Organic food is all the rage at the moment and it seems that new organic-only stores are popping up just about everywhere. This is probably a reflection of our growing interest in health and sustainability… which is all good. But do the two really go hand-in-hand? Is organic food really better? And why?
What Is Organic Food?
Organic food is food that is grown without fertilisers or pesticides. They use natural non-chemical methods in order to promote soil and water conservation and to reduce pollution.
This is in contrast to 'non-organic' foods, which are grown using modern fertilisers and pesticides and which allows a lot more produce to be grown more quickly and reliably.
The results look pretty much the same, but because organic food takes longer to grow it will often cost more. For that reason you need to be really sure that you're getting some extra benefits for the money.
What Are the Benefits?
So you're paying more for food that's grown without chemicals. What does that mean for your health?
Well the theory is that consuming chemicals isn't all that good for you. If you eat a potato that was sprayed with bug-killing fumes then you might worry that this could cause those same poisons to get into your system resulting in negative consequences for your health.
Meanwhile the use of synthetic fertilisers means that the plants aren't getting their nutrition the old fashioned way through the soil or through compost, but instead through a cocktail that a company whipped up somewhere. Thus it follows that organic foods might be more nutritious.
What Does the Research Say?
One study from Stanford in 2012 was controversial for saying that there was no additional nutritional benefit when eating organic foods (here). Likewise there was no evidence that there were any additional health risks associated with non-organic farming methods. This study worked by looking at 237 papers and 17 studies and compared results to come to their conclusions. These studies included six randomized clinical trials – pretty damning for the pricey organic food industry…
That said, of all these studies were relatively short-term in nature. The longest was only two years, meaning that they don't say much about the long term benefits of eating organic.
It's also worth noting that the studies found a 30% increased risk of pesticide contamination in conventional (non-organic) produce. This wasn't found to lead to health issues, but it is there. Children who ate conventional produce were also found to have more pesticide in their pee and increased exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It's just that people didn't seem to get ill from that…
Critics also point out that some studies looking specifically at nutritional content were left out of this review, and so a larger, more comprehensive paper looking at 343 studies was released by the British Journal of Nutrition this year (the LA Times covered the story).
This study did find that organic foods were more nutritious with up to 70% more antioxidants ('up to' is a crucial phrase here). Chemical fertilisers it's believed prevent proportional development of antioxidants. The study also found that regular produce had more pesticides and greater exposure to toxic metals.
It's worth noting that these aren't the only factors that come into play regarding organic vs conventional produce. For many people, this decision is partly an ethical one based on sustainability and eco-friendly farming. The concern here is that the use of pesticides could be harmful to the local ecosystem and find its way into the food chain causing further issues.
On the other hand though, growing more produce in a smaller space, more quickly is actually very beneficial to the environment in its own right. And the ability to grow more foods more cheaply in more areas is obviously beneficial when it comes to dealing with hunger and helping those below the poverty line to maintain a healthy diet.
Note as well that fewer pesticides means more pests, and actually these can create health risks of their own. It's not entirely black and white then.
What Should You Do?
So what have we learned so far? Organic food is more nutritious and contains fewer pesticides, but it's also more expensive. In some ways it's better for the planet, but not unequivocally…
With that in mind, what's the best choice to make for your health? And more to the point, are the health benefits on offer enough to warrant the extra price?
If you are someone who has a flexible budget and you don't mind paying a bit more for your dinner, then yes, eating organic food will be the best choice for your health according to the available data. BUT if you're on a budget or if you loathe spending large amounts on you fruit and vegetables, then you might want to think again.
Yes, organic produce contains slightly more antioxidants and slightly fewer pesticides. But these are not major differences and they have been shown not to have a large effect on health in the short term. If you're worried about getting more antioxidants then you can always get them in your diet in other ways; by eating fish with natural fatty acids for example or by eating whole grains. Likewise just eating an extra piece of fruit could make up for the reduction in antioxidants, as could choosing more fruits where you eat the skin which contains much of the goodness.
In other words, organic food is probably better but regular fruit and veg is also fine. If you're on a budget and it's a matter of choosing cheaper produce versus not eating fruit and veg at all… then don't worry about forking out for organic food. Regular fruit and veg isn't going to kill you, it's only a minor difference.