A child can transform a parent’s life in unimaginable ways. Certainly for Malini Saigal, a Delhi-based freelance illustrator and book designer, her son is the pivot around which her life rotates. Her determination, as a single parent, to ensure he always has the best has led her to alter their lives in the most fundamental way—in the food the family eats. Three years ago, she shifted to eating predominantly organic food.
“I see it as an insurance for my son,” she explains. “You keep hearing about pesticides in food, liver damage, arsenic poisoning…he’s a growing boy with a hearty appetite. God forbid if something should happen to him at 35 because of what he is eating now.”
Saigal is not alone in feeling that way if the variety of organic food on display at various grocery stores in the metros is any indication. Until a few years ago, one had to hunt in speciality stores for organic foods—foods grown the age-old, natural way, without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Now they’re easily found in grocery stores. But are they really better for your health?
“Oh yes, everyone benefits from organic foods,” says Neera Vyas unhesitatingly. As a specialist in preventive cardiology at Delhi’s Escorts Heart Institute, much of her advice to patients is focused on their diets. Various studies have shown that most of the foods we consume today in India is laced, to some degree, with pesticides. As Dr Vyas explains, these are absorbed into the liver. Among the many roles liver plays, one is to be the detox centre of the body. It tries to get rid of fat-soluble pesticides by making them water-soluble, so that they can be eliminated with urine. This process of making them water-soluble involves a lot of enzymes and vitamins in the body, which could have been put to better use if the pesticides had not been there in the first place. This is the easy way.
But often pesticides do not get converted to water-soluble compounds directly. The liver then tries to convert them to intermediary compounds first. These form free radicals—potentially carcinogenic—increasing the risk of cancer, diabetes, blood pressure, and a host of other problems. The advantage of organic foods, therefore, is that such a scenario does not arise at all.
Children benefit most
Saigal has good reason to be concerned about her child. There are some groups who would particularly benefit from organic food. The first is people with liver problems, such as heavy drinkers. The second is children. According to a 1989 study by the US National Resource Defense Council on eight chemicals found in food, the effect on children is four times greater as compared to adults, because they eat and drink more in relation to their body weight. And because their systems are still developing, the long-term impact of these chemicals could be greater. Although, for ethical reasons, detailed studies on children are rare, there have been reports that these chemicals could affect the brain, including memory and cognitive function. At least one study, conducted in 1998 in Mexico and reported in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, showed that pesticides impaired brain functioning in children.
Not just children, but women, too, could benefit from organic foods. Some pesticides contain chemicals called xenoestrogens, which mimics the female hormone estrogen. When a woman ingests such chemicals, the body often gets confused between the natural and chemical versions of the hormone, and as a result the delicate hormonal balance, that orchestrates the various functions of a female’s system, goes haywire. Organic foods prevent such a risk.
The benefits of organic food, however, have been based on the assumption that conventional foods have pesticides even when they reach the retail stage. But are these foods also nutritionally superior to conventional foods? This has been a subject of raging debate across the world. The UK’s Food Standards Agency maintains that “the balance of current scientific evidence” does not support that organic food is nutritionally superior. However, in October 2007, a four-year European Union-funded study, the first systematic study of its kind so far, conducted by 33 academic centres, showed conclusively that products of organic farming had considerably more nutritional value than ordinary farming. Such fruits and vegetables had 40% more antioxidants, which are widely credited with cutting the risk of heart disease and cancer.
With milk, the figures were even better—up to 60% more antioxidants and desirable fatty acids compared to ordinary milk. It also contained higher amounts of vitamin E. Potatoes and carrots had higher levels of vitamin C as compared with the chemically farmed vegetables, while organic spinach and lettuce showed higher levels of essential minerals.
In India, where large volumes of the groundwater is contaminated with run-offs of pesticides, farming without chemicals does nor guarantee that the vegetables or grains will not have some residual amount of pesticides. To ensure that the produce is indeed chemical free, it has to be endorsed by a certifying agency recognised by Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority. “There are stringent conditions that need to be met to ensure certification, and it is a process that takes up to three years,” explains Bhavdeep Kang, of the NGO Panchvati which promotes organic agriculture. It is essential to check for such a certification while buying organic foods.
There’s a downside to this. The stringent procedures involved make organic food more expensive. In India, organic food policies are also export oriented, which is another factor that leads to higher prices. For many, however, the price is well worth paying.
High on the health quotient
Who benefits from organic food
• Children: Chemicals can damage their developing organs in the long run, but organic food does not pose that risk
• Women: Pesticides contain chemicals called xenoestrogens that disrupt hormonal balance. Organic food does not have such chemicals
• Those with liver problems, especially alcoholics
A 2007 European Union-funded study has shown that organic food has:
• 40% more antioxidants in fruits and vegetables, which help prevent cancer and heart disease
• More vitamin E and desirable fatty acids in milk
• More vitamin C in potatoes and carrots
• More essential minerals in spinach and lettuce
• 24 Letter Mantra: Golden Residency, 79/7, Belandur, Outer Ring Road, Tel: 41486611, 41486622; Shop No. 3, Amenity Block, Adarsh Palm Meadows, Ramagondanahalli, Marathahalli, Tel: 25395206
• Green Channel: 20/1, Ali Asker Road (off Cunningham Road), Tel: 41235739
• Khandige: 68/1, Jaraganahalli, Near Sarakki Gate, Kanakpura Main Road, Tel: 26714599
• Namdhari’s: 821, Kusal Arcade, 20th Main, 80ft Road, Opposite National Games Village, Koramangala, Tel: 51103777, 51103778
• Sahaja Samruddha: No. 7, 2nd Cross, 7th Main, Sultanpalya, RT Nagar, Tel: 23650744
• Navdanya: In Dilli Haat and A-60 Hauz Khas, Tel: 26532561, 26532124, 26532460
• Fabindia Overseas Pvt. Ltd: Central Hall, Khan Market and other Fabindia outlets, Tel: 41757142/43/44
• Khadi Gramodyog: Lok Nayak Bhawan, near Khan Market
• Whole Foods store: Community Centre, New Friends Colony
• Dubden Green: 4-A, Shahpur Jat, Tel: 32905310, 9810131343
• Many local grocery stores in Delhi also increasingly store organic foods. For instance, some of the In and Out stores attached to Bharat Petroleum petrol pumps have an organic food section. So does Malik Stores and Taste in Defence Colony Market.
• Godrej Nature’s Basket: Hiranandani Garden, BG House, Powai, Tel: 25707706
• Foodland Fresh: 1, Mermaid Building, Nr JW Marriott, Juhu, Juhu Tara Road, Tel: 26184402
• Magna Nutrition: 143, Sassoon Building, 3rd Floor, Kala Ghoda, Fort, MG Road, Tel: 66237834, 22671763, 22670512
• The Health Shop:1/B, Doctor House, Ground floor, opposite Jaslok Hospital, Kemps Corner, 14, Peddar Road, Tel: 23523503, 23524122
• Uday Organics: 2 Bajaj Wadi, Santacruz (W), Station Road, Tel: 32932611
• Good Food Company: Ground floor, Super Processor Compound, Lalbaug Industrial Estate, Parel, Tel: 24713050
• Fabindia: 137, Jeroo Building, Kalaghoda, Fort, MG Road, Tel: 22626539, 22626540
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