If you are what you eat, does that mean that eating natural foods makes you naturally beautiful? The short answer is...maybe.
Organic food, by definition, is food that's been grown or raised according to approved national guidelines meant to "foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity." [Source: USDA] In other words, it's responsibly-produced food that's better for the environment than its conventional counterparts. Whether organic food is better for the people eating it, however, remains unknown.
Most of the food production that goes on in the United States is not organic. Produce is often treated with synthetic fertilizers or pesticides to help it grow and protect it from insects. It may be exposed to radiation, which can extend its shelf life and prevent foodborne illnesses. Or it may have been genetically modified in a lab so that it will grow bigger, look more appealing, or develop tolerance to things like heat and drought. Likewise, most livestock and poultry are fed nonorganic grains, treated with antibiotics to keep them from contracting diseases, or injected with growth hormones.
Certified organic food, which makes up about 2 percent of the U.S. food market, cannot be produced using any of the above methods. [Source: OFRF] Because of this, eating organic food can cut down on the amount of chemical (and even drug) residue you're ingesting. Many doctors and experts say that this translates into better overall health -- and many dermatologists say that it can even improve a person's outward appearance. Scientific studies to support these theories, however, are lacking.
A 2002 study from the nonprofit Organic Materials Review Institute found that 13 percent of organic produce samples contained pesticide residue, versus 71 percent of conventionally grown produce. [Source: Baker et al.] However, a Stanford University study made headlines in 2012 when it concluded that there is no significant nutritional benefit -- no significant health benefit at all, in fact -- to eating organic. [Source: Spangler, et al.] People who don't eat organic may be exposed to more chemicals, the researchers found, but the levels in their bodies still fall below those that could compromise health or safety.
Making a Case for (Sometimes) Organic
Eating healthy foods, such as fruits, veggies, lean protein and whole grains, instead of sugary or nutrient-deficient foods is much better for your skin the long run. But dermatologists debate whether organic versions of these foods are better for your complexion than their conventional counterparts.
Chris Adigun, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, agrees that organic food may not be the health (or beauty) magic bullet that some people make it out to be.
"I don't recommend any specific food regimen to my patients simply because we have not been able to find any evidence that one type of diet is better or worse for skin," she says. And when it comes to organic products -- whether it's the food you eat or the products you put on your skin -- she says there's no data to show that they can improve appearance more so than nonorganic ones.
However, Adigun says that each individual is different -- and if a patient finds that eating or avoiding certain foods helps control breakouts or make their skin look better, she doesn't ignore their observations. "And of course I recommend a healthy, balanced diet, and for patients to stay well hydrated," she adds. "Not because I have hard-core evidence of any connection, but because I believe that healthy people tend to have healthy skin."
Other beauty experts make a stronger case for eating organic foods, especially meat and dairy that would otherwise be treated with antibiotics and hormones. Jeanine Downie, MD, a Montclair, New Jersey-based dermatologist, says that eating organic foods may decrease acne over time, and Charlotte, North Carolina-based dermatologist Gilly Munavalli, MD, believes that conventional dairy products contribute to breakouts among his patients. Adult acne is related to hormones, Munavalli explains, and so limiting exposure to hormones in milk products can be helpful. [Source: NewBeauty.com]
If you want to eat more organic produce, it's not a bad idea to start with foods that tend to have the most pesticide exposure. The "Dirty Dozen" is a list created by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group to remind consumers which fruits and vegetables are traditionally the most contaminated. Since its inception, the list has expanded to the "Dirty Dozen Plus," and contains apples, celery, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, hot peppers, imported nectarines, peaches, potatoes, spinach, strawberries, sweet bell peppers, kale, collard greens, and summer squash. [Source: EWG]
- Adigun,Chris, MD. Personal interview. July 10, 2013.
- Baker, BP. "Pesticide residues in conventional, integrated pest management (IPM)-grown and organic foods: insights from three US data sets." Food Additive and Contaminants. 2002 May;19(5):427-46. (July 15, 2013) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12028642
- Brandt, Michelle. "Research Shows Little Evidence That Organic Foods Are More Nutritions Than Conventional Ones." Stanford News Scope Blog. September 3, 2012. (July 15, 2013) http://scopeblog.stanford.edu/2012/09/03/research-shows-little-evidence-that-organic-foods-are-more-nutritious-than-conventional-ones/
- Environmental Working Group. "EWG's 2013 Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce." (July 15, 2013) http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary.php
- Organic Farming Research Foundation. "Organic FAQs" (July 13, 2013) http://ofrf.org/organic-faqs
- NewBeauty. "Does Eating Organic Improve Your Skin?" July 18, 2012. (July 15, 2013) http://www.newbeauty.com/blog/dailybeauty/6364-does-eating-organic-improve-your-skin/
- Smith-Spangler, Crystal. "Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review" Annals of Internal Medicine. 2012;157(5):348-366. (July 15, 2013) http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=1355685
- USDA. "National Organic Program." (July 15, 2013) http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/nop
- Wu, Jessica, MD. "Feed Your Face: Is Organic Food Worth It?" DailyGlow. April 12, 2013. (July 15, 2013) http://www.dailyglow.com/skin/is-organic-food-worth-it.html