effective in protecting them from becoming moldy or being damaged by insects. Various medicinal plants were used to eliminate harmful house insects or agricultural vermin. Camphor was a variety of insecticide, but it was not popular in early Edo times because it was not easily available then. But in the end of Edo period, camphor became popular as a moth repellent.

PMID: 12755123 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]


[iv] J Agric Food Chem. 2003 Nov 19;51(24):6987-91.

Caffeine and resistance of coffee to the berry borer Hypothenemus hampei (Coleoptera: Scolytidae).

Guerreiro Filho O , Mazzafera P .

Instituto Agronômico de Campinas, CP28, CEP 13001-970, Campinas , SP, Brazil .

The role of caffeine as a chemical defense of coffee against the berry borer Hypothenemus hampei was investigated. No positive correlation was observed between resistance and caffeine content in experiments in which seeds from several coffee species presenting genetic variability for the alkaloid were exposed to adult insects. The same was observed in an experiment with coffee seeds that had their caffeine content doubled by imbibition with caffeine aqueous solutions. Other experiments showed that the attractiveness to insects was not related to the caffeine content of mature fruits. These results indicate that H. hampei has evolved an adaptation to handle the toxic effects of caffeine.


[v] Annu Rev Phytopathol. 2002;40:221-49. Epub 2002 May 13.

Phytochemical based strategies for nematode control.

Chitwood DJ .

Nematology Laboratory, USDA-ARS, Building 011A, BARC-West, Beltsville , Maryland 20705 , USA .

This review examines the discovery of naturally occurring phytochemicals antagonistic toward plant-parasitic and other nematodes. Higher plants have yielded a broad spectrum of active compounds, including polythienyls, isothiocyanates, glucosinolates, cyanogenic glycosides, polyacetylenes, alkaloids, lipids, terpenoids, sesquiterpenoids, diterpenoids, quassinoids, steroids, triterpenoids, simple and complex phenolics, and several other classes. Many other antinematodal compounds have been isolated from biocontrol and other fungi. Natural products active against mammalian parasites can serve as useful sources of compounds for examination of activity against plant parasites. The agricultural utilization of phytochemicals, although currently uneconomic in many situations, offers tremendous potential.


[vi] Pest Manag Sci. 2003 Nov;59(11):1250-4.

Acaricidal effects of cardiac glycosides, azadirachtin and neem oil against the camel tick, Hyalomma dromedarii (Acari: Ixodidae).

Al-Rajhy DH , Alahmed AM , Hussein HI , Kheir SM .

Department of Plant Protection, College of Agriculture, King Saud University, PO Box 2460, Riyadh 11451, Saudi Arabia.

The cardiac glycoside, digitoxin, from Digitalis purpurea L (Scrophulariaceae), a cardiac glycosidal (cardenolide) extract from Calotropis procera (Ait) R Br (Asclepiadaceae), azadirachtin and neem oil from Azadirachta indica A Juss (Meliaceae) were tested for their effects against larvae and adult stages of the camel tick, Hyalomma dromedarii Koch (Acari: Ixodidae). The contact LC50 values of the first three materials against adults were 4.08, 9.63 and >40.7 microg cm(-2), respectively, whereas the dipping LC50 values of the four materials were 409.9, 1096, >5000 and >5000 mg litre(-1), respectively. Contact and dipping LC50 values of the extract and azadirachtin against larvae were 6.16, >20.3 microg cm(-2) and 587.7 and >2500 mg litre(-1), respectively. Azadirachtin had no effects on egg production or feeding of adults up to 5000 mg litre(-1); however at 2500 mg litre(-1), it caused significant reduction in feeding activity of larve, prolonged the period for moulting to nymphal stage, and caused 60% reduction in moultability. Results of the two cardiac glycoside materials are comparable with those of several commercial acaricides. The risks and benefits associated with the use of cardiac glycosides are considered.

PMID: 14620053 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]


[vii] J Agric Food Chem. 2004 Jul 14;52(14):4406-13.

Benzothiadiazole enhances resveratrol and anthocyanin biosynthesis in grapevine, meanwhile improving resistance to Botrytis cinerea.

Iriti M , Rossoni M , Borgo M , Faoro F .

Istituto di Patologia Vegetale, Università degli Studi di Milano, Istituto Sperimentale per la Viticoltura, Conegliano Veneto, Treviso, Via Celoria 2, 20133 Milan, Italy.

Pre-harvest multiple treatments of grapevine (cv. Merlot) with the plant activator benzothiadiazole (BTH, 0.3 mM) enhanced trans-resveratrol content in berries by about 40%. An even more striking effect was observed on anthocyanin synthesis, particularly on malvidine 3-glucoside, malvidine 3-(6-O-acetyl)glucoside and malvidine 3-(6-O-p-coumaroyl)glucoside, whose amounts were more than doubled. These data were obtained with a novel and time-saving HPLC method, set up for the simultaneous detection of stilbenes and anthocyanins, using an RF-10Axl fluorimetric detector instrument, with excitation at 330 nm and emission at 374 nm, and a SPD-Avp UV detector with absorption at 520 nm. Furthermore, BTH treatments induced systemic acquired resistance in grapevine, as assessed by inoculating clusters from treated and untreated plants with Botrytis cinerea. Disease severity, estimated according to the percentage of infected berries per cluster, was significantly reduced in grapes from BTH-treated plants. These results indicate that BTH treatments, besides improving the content of two important classes of nutraceuticals, with their well-known antioxidant, antitumoral, and phytoestrogenic activities, could be exploited in vineyard to protect grape against gray mould infection, thereby limiting an excessive use of fungicides


[viii] J Agric Food Chem. 2003 Feb 26;51(5):1464-8.

Resveratrol content of Palomino fino grapes: influence of vintage and fungal infection.

Roldán A , Palacios V , Caro I , Pérez L .

Department of Chemical Engineering, Food Technology and Environmental Technology, Faculty of Sciences, University of Cádiz, Apartado 40, Polígono Río San Pedro, 11510 Puerto Real, Spain.

The objective of this study was to determine the influence of certain factors on the resveratrol content of Palomino fino grapes, cultivated in the Jerez-Xérèz-Sherry area, at the moment of harvest. The results show that the resveratrol content is highly influenced by the climatic conditions prior to the period of maturation of the fruit. On the other hand, the gray mold pressure in the vineyard, a fungal infection caused by Botrytis cinerea, increased the resveratrol contents at the early stages of fungal development. When Botrytis development was extensive, the resveratrol content tended to decrease in the juice but tended to increase in the skin. Physiological stress of the plant leads to increases in the resveratrol content, caused as much by the climatic conditions of the vintage as by biotic factors. In this case resveratrol is present mainly in the glycosylated form.


[ix] Arch Pharm Res. 2005 May;28(5):557-60.

Fungicidal effect of resveratrol on human infectious fungi.

Jung HJ , Hwang IA , Sung WS , Kang H , Kang BS , Seu YB , Lee DG .

Department of Microbiology, College of Natural Sciences , Kyungpook National University , Taegu 702-701, Korea .

Resveratrol, a phenolic antioxidant found in grapes, has been known to mediate various biological activities on the human body. In the present study, we tested the antifungal activity of resveratrol against human pathogenic fungi before carrying out further studies to elucidate the antifungal mechanism(s) of resveratrol. Resveratrol displayed potent antifungal activity against human pathogenic fungi at concentration levels of 10-20 microg/mL. Furthermore, time-kill curve exhibited fungicidal effect of resveratrol on C. albicans, but the compound had no hemolytic activity against human erythrocytes. The destruction of C. albicans cells by resveratrol was confirmed by scanning electron microscopy. These results suggest that resveratrol could be employed as a therapeutic agent to treat fungal infections of humans.

PMID: 15974442 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]


[x] Trends Mol Med. 2007 Feb;13(2):64-71. Epub 2007 Jan 4.

SIR2: a potential target for calorie restriction mimetics.

Chen D , Guarente L .

Department of Biology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge , MA 02139 , USA .

Calorie restriction (CR) extends lifespan in a wide variety of species and mitigates diseases of aging in mammals. Here, we describe the evidence that the silent information regulator 2 (SIR2) gene, which encodes a nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD)-dependent deacetylase, regulates lifespan and mediates CR in lower species such as Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Caenorhabditis elegans. We discuss the emerging roles of mammalian SIR2 homologs in regulating physiological changes triggered by CR and their potential connections to diseases of aging. We conclude with the recent advances on small molecules that activate the enzymatic activity of SIR2 as potential CR mimetics. The SIR2 family represents an evolutionarily conserved lifespan regulator. Modulating the activity of SIR2 might provide effective CR mimetics to combat diseases of aging.

PMID: 17207661 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE


[xi] Trop Geogr Med. 1992 Jan;44(1-2):178-81.

The use and efficacy of Azadirachta indica ADR ('Neem') and Curcuma longa ('Turmeric') in scabies. A pilot study.

Charles V , Charles SX .

Medical and Cancer Research and Treatment Centre, Nagercoil , India .

In the Ayurvedha and Sidha system of medicine (Indian system of medicine) Azadirachta indica ADR ('Neem') and Curcuma longa ('Turmeric') has been used for healing chronic ulcers and scabies. The 'Neem' and 'Turmeric' was used as a paste for the treatment of scabies in 814 people. In 97% of cases cure was obtained within 3 to 15 days of treatment. We find that this is a very cheap, easily available, effective and acceptable mode of treatment for the villagers in the developing countries. We have noticed no toxic or adverse reaction so far. However, further research is needed.

PMID: 1496714 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]


[xii] : Mol Nutr Food Res. 2005 Dec;49(12):1136-42.

Phytochemical phenolics in organically grown vegetables.

Young JE , Zhao X , Carey EE , Welti R , Yang SS , Wang W .

Department of Human Nutrition, Kansas State University, Manhattan , KS 66506 , USA .

Fruit and vegetable intake is inversely correlated with risks for several chronic diseases in humans. Phytochemicals, and in particular, phenolic compounds, present in plant foods may be partly responsible for these health benefits through a variety of mechanisms. Since environmental factors play a role in a plant's production of secondary metabolites, it was hypothesized that an organic agricultural production system would increase phenolic levels. Cultivars of leaf lettuce, collards, and pac choi were grown either on organically certified plots or on adjacent conventional plots. Nine prominent phenolic agents were quantified by HPLC, including phenolic acids (e. g. caffeic acid and gallic acid) and aglycone or glycoside flavonoids (e. g. apigenin, kaempferol, luteolin, and quercetin). Statistically, we did not find significant higher levels of phenolic agents in lettuce and collard samples grown organically. The total phenolic content of organic pac choi samples as measured by the Folin-Ciocalteu assay, however, was significantly higher than conventional samples (p < 0.01), and seemed to be associated with a greater attack the plants in organic plots by flea beetles. These results indicated that although organic production method alone did not enhance biosynthesis of phytochemicals in lettuce and collards, the organic system provided an increased opportunity for insect attack, resulting in a higher level of total phenolic agents in pac choi.

PMID: 16302198 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]