Despite impressive advances in food science and technology, consumers continue to be seduced by the concept of all-natural, clean foods and ingredients: U.S. sales of organic food products totaled nearly $50 billion in 2017, and food products labeled “natural” are expected to drive $250 billion in food sales in 2019. The strong consumer demand for foods that are organic, natural, or otherwise minimally processed is fueled by the idea that such foods are replete with phytochemicals and other bioactive compounds, free of chemicals, and safer to consume than conventional foods. But are those assumptions true? Two researchers in the Department of Food and Animal Sciences at Alabama A & M University are conducting in-depth research on the safety of foods labeled natural or organic and the toxicity of bioactive compounds, shedding light on the organic versus natural versus conventional debate while providing insights on food safety, food toxicology, and nutrient biochemistry.
“Consumers ... are now desiring products that are minimally processed,” says Armitra Jackson-Davis, an assistant professor in the Department of Food and Animal Sciences at Alabama A & M. “They want as [little] as possible done to the product before it reaches them.” What began with a few organic products on supermarket shelves has progressed to entire supermarkets, trade associations, food activists, websites, and diet books dedicated solely to organic food. Even though the organic food industry has grown by leaps and bounds, offering a cornucopia of organic food products, for many farmers and consumers, going organic is cost prohibitive, so a new classification for unprocessed or minimally processed food products has emerged: natural. Some consumers even believe that natural and organic are synonymous, but food scientists know better. “Organic is clearly defined by [the U.S. Department of Agriculture]. In order for a food company to market their food as something that is organic, there are specific regulations that have to be followed,” Jackson-Davis says. “Natural, on the other hand, is not necessarily defined. And this can be shown by visiting your local grocery store: You’ll notice that nearly everything in there says natural. It’s not regulated like organic products are.” The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has unofficially defined natural to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives, regardless of their source) has been included in, or added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be an inherent part of that food. The FDA has not established rules or regulations for the term “natural.”
Regardless of whether a food product is labeled organic or natural, consumers assume that these foods are highly nutritious, free from chemicals and toxins, and therefore safer to consume than conventional food products. From the consumers’ perspective, a clear pecking order exists among foods in the supermarket: Organic food products are the most nutritious and safe for consumption, natural or unprocessed food products are next in line, and at a distant third are conventional food products. This logic is based primarily on the enduring assumption that crops grown without the assistance of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are more likely to contain more nutritive value than crops grown with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. On the surface, this seems to make sense: Plants contain bioactive phytochemicals that “are known as secondary metabolites,” says Judith Boateng, an assistant professor in the Department of Food and Animal Sciences at Alabama A & M. “They are produced by plants naturally because the plants utilize these compounds for protection.” It thus stands to reason that organic crops that are not treated with synthetic pesticides would inherently produce—and therefore contain—more bioactive phytochemicals than conventional crops treated with pesticides. A number of research studies have set out to prove this theory, but nearly all of them have been inconclusive. One reason for the inability to prove this theory is that the nutrient content of organic foods varies depending on the region where they were grown and the soil that they were grown in. This means that the nutrient content of organic foods is inconsistent even within the same produce categories. Consequently, the consensus among scientists is that any difference in nutrient content between organic foods and conventional foods is not statistically significant.
The same rationale that causes consumers to believe that organic and natural foods are more nutritious plays a role in their belief that such foods are safer for human consumption. After all, organic and natural foods contain more bioactive compounds, which not only benefit human health but also make such foods free from toxins and therefore safer to consume, right? Wrong. According to Boateng, all foods—regardless of how they were cultivated—may contain toxins. Bioactive phytochemicals “can benefit us in terms of preventing certain chronic illnesses such as cancer, some cardiovascular diseases, [and] inflammation. Currently, we have a lot of work being conducted on these bioactive compounds in terms of the role they play in our health,” Boateng reveals. “[But] from my point of view, I don’t think that there is any difference in the toxins or nutrients in organic versus conventional. I have not come across any kind of study that puts a lot of emphasis on organic foods [containing] a lot of nutrients compared to conventional foods, so they are [not] lower in toxins compared to conventional foods—not inherently.” The use of synthetic pesticides may contribute to higher pesticide residues in conventional produce, but organic foods are not pesticide-free: Organic farmers use pesticides too—just not synthetic ones.
The Toxicity and Pathogenicity of Minimalism
Boateng’s research is focused on food toxicology and nutritional biochemistry. “Food toxicology is the science that deals with the toxins that are inherently found in foods,” Boateng says. “[It] is very, very important to the food science field because most of the foods that we eat contain some levels of toxins.” More often than not, those toxins are in the form of bioactive compounds that are present in small quantities in foods. Consumed in small quantities, bioactive compounds may not be harmful and may even be extremely beneficial to human health. But any chemical or substance can be toxic if too much of it is consumed. It is what food toxicologists refer to as the basic principle of toxicology: the dose makes the poison. If too much of any bioactive compound is consumed, it could have adverse effects in the human body. “Right now we don’t have a lot of data [on] the toxicities of these bioactive compounds. But with most other compounds, too much of [them] can become potentially toxic,” Boateng says. “Too much of anything can be not a good thing. … That is where my research is at the moment: looking at the overconsumption of bioactive compounds and also herbal teas.” It’s hard to conceive that something with such a pronounced health halo as herbal tea could be toxic. “[Herbal teas] have become very popular these days, but we don’t have a lot of toxicity background on herbal tea products,” Boateng points out. “In teas [there are] pyrrolizidine alkaloids. … Too much of them could be potentially harmful.”
While Boateng’s research encompasses food and nutritional toxicology, Jackson-Davis’s research involves assessing food safety—in particular, the microbiological risks of organic and conventional foods. Jackson-Davis points out that organic, natural, and minimally processed food products do not have any inherent qualities that make them less susceptible to foodborne pathogens. “This is proven by [how] we hear about a lot of outbreaks that happen with organic products—for example, the organic spinach outbreak several years ago,” Jackson-Davis says. “Consumers kind of don’t always understand that the risk is the same. … We had a chance to look at meat products that were labeled as organic versus those products that were not labeled as organic. We challenged [both] with foodborne pathogens to see how they reacted compared to each other. We found that the organic products were not safer. They faced the same susceptibilities as conventional products.” In fact, organic, natural, and minimally processed foods may be even more vulnerable to foodborne pathogens than conventional food products are. This is because most of the preservatives and antimicrobials that extend the shelf life of conventional foods and prevent microbial growth are not approved for use in organic foods and are not used in minimally processed foods. “A lot of times, the ingredients that are used in conventional products are not necessarily allowed in organic products. So from a microbial standpoint, you can have a product that is not as safe … due to those ingredients not being allowed in there,” Jackson-Davis explains.
Despite the fact that organic, natural, and minimally processed foods can be exposed to harmful microbes at any point in the production process—in the field, during transport, at processing facilities, and so on—misguided consumers are driving the rise of a new sector among minimally processed foods: unpasteurized milk and cheeses (often referred to as raw milk and raw cheeses) and unpasteurized juices. “I know this idea of unpasteurized products [has] gained a lot of popularity because a lot of individuals are looking at … pasteurization as [applying] heat to the product. And heat can denature a lot of the ‘good’ things—I heard a consumer use that terminology—that are in the product because they are not heat stable,” Jackson-Davis says. While it may be true that some bioactive compounds in foods are not heat stable, the benefit of pasteurization to human health outweighs that. “Some of those essential structures that are needed for [pathogenic] organisms to survive are not able to make it through the pasteurization process. This is why pasteurization is effective [and] is widely accepted,” Jackson-Davis says. “We’ve had so many outbreaks that relate to unpasteurized juices [and] unpasteurized milk. … Sometimes I wonder to myself, what will have to happen for consumers to really understand.
“A lot of the times, you may have individuals who may be immunocompromised: cancer patients, AIDS patients, individuals who are dealing with underlying health problems that they may not be aware of,” Jackson-Davis cautions. “When they consume these particular products, [they] are putting [themselves] at more risk.” Nevertheless, she and Boateng realize that the demand for organic, natural, and minimally processed foods is likely here to stay, which is why their research also involves finding ways to make minimally processed foods safer. In particular, Jackson-Davis is working on identifying natural antimicrobials and assessing their effectiveness. “A lot of work is being done now to see whether or not [we can] really replace conventional antimicrobials with natural antimicrobials,” Jackson-Davis reveals. “One thing we have to remember is that natural antimicrobials are derived from natural sources, which means they could vary depending upon geographical location, for example. There’s still a lot of work to do to definitively say that natural antimicrobials are as effective [as conventional antimicrobials].”
Foods That Fight Inflammation
Besides assessing the safety, efficacy, and toxicity of bioactive compounds and herbal products, Boateng is collaborating with other departments to determine the epigenetic effects that certain foods have on colon cancer. “[Acute inflammation] is the type where, suppose we cut ourselves, the body goes into repair mode and tries to repair it,” Boateng explains. “And the length of time it takes for the body to repair the wound takes a very short time. The problem arises when inflammation keeps going on and on; that’s chronic inflammation. When chronic inflammation persists, it tends to throw the body’s homeostatic regulation out of whack. It starts to recruit certain inflammatory cytokines, which, in turn, may elicit some reactive oxygen species. So it’s a whole pathway leading to diseases.” Through her research, Boateng has found that compounds in foods such as pinto beans, black-eyed peas, soybeans, pomegranate, and sorrel can disrupt the pathways of chronic inflammation and prevent the formation of colon cancer cells. “Most [bioactive compounds] have the ability to halt the pathways that chronic inflammation utilizes. By halting these pathways, they help with reducing inflammation and thereby prevent diseases associated with inflammation,” she asserts. These benefits are possible from whole nutritious foods regardless of how they were cultivated.
Foods labeled organic, natural, or minimally processed are not more nutritious or safer than conventional foods. Nonetheless, consumers’ belief that they know what’s best for health, nutrition, and the planet is causing a surge of organic, natural, or minimally processed food products to appear on supermarket shelves. While the increased availability of foods produced through a variety of different agricultural and processing methods may be positive, the myths surrounding them are not. “I do believe that consumer demand drives this, and I think in a lot of the cases, consumer demand has gone before the research,” Jackson-Davis says. This is why the research of Jackson-Davis, Boateng, and other scientists in this area is so important. Spreading knowledge is also key. “I think as a part of the academic arm of this, it’s really our responsibility to educate our students who are sitting in our classrooms, who are on social media, [and] who have family members that have certain beliefs. It’s part of our job to really educate so that they can help spread the word about this,” Jackson-Davis concludes. In the meantime, she and Boateng will continue investigating the safety of food trends and debunking food myths through their research.
Alabama A & M Promotes Diversity in Food Science
Alabama A & M University is a historically black college/university (HBCU) nestled in the hills of Normal, Ala. The College of Agricultural, Life, and Natural Sciences (CALNS) is one of the university’s four colleges and encompasses the Department of Food and Animal Sciences. Besides offering bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees in food science with six areas of concentration, Alabama A & M’s Department of Food and Animal Sciences is the largest national producer of black food scientists. Part of what makes the department so successful in this regard is the department’s motto.
“Within CALNS, the motto is recruit, retain, educate, and graduate,” says professor Martha Verghese, chair of the Department of Food and Animal Sciences. “The [Food and Animal Sciences] Department is sure to cover all aspects of [this] motto. From campus to community outreach, students, faculty, and staff take every opportunity to spread the word and educate others on food science and related fields.” Armitra Jackson-Davis, an assistant professor in the Department of Food and Animal Sciences, agrees: “We have a special connection with our students. We go beyond just your typical classroom, time to go home, we’ll see you next class period” she says. “We really are focused on developing the entire student. I do think that’s one of the very special things about our department. Most of our faculty have open-door policies—nearly all of faculty do, as a matter of fact. So the students know that they can come to us and discuss things that may not even be related to academia. I think that really makes us special.”
This active engagement by faculty, staff, and students is not only effective at recruiting, retaining, and graduating students; it also helps students overcome educational and personal obstacles, instills confidence in them, and encourages them to do great things in food and animal sciences. “Food science students are always eager to participate in IFT- and IFTSA-related competitions,” Verghese points out. “Once students have been trained and educated at [Alabama A & M], they move on to successful careers. A number of [food science] graduates … are gainfully employed in various sectors of the field, including the [U.S. Department of Agriculture], Nestlé, Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s, Unilever, PepsiCo, Land O’Lakes, and General Mills, just to name a few.”
Toni Tarver is senior technical editor of Food Technology magazine ([email protected]).