Research Looks at the Need for Organic Mediterranean Diets

September 8, 2022

The Mediterranean diet, with its abundance of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and olive oil, has been hailed as a healthy and disease-preventing diet. However, in a recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers investigated whether a Mediterranean diet rich in conventionally grown foods may increase the number of pesticide residues in urine. They ask whether an organic Mediterranean diet could be a better option and wonder if that could be related to health problems.

“There is evidence that a Mediterranean-style pattern of eating may lower the risk of cardiac disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer,” says Erin MacGregor, RD, PHEc, a dietitian and nutrition communication consultant in Saugeen Shores, Ontario.

About the Study

27 adults were randomly allocated to either a Mediterranean diet consisting solely of organic foods or a Mediterranean diet consisting entirely of conventionally farmed foods for a 2-week period. Both before and after the intervention period, both groups followed a typical Western-style diet consisting of everyday foods. The only difference between the conventional and organic food sources used throughout the two-week study was how they were farmed. After testing, the researchers discovered that the organic Mediterranean diet group's urine pesticide residue excretion (UPRE) was 91% lower than the conventional group's. Additionally, they discovered that transitioning from a Western diet to a Mediterranean diet, which includes more vegetables, raised UPRE.

“We know the benefits of eating fruit and vegetables far outweigh any health risk from the tiny amount of residues that we may ingest through our food supply,” says MacGregor.

It is also significant to mention that the Sheepdrove Trust, located at Drove Farm in the UK, provided funding for this study which backs efforts to expand organic farming.

Are Pesticides Worrisome?

This study gives proof that the level of exposure to synthetic pesticides might vary depending on how our food is grown.
It's crucial to keep in mind when reading studies like this that finding pesticides in urine does not always indicate that harm has occurred because it was not intended to address how the quantity of pesticide residues reported in the study may affect long-term health.
It's crucial to keep in mind that not all pesticides are harmful.

None of the pesticide residues we found in foods consumed during the intervention period were above the minimum residue level permitted by the European Commission, according to Carlos Leifert, PhD, a visiting professor in the department of clinical nutrition at the University of Oslo and one of the study's researchers. This is significant because it implies that even though the researchers discovered pesticide residues in urine, the amounts may have been negligible or non-harmful. According to MacGregor, in order for a substance to be toxic, the dose must exceed a predetermined level at which it would be dangerous.

“If it’s 91% more than a very tiny amount, it would not translate to an unsafe amount of residue on food, and the value may be meaningless when it comes to the impact on health,” says MacGregor.

There is growing evidence, according to Dr. Leifert, that the combination of pesticides found in the urine samples from the conventional group may not be safe. Researchers are still investigating the negative effects of pesticides, including their potential role as endocrine disruptors, which can alter hormone levels. But this raises more unsolved questions regarding the connection between pesticide exposure and health issues, even in low doses.

“Endocrine disruptors have been a topic of conversation for a long time, and it is time we focus a little more attention on them,” says Sharon Puello MA RD CDN CDCES, a dietitian with F.R.E.S.H. Nutrition in New York, who often talks about pesticides and toxins with her clients.

However, the issue goes beyond merely pesticides in food. Additionally, cosmetics, household cleansers, plastic containers, clothing, toys, and other products can contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals. There is undoubtedly ongoing study in this area, so be aware of it.

Is a Conventional Mediterranean Diet Healthy?

Eating more fruits and vegetables of any kind is unquestionably better for you than sticking to the Western diet, according to Puello. She explains that while you may have a higher intake of some pesticides, you also have a higher intake of antioxidants that have a positive impact on health. And how much do organic foods cost? According to Dr. Leifert, the price premium for many organic fruits and vegetables is negligible in Europe, making them reasonably priced. However, in North America, the price difference between organic and conventionally cultivated food is not necessarily the same.

“Organic food often comes at a higher price because of the limited number of tools farmers have to control pests like insects or weeds,” says MacGregor. “This could mean it is less affordable and accessible to everyone.”

“Getting healthier foods with fewer contaminants into the hands of everyone should be a universal goal,” says Puello. “With that said, as a society, we're not at that point right now where everyone has equal access to affordable, organically grown produce. However, that doesn't mean we shouldn't push for change within our communities to get to that point.”

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