Organic vs. Non-Organic: A Case for the Higher-Priced Produce

Juvenon Health Journal volume 8 number 9 september 2009
By Benjamin V. Treadwell, Ph.D.

Organic vs. Non-Organic: A Case for the Higher-Priced ProduceI confess. I’ve been avoiding the organically grown produce section at the grocery store. The fruits and vegetables often look wilted. The prices are much higher than the non-organic section. And does it really have to be grown with natural additives to be good for you?

Of all the artificial additives used in non-organic farming, the synthetic pesticides that ward off insects, bacteria and fungus infections seem to be the most maligned. But there are valid concerns about toxicity, especially in high concentrations, and potential damaging effects on cells and tissues. More importantly, foods harvested from pesticide-treated plants may also contain fewer disease-preventing micronutrients than organically grown foods. Here’s why.

Plant Self-protection
The members of the plant kingdom have evolved a biochemical system to protect themselves from disease-producing pathogens, as well as environmental stress such as drought. This network can detect when a pathogen is attacking the plant’s tissues. It responds by synthesizing specific substances, often referred to as phytoalexins (Greek-derived for plant defenses), to help minimize the damage.

“Does it really have to be grown with natural additives to be good for you?”

For example, take resveratrol, a phytoalexin that has been in the news recently. The resveratrol content of a plant, like a red wine grape vine, is normally highest after an event that places the plant under stress. Say the vine is infected by a fungus micro-organism. It synthesizes resveratrol that, in turn, activates specific biochemical pathways to protect the plant from the infection.

Animal Plant Ingestion
So, what happens when an animal eats phytoalexin-protected plant compounds? Are similar self-preservation pathways activated? Does the animal’s health improve?

Continuing with the resveratrol example, the answer to both questions seems to be “yes.” In fact, resveratrol’s positive effects have been the subject of numerous studies and more than 3,000 articles, including several in this newsletter. (Juvenon Health Journal Volume 6, 11/07 and 6/07, among others.)

And resveratrol is not alone. Health-promoting benefits for organisms farther up the food chain have been attributed to a number of pathogen-induced plant compounds. As another example, a recent study demonstrated how fermented blueberry juice, full of phytochemicals, improved the condition of mice genetically susceptible to diabetes.

Better Blueberries
Blueberries are rich in antioxidants due to the presence of significant quantities of phenolic compounds, the most common of which are known as anthocyanins. The results of a number of studies have suggested that these compounds may not only improve general health, but also help to prevent cardiovascular disease, gastric ulcers, urinary tract infections, neurodegenerative disease, cancer and diabetes.

“When a pathogen attacks, a plat responds by synthesizing phyloalexins.”

But are all blueberries created equal in phenolic compound content? Investigators at the Université de Moncton, Canada, noted considerable variation between the berries picked in different fields, and even in the same field from one year to the next. From previous work, they were also aware of a correlation between phenolic compound levels and certain conditions, including temperature, drought and, of particular interest for this study, infection by pathogens.

While examining berries from different sources for the presence of pathogens, the researchers discovered a new bacterium, which they named Serratia vaccinnii. Additional experiments demonstrated that the concentration of antioxidants could be increased significantly by adding Serratia vaccinnii to blueberry extract and allowing it to ferment for a short period of time. These results suggest that the higher phenolic compound content in some berry crops may be pathogen-induced (like resveratrol in a red wine grape vine).

Blueberry Cocktail for Mice
Subsequently, a group of investigators from the University of Montreal compared the effects on mice of the Serratia vaccinnii–infected, fermented blueberry juice (BIBJ) versus juice prepared from normal blueberries (NBJ). The test animals for the four-week experiment were from a strain of mice predisposed to develop obesity-linked type-2 diabetes that resembles the condition in humans.

“All blueberries are not created equal in phenolic compound content.”

The mice on diets with NBJ or without any blueberry juice (control group) showed a predictable increase in body weight and decrease in insulin sensitivity (as determined by elevated blood-glucose levels, a marker of diabetes). For the mice whose diet included the BIBJ “cocktail,” however, the results were more exciting in the context of their genetic predisposition.

They lost weight, relative to the controls. Their insulin sensitivity increased (decrease in blood-glucose), whereas their blood insulin level decreased. In fact, the pronounced positive (anti-diabetic) effects of BIBJ rivaled those obtained with a fourth group of animals fed a diet containing the popularly prescribed diabetic drug, Metformin.

(Side note: In the BIBJ group, there was also a significant increase in a specific hormone, adiponectin, secreted by fat tissue. This hormone is associated with fat removal, or catabolism, and may be partly responsible for the reduced fat and blood glucose results.)

Grocery Store Advice
Now let’s go back to that more expensive organic produce section in light of what these blueberry studies seem to indicate.

“Disease-preventing micronutrients seem to produce more antioxidants.”
  1. Blueberries (by extension, produce), sprayed with anti-microbial pesticides would be devoid of pathogens that activate disease-preventing micronutrients, which seem to produce higher concentrations of antioxidants.
  2. Plant microflora, micro-organisms like the Serratia vaccinnii bacteria, have the potential to increase the health benefits of our plant-derived foods. (Caveat: plant foods infected with certain fungi, like Aspergillus in peanuts, can be disease-promoting.)

Note to organic farmers: The science seems to support your pesticide-free approach.

A research team, from Canada’s Université de Montréal, Université Laval and Université de Moncton, recently published “Antiobesity and antidiabetic effects of biotransformed blueberry juice in KKAy mice” in theInternational Journal of Obesity. The article details the results of feeding a specific type of blueberry juice to a strain of mice that is genetically predisposed to develop obesity-linked type-2 diabetes.

The study was prompted by the team’s awareness of a number of published articles, describing the benefits of blueberries on improving symptoms of type-2 diabetes. They were also interested in subsequent work which showed berry extracts incubated with certain bacteria (a newly discovered species,Serratia vaccinnii, that is natural to the blueberry fruit) contain significantly higher concentrations of antioxidants, such as anthocyanins and other phenolic compounds, than unexposed extracts.

For this research, the investigators extracted the juice from low-bush blueberries and inoculated some of it withSerratia vaccinnii, allowing it to ferment for a short period of time. Animals fed a diet containing the biotransformed blueberry extract for several weeks showed a significant decrease in blood-glucose and insulin levels as well as a decrease in body weight. Animals on a control diet (no blueberry extract), or a diet containing blueberry extract that was not biotransformed, did not show any significant improvement in these health parameters.

These results support the findings of the previous work: that exposing the fruit of the blueberry to its natural bacteria produces increased levels of phenolic compounds, including the anthocyanins. The latest researchers also concluded that the higher phenolic compound content was, in turn, responsible for the positive health effects observed in the animals fed the biotransformed blueberry extract.

Read article abstract here.

This Research Update column highlights articles related to recent scientific inquiry into the process of human aging. It is not intended to promote any specific ingredient, regimen, or use and should not be construed as evidence of the safety, effectiveness, or intended uses of the Juvenon product. The Juvenon label should be consulted for intended uses and appropriate directions for use of the product.

Dr. Treadwell answers your questions about Juvenon™ Cellular Health Supplement.

question: May I ask, what do the “other ingredients” do in the Juvenon supplement? There are more of those than the main ingredients. Thank you. – A 

answer: The inert (other) ingredients in the Juvenon supplement have three primary functions. Most are included to stabilize the active compounds, minimizing degradation of the Acetyl-L-carnitine, alpha lipoic acid and biotin. Some are added to make the tablets more palatable and, literally, easier to swallow. And some simply facilitate packaging, preventing problems in the manufacturing process.

Benjamin V. Treadwell, Ph.D., is a former Harvard Medical School associate professor.