Everyone’s seen the slightly more expensive, different packaged fruits and vegetables, meats and even dry store foods, like pasta, that have organic plastered all over the packaging, as if the word alone justifies the price increase. A price increase of 89 per cent according to a 2016 survey by Voucherbox.
But does the price mark-up mean that organic is better for you? Do they have more vitamins or less calories or any added health benefits? And why do so many celebrities, including Britain’s Prince Charles, preach about organic foods?
What does Organic even mean?
According to the UK’s National Health Service, there is not an internationally agreed definition of “organic”. However, most people understand it to mean:
- Foods grown without the use of artificial fertilisers, pesticides or other chemicals.
- Meat taken from animals that have not been given antibiotics or growth hormones.
However, due to different food standards regulations across the world the term organic will mean something slightly different dependant on where you are.
For example, in 1981 with Directive 81/602/EEC, the EU prohibited the use of substances having a hormonal action for growth promotion in farm animals. Whereas in the United States of America there are six hormones approved by the FDA for use in beef production, three being natural and the other three being chemically synthetic hormones.
So if you are buying EU meat, you will know it does not contain hormones, even if it is not organic, whereas if you are buying meat from the United States unless it specifies organic, or hormone free it will contain hormones.
Due to this, the argument about whether organic foods are more beneficial for your health will depend on where they are produced as well as what the actual product is.
Are organic foods better for you?
When talking about crops in myth-bunking nutrition book ‘Is Butter A Carb?’ by registered dieticians Rosie Saunt and Helen West, botanist James Wong argues that the body of data on this topic is so heterogenous and filled with contradictions that it can be extremely tricky to draw meaningful conclusions from it.
Wong says the “reason for this is that making like-for-like comparisons between organic and non-organic crops is difficult.” This is because in addition to being grown according to different agricultural practices, they are also likely to be totally different genetic varieties, grown in different countries, with different soils, weather, transport and storage techniques which can all effect the outcome. Three different universities have looked at all the different data from dozens of studies and in each piece of research they were unable to find any reliable evidence for consistently higher levels of vitamins and minerals in organic crops.
So, if organic produce isn’t higher in vitamins or minerals is it no better for you?
As previously mentioned, it depends where you are in the world and what the countries food regulations are.
One benefit of organic produce worldwide is that it contains fewer pesticides and heavy metals.
Fruits, vegetables and grains labelled organic are grown without the use of most synthetic pesticides or artificial fertilisers. Commonly used chemicals have been deemed safe in the quantities used for conventional farming.
Time magazine states that health experts still warn about the potential harms of repeated exposure, noting that herbicide Roundup has been classified as a “probable human carcinogen”. It also says that insecticide chlorpyrifos have been associated with developmental delays in infants.
There are also studies that have suggested that pesticide residues, something found commonly in the urine of children in the United States – may contribute to ADHD prevalence and have also been linked to reduced sperm quality in men.
In 2016, nutritionist Catherine Jeans told The Telegraph that “a 2014 study into organic fruit and vegetables at Newcastle University concluded that in organic food, quantities of antioxidants, which help prevent cancer and heart disease and most immunity are between 19 and 69 per cent higher.” Furthermore, a six-year study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry also found that organic onions have about 20 per cent higher antioxidant content than conventional onions.
Due to the health benefits of antioxidants organic food clearly comes up trumps in this category.
Not all Organic is good for you
However, some organic produce does have drawbacks.
For example, organic nut and plant milks are not fortified. This means that they have not had the same vitamins and minerals you can get from cow’s milk added to them. This includes calcium as well as vitamins B2, B12 D2 and E.
So obviously, in this case the organic alternatives are not better for you. So if you do not drink cow’s milk for environmental reasons, and are thinking about going organic for the same environmental reasons, health wise it might not be as beneficial.
What is the environmental impact of organic produce?
Due to the way organic produce is farmed it has many benefits to the environment.
For example, it uses less energy, helps to conserve water, reduces soil erosion and increases soil fertility.
Furthermore, in livestock farming there is an increase in free-range rearing, which prevents some of the negative factors of factory farming from taking place. The French National Institute for Agricultural Research and The French Center for Scientific Research have also found that organic farming benefits honeybee colonies. As bees play a crucial ecological role the fact that organic farming benefits them as well is incredibly significant.
This all points to the question: should I go organic?
Should I switch to organic?
Honestly, its personal preference.
Rolf Halden, professor and director of the Biodesign Center for Environmental Security at Arizona State University, suggests that vulnerable groups, including pregnant women, young children, the elderly and people suffering from food allergies, may benefit the most from choosing organically produced foods.
Many registered dieticians and nutritionists in the United States suggest buying eggs, dairy and meat organically due to the nature of how they are produced, particularly due to the hormones in beef farming.
Overall, as organic products are more expensive than their alternatives, it is largely suggested that if you can afford organic products, go for it. But if not, don’t worry about it. As long as you enjoy a healthy and balanced diet there is not really a need to worry about whether your food is organic or not, particularly in countries were hormonal action for growth promotion in farm animals is prohibited.