Dr. Mills Natural Health Improvement Center
6565 Balboa Ave., Ste. A, San Diego, CA 92111
THE WORTH OF ORGANIC FOODS
by Judith A. DeCava, C.N.C., L.N.C.
Once upon a time, all food was raised organically. “Conventional” food was organic food. But nowadays “conventional” food is raised by unnatural chemical agribusiness methods. The EXCEPTION is organic. Something is drastically wrong with the way food is now produced, and the way food is no longer valued. Food grown with Nature and with care is quite different than food grown with chemicals and with detachment.
Cheap mass-produced food is often prized more than getting superior nourishment with fewer toxins. The impetus of immediate gratification spurs people to save money and effort on food while the eventuality can be loss of health, loss of safe environment, and loss of heritage for future generations. Organic food is far more than just another fad or pricey health craze. It is reclaiming influence on our health, our children’s health, the earth’s health. Organic food is raised in harmony with Nature, yet it is treated as an oddity, having special “certified organic” labels. Actually, it is “conventional” foods that should be labeled: “Sprayed with Pesticides,” “Includes Residues of Hormones and Antibiotics,” “Grown with Sewage Sludge,” “Genetically Altered,” “Production of This Food Damaged the Environment,” etc. Rather than a healthful NORMAL potato having to be labeled organic, a chemically-grown potato should have a label listing the 20 chemicals used to create it, grow it, store it, and ship it. Raising food is now merely a business; foods (including animals) are nothing more than commodities.
Our purchasing dollars can have a lot of influence on our health as well as the health of the earth and its other inhabitants. What we buy or raise can protect us from toxic chemicals, unnatural practices, and genetically-modified organisms. One study found that 70% of Americans are concerned about the health risks of pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and other chemicals used in food production; 71% believe small-scale family farms are more likely to care about the safety of the foods they product than large-scale factory farms; 85% trust small family farms to produce safe, nutritious foods; and 73% would be influenced in their shopping if labels specified whether a product is produced with pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and other chemicals. As far as health issues are concerned, organic foods have two primary advantages: What you DON’T get, and what you DO get. [i]
WHAT YOU DON’T GET
Organic agriculture limits or eliminates the use of toxic and long-lasting chemicals, so choosing organic food reduces your exposure to such substances. Many studies have shown that most conventionally farmed foods have residues of pesticides and other toxic chemicals. These chemicals – a conglomeration of synthetic poisons -- now saturate the earth. A growing body of evidence is showing that repeated exposures to mixtures of small amounts of toxic chemicals have accumulative influences that produce a plethora of adverse health effects. A recent study showed that as little as one tenth of a part per billion of one commonly used herbicide can damage the reproductive system. Another study found numerous toxic chemicals in the blood and urine of most all Americans tested. Most living organisms now carry a myriad of synthetic toxic chemicals. Scientists have only recently begun to fathom the detrimental health effects of tiny amounts of manufactured toxins when they are combined and as they accumulate.
Peer-reviewed, published controlled research has demonstrated that many of the chemicals used to produce foods disrupt endocrine (hormonal), reproductive, nervous, and immune systems, as well as place severe stress on detoxification systems and their organs such as the liver and kidneys. Various cancers including lymphoma, leukemia, prostate, uterine, and breast cancers are linked to agricultural and other synthetic chemicals. These chemicals are also connected to the dramatic increase in asthma, Parkinson’s disease, and autoimmune diseases such as chronic fatigue syndrome and systemic lupus erythematosus. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma has gone from being one of the rarest to one of the fastest growing cancers among people exposed to agricultural chemicals. Pregnant women and growing children are particularly vulnerable as pesticides have been linked to developmental and behavioral disabilities and impairments.
Unfortunately, the specific effects of many pesticides are unknown – the research has not been done. Pesticide manufacturers claim their products pose little risk to consumers, and hired scientists only look at the effects of one chemical compound on laboratory animals or, occasionally, adult men. But the typical, real-life experience is one of chronic low-dose exposure, complicated by the mixture of many toxic chemicals.
Farming according to large-scale conventional agribusiness practices requires large amounts of toxic chemicals. Each year, 750 million pounds of pesticides are used on farms in the US. Nitrates, pesticides, and industrial chemicals used in agriculture are found in both surface and ground water in 46% of all US counties. These chemical soups move up the food chain and are then concentrated and stored in human fat (adipose) tissue where they have cumulative effects on health. Children are especially at risk for adverse effects from exposures to pesticide residues, hormone and drug residues. Children are more vulnerable due to their smaller size; higher metabolic rate; developmental fragility; hand-to-mouth activity; and increased consumption of foods and water associated with multiple toxic residues. Exposure to some pesticides during infancy, even at very low levels, can lead to serious lifelong consequences if the pesticides disrupt hormone-driven developmental processes.
Animal foods tend to contain more toxic residues than plant foods. Animals are higher up the food chain. Pesticide residues and environmental pollutants (including lead, mercury, fluoride, and others) accumulate in their bodies from water, feed, and drugs. Seventy percent of antibiotics made in the US go to livestock because the animals are so crowded and raised unnaturally they are vulnerable to disease and infection. Growth hormones, including rBST given to dairy cows to increase milk production, are regularly administered to livestock and leave traces in meat and milk products. Hormone residues are linked to increased risks for human consumers in areas such as hormone disruption and cancer. Wild fish and seafood contain contaminants such as mercury, PCBs, organochlorines, dioxins, etc. Farmed fish given unnatural feeds, drugs, and dyes may be even worse. Many poisons tend to be stored and carried in the animal’s fat cells and are passed along to consumers. Butter, for instance, contains very high levels of toxins.
A 2002 analysis found that 73% of conventionally grown produce contains pesticide residues. Even organic produce is not always pesticide free – 23% of the samples had residues, though far less. Why were there ANY at all when the crops were not treated with pesticides? The residues come from chemicals already in the soils (some of which have been banned for decades but remain in the ground), contaminated irrigation water, pesticides that drift onto organic crops from nearby nonorganic fields, or from cross-contamination with post-harvest fungicides applied in storage facilities. However, the PATTERN of residues found in organic foods differs markedly from the pattern in conventional samples. Conventional fruits are 3 to 6 times more likely to contain residues than organic fruit samples; conventional vegetables are 6 to 8 times more likely to have one or more detectable residues. Compared to organic produce, conventional samples tend to contain multiple residues much more often. Imported foods consistently contain more residues than domestic samples. It is worth noting that organic farmers, processors, and retailers are constantly improving the prevention of fraud, pesticide drift, and other inadvertent contamination. There is a downward trend in the frequency of residues in organic foods. In contrast, the frequency and levels of residues in conventional foods continually creep upwards.
Children who eat organic foods have lower levels of pesticide residues in their bodies. Organophosphates (OP), one class of pesticides, are developmental neurotoxins. Children eating conventional diets have concentrations of the OP metabolite six to nine times higher than children who eat organic. The researchers suggested that parents should buy organic foods to reduce their children’s exposure to pesticides. A study of 39 preschoolers found that children who got 75% or more of their fruits and vegetables from organic sources had much lower levels of pesticide residues in their urine than children who ate more conventionally grown produce. Organic diets can thus lower the amount of pesticides from the realm of “uncertain” risk to one of “negligible” risk. And that’s just by buying organic produce! If organic grains, milk products, meats, and other foods were obtained, the pesticide/ toxic metals/ hormone/ drug/ pollutant residues risk, artificial fertilizer by-product risk, and genetically-modified disruption risk would all be greatly reduced!
The use of soluble artificial chemical fertilizers results in high nitrate concentrations in many conventionally farmed foods, especially fruits and vegetables. Leaching of these fertilizers can lead to high nitrate levels in water systems used for drinking. Nitrates can impair the ability of the blood to carry oxygen, and pose a risk of diminished capacity to secrete sufficient gastric acid. The rise in stomach pH increases the trans-formation of nitrates to dangerous nitrites or nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic. The adoption of organic soil practices can effectively reduce nitrate contamination of groundwater while maintaining yields and improving overall soil quality and fertility. Organic management improves water filtration and holding capacity, reduces erosion, and increases crop productivity. The author of a review of scientific studies said: “Unless you eat organic, one item in three in your fridge or kitchen cupboard is likely to contain chemical residues which often occur in potentially dangerous combinations.” Consider, for example, the life of a typical conventionally raised tomato. By the time it reaches your supermarket, it has likely been:
Grown from a chemically-treated seed in a greenhouse with a solution of synthetic fertilizer.
Transplanted to a field that has been treated with 400 to 600 pounds per acre of synthetic fertilizer and fumigated with methyl bromide gas, an ozone-depleting chemical.
Sprayed weekly with insecticides and fungicides, the ones that annually send an estimated 300,000 farmers to their doctors for symptoms of poisoning.
Picked while still green and shipped to a facility where it is gassed with ethylene to artificially induce ripening. This gives tomatoes a firmness and prematurely red color that allows them to be shipped to grocery stores with minimal bruising and spoilage. The results are stiff tomatoes with little juice or flavor.
Shipped by truck, taking up to a week to reach a warehouse where they are kept for a day or more.
Contrast this with organic tomatoes. Instead of using synthetic fertilizers, compost and green manure crops like ryegrass or clover enrich the soil. Heirloom variety seeds are often used; seeds are not chemically treated. Crops are rotated to break disease cycles; insects like ladybugs are added to control pests. Organic tomatoes ripen naturally and are frequently sold locally. You can expect, not only more flavor and juice, but also more nutrients such as vitamin C complex, folic acid, potassium, and phytonutrients (notably carotenoids like lycopene). [ii]
WHAT YOU DO GET
US fruits and vegetables grown in 1992 had lower nutrient contents than their counterparts grown in 1963. There was a 29% drop in calcium, a 21% drop in magnesium, a 6% drop in potassium, an 11% drop in phosphorus, and a 32% drop in iron. Other data reveal that many of today’s crops have lower levels of nutrients than they did in 1975. Calcium has fallen by 26.5%, vitamins A and C have dropped 21.4% and 29.9%, and iron has plummeted by an average of 36.5%. The dramatic reduction of nutrients in the soil over the last 50 or 60 years means there are reductions of nutrients in our foods. Animals used for food get fewer nutrients in their feeds and are deficient too.
Most of this depletion is due to modern conventional agribusiness methods. For this and other reasons, many health advocates say that Americans are the most well-fed, undernourished people in history. Our soils are deficient in natural nutrients, are virtually “dead” from the loss of microbial life, are devoid of earthworms, and are saturated with chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Foods raised on such soils are then processed, refined, and further dosed with chemicals so they no longer resemble real foods with real nourishment. They are non-foods.
On the other hand, numerous studies have demonstrated that there is a definite trend for increased nutrient content and decreased nitrate and water content in organically produced foods. There are even higher levels of natural plant micronutrients, such as polyphenols, in organic produce. The February 2003 Journal of Agricultural & Food Chemistry contained a study that demonstrated that organically grown corn, strawberries, and marionberries (a blackberry variety) have significantly higher levels of beneficial plant phenolic compounds such as flavonoids. Research suggests that pesticides and herbicides disrupt the production of these and other protective, healthful compounds. Good soil nutrition increases the levels of these natural compounds that have immune-boosting, anti-cancer, cardiovascular-supporting, anti-aging, healthful properties. Polyphenols may help neutralize certain toxic chemicals and reduce the noxious effects of certain reactions that could be harmful to the body. The stronger and healthier the plants, the more they can protect themselves from pests, fungi, and diseases, and the more they increase the levels of “a whole variety of potentially healthy substances” for their consumers. The vitamin C levels in organic strawberries (represented by ascorbic acid) were 20% higher than conventionally produced berries, while sweet corn grown organically was 52% richer in vitamin C than non-organic corn.
Another study (European Journal of Clinical Nutrition) showed a higher level of protective phytonutrients in organic food. Organic vegetable soups, for instance, contain almost six times as much salicylic acid as non-organic vegetable soups. This protective, immune-supportive compound was not even detectable in some conventional soup brand. The high scores earned by organic foods make their nutritional and disease-easing value hard to deny.
A study published in the Journal of Applied Nutrition in 1993 clearly showed that organic food contains more nutrients than conventional food. Organically and conventionally grown apples, potatoes, pears, wheat, and sweet corn were purchased during a two year period in the western suburbs of Chicago and then analyzed for mineral content. The organically grown foods were, on average, 63% higher in calcium, 73% higher in iron, 118% higher in magnesium, 178% higher in molybdenum, 91% higher in phosphorus, 125% higher in potassium, and 60% higher in zinc. Additionally, the organic food was, on average, 29% lower in toxic mercury than conventionally-raised food. An Australian study showed that produce grown organically in soil naturally enhanced with minerals had five to 10 times more mineral content than conventional produce.
Two comprehensive studies compared the differences between organic and conventional foods. Both studies – independently from each other – analyzed about 40 previously published studies. Both arrived at similar conclusions: there is overwhelming evidence that organic food is more nutritious than conventional food. One of the authors commented that, “On average our research found higher vitamin C, higher mineral levels and higher phytonutrients – plant compounds which can be effective against cancer [and much more!]. There’s also less water in organic vegetables, so pound-for-pound you get more carrot for your carrot.”
One of these studies (a review of 41 scientific studies), published in the Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine, found, on average, that organic crops contained 29.3% more magnesium, 27% more vitamin C, 21% more iron, 13.6% more phosphorus, 26% more calcium, 11% more copper, 42% more manganese, 9% more potassium, and 15% fewer nitrates. In crops such as spinach, lettuce, cabbage, and potatoes, organically grown versions had even higher nutritional superiority. Although conventional crops may show higher protein levels due to the isolated high nitrogen from synthetic fertilizers, these proteins contain lower amounts of certain essential amino acids such as lysine, and are therefore of lower quality in terms of animal and human nutrition. Organic crops contain protein of higher quality. The “fake fertilizers” also lower the vitamin C content of crops and interfere with the quality and quantity of carbohydrates. When there is a lot of nitrogen from conventional fertilizers, plants increase protein production and decrease carbohydrate synthesis. When the metabolic protein requirements have been satisfied, the remaining protein becomes a storage form which contains lower amounts of essential amino acids. Gluten in wheat is one example of a storage protein. Is it not possible that conventional farming methods are contributing to the increased incidence of food intolerances such as those to gluten and wheat?
Conventional fertilizers are “simple” chemical compounds which supply very few nutrients. Crops are stimulated to grow, but their quality suffers. Soils fertilized with conventional fertilizers have low levels of soil microbes. Various microbes make many compounds that help plants to absorb minerals from the soil and some make vitamins that plants can absorb. Since conventional fertilizers supply plants with very large amounts of nitrogen, potassium, and/or phosphorus – usually all at once, plants respond in several ways. They may take up a lot of one nutrient supplied by the fertilizer at the expense of other nutrients. For example, if a conventional potassium fertilizer is applied, plants absorb lots of potassium but far less magnesium and calcium. Plants can also respond to the large amounts of a few isolated nutrients by adjusting their metabolism to handle the excess. Either way, there is some effect on the nutrient content of the resulting crop. And conventional fertilizers sometimes come from industrial and mining wastes that contain toxic heavy metals which can be absorbed by crops. If contaminated fertilizers are applied year after year, both the soil and the crops become increasingly contaminated.
The use of pesticides, particularly herbicides (weed-killing pesticides), also affect nutritional quality. Herbicides kill weeds by reducing the production of carotenoids, tocopherols (vitamin E antioxidants) and branched-chained amino acids, all of which are nutritionally important. While the herbicide may not kill the food crop, it nevertheless does affect the quality of the food. There are a number of studies that show poorer protein quality in crops exposed to herbicides. The use of hybrid seeds is common in conventional farming. Varieties that are grown now are different from those used 50 or 60 years ago. Nutrient content is known to differ from variety to variety within the same crop type.
Recently, scientists at the Agricultural Research Service tested lycopene levels and antioxidant activity (indicative of nutrient quality) in 13 brands of ketchup. Organic tomato ketchup contained up to three times the levels as the sugary glop usually sold in markets. Researchers in Missouri found that organic oranges have up to 30% more vitamin C than conventional oranges. This is despite the fact that the organic oranges tested were about half the size of the conventional ones.
A Swiss study demonstrated that organic apples have superior taste and quality. Tests for firmness, natural sugars, malic acid, minerals, phenols, trace minerals like selenium, fibers, and vitamins C and E were performed as well as tests for fruit degradation, “vitality [image-forming] quality,” and feeding preference (with laboratory rats). All fruit samples from organic orchards had significantly firmer flesh (by 14%), higher taste marks (by 15%), higher mineral content (up to 31% higher), higher phenol content (by 19%), and higher image-forming quality (by 60%).
Even monkeys can tell that organic produce is better. The tapirs and chimpanzees in the Copenhagen Zoo consistently choose organic bananas over non-organic ones. They eat the organic bananas – skin and all – while they peel non-organics and toss away the skin. The zoo managers plan to increase the animals’ organic food supply from 10% to 33% within a year.
Studies comparing animals fed organic food with these fed conventionally-grown food “offer strong supportive evidence that the organic crops are more conducive to good health and therefore more nutritious.” One study showed that dairy cattle fed organically grown fodder produced more milk on less feed than did cattle fed fodder grown with organic plus chemical fertilization. In animal studies performed so far, organically fed animals generally fared better. A few studies found no difference, “possibly due to weaknesses in the study designs,” but the vast majority of studies showed positive results. The benefits were most striking in sick or otherwise vulnerable animals such as newborns and in areas such as reproduction. The fertility of animals fed fodder grown with chemical fertilizers and pesticides declined over several generations. Organically produced foods apparently produce a better health outcome over the long term with better growth, better recovery from illness, and better reproductive health. Researchers are compelled to recognize the fact that animals – in their nutrition, their health, and their reproduction – depend on higher fertility levels of soils rich in organic matter and microbial life. No doubt the same applies to humans and their health.
One soil scientist concluded that alteration of physical, chemical, and biological properties of the soil by modern chemical agricultural practices “affect nutrient availability and thereby nutrient composition” of the foods produced. Therefore, “nutritional management of soils considering nutritional composition” of the crops and its relationship to animal and human health “appears to be a new challenge for the new century.” It is interesting that the NEW challenge may entail going back to the OLD, traditional, organic, natural ways of producing foods. No wonder people need MORE food SUPPLEMENTS since the quantity and quality of nutrients in ‘conventional’ foods has declined! Plus they have the added burden of toxic chemicals! [iii]
A WISE INVESTMENT
Organic foods are sometimes more expensive to buy than conventional foods, but many organic products are or are becoming close in price to items raised with toxic chemicals. One study compared prices for conventional foods from a supermarket to comparable organic items from a cooperative store. Products such as rolled oats, frozen juice, breakfast cereal, flour, tomatoes, red peppers, and bananas had similar prices. Organic chickens are now best sellers. “Given the option of a tastier, healthier bird, raised on organic feed and never fed hormones or antibiotics, consumers are eating it up.” Many organic foods are good buys when purchased in bulk, on sale, or locally grown and in season. Buying organics encourages the entire food industry to continue moving toward healthier and more responsible practices, helping to reduce pollution and disruption of health, building rich and productive soil, and preserving natural ecosystems.
Really, cheap conventionally-raised foods are no bargain. They are rip-offs. To save a buck, cut back on superfluous ‘junk’ foods, skip a meal out, buy one less pair of shoes, rent a video instead of going to a show, bypass a few unneeded luxuries. But do not skimp on the quality of your food!
Reasons to go organic? How about to:
1. Protect our children and future generations. The average child receives four times more exposure than an adult to at least eight widely used cancer-causing pesticides in food. Food choices made now will impact your children’s future health.
2. Prevent soil erosion. More than three billion tons of topsoil are eroded from US croplands each year. Erosion is seven times faster than natural build up. Soil is the foundation of the food chain in organic farming. Soil in conventional farming is used more as a medium for holding up plants so they can be chemically fertilized and treated.
3. Protect water quality. The EPA estimates that pesticides pollute the primary source of drinking water for over half the country’s population.
4. Keep chemicals off your plate. The EPA considers 60% of herbicides, 90% of fungicides, and 30% of insecticides as carcinogenic. Also, pesticides are implicated in birth defects, nerve damage, genetic mutations, immune system compromise, and more. Pesticides are poisons designed to kill living organisms; they can and do harm humans as well.
5. Provide a healthier farm worker environment. Farmers exposed to herbicides had six times more risk of contracting cancer than non-farmers. In California, reported pesticide poisonings indicate that farm workers suffer the highest rates of occupational illness in the State. In developing nations where pesticide use may be poorly regulated, farm worker health is a serious problem. An estimated one million people are poisoned annually by pesticides.
6. Save energy. Modern farming uses more petroleum than any other single industry, consuming 12% of the country’s total energy supply. More energy is now used to produce synthetic fertilizers than to till, cultivate, and harvest all the crops in the US. Organic farming is based on labor-intensive practices such as hand-weeding and using green manure and cover crops instead of synthetic fertilizers.
7. Help family farms. Although more large-scale farms are making the conversion to organic practices, most organic farms are small and family owned. The US lost more than 650,000 family farms during the 1990s.
8. Support a sustainable economy. Although organic foods may seem more expensive than conventional foods, hidden costs borne by taxpayers include nearly $87 billion a year in federal subsidies. Other hidden costs include pesticide regulation and testing, environmental damage, hazardous waste disposal and clean-up, as well as social costs (health care).
9. Promote biodiversity. Mono-cropping is the practice of planting large plots of land with the same crop year after year. This has increased production, but the lack of natural diversity in plant life has left the soil lacking in natural nutrients. Single crops are also much more susceptible to pests, increasing reliance on pesticides. Despite a huge increase in the use of pesticides over the years, crop losses due to insects have doubled.
10. Get more flavor and nourishment. One reason why many upscale chefs use organic foods in their recipes is because they taste better. Nourishment of the soil leads to nourishment of the plant and, ultimately, nourishment of the animal and human consumers. Better flavor is one indication of better nutrient content.
11. Avoid genetically modified organisms. The safety of GMOs is hotly debated, but evidence increasingly points to their hazards.
12. Avoid irradiated foods. Organic foods are not irradiated, a process that uses nuclear waste.
13. Keep hormones and antibiotics out of your food. This means no hormone or drug residues in your meat and dairy products.
14. Benefit from pasture grazed dairy cows. USDA organic standards require that milk cows be allowed access to pasture. Cows that graze on green pasture produce up to 500% higher
[i] A Real Life, winter 1999, 20: 12-13 & summer 2000, 22: 16; Vegetarian Times, Oct 2004, 325: 17.
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