Buying organic is a booming food trend. It is also a trend that comes with a health halo for being more nutritious, healthier and tastier than conventional produce. But how do these claims stack up when you look at the research behind them? And is the price premium you pay for organic worth it? In this blog post, I look at the health merits of going organic and unpick those health and nutrition claims.
The organic food industry is big business. Fuelled by growing consumer demand by health, environmental and ethical concerns, it is no surprise it is one of the leading food trends.
So, let’s start by defining what is meant by ‘organic’. A food that is marketed as being organic would normally fall under some form of certification process. Certification covers things like chemical inputs to producing the food such as fertiliser, additives, antibiotics and pesticides. And then there could be aspects related to land use, animal breeding and housing along with record keeping and potentially on-site inspections. In Australia, there are five different approved organic certification bodies.
In Australia, any product claiming to be ‘organic’ needs to be able to substantiate those claims regardless if they are certified or not. Otherwise, a company risks falling afoul of food regulatory and consumer bodies like the ACCC.
Is organic more nutritious?
Choosing organic produce for its nutritional superiority should make it a standout choice. The only problem with this view is that there is not a lot of scientific evidence to say it is true. A key reason why it is hard to answer the ‘Is organic more nutritious?’ question is that it is very hard to compare ‘apples with apples’.
The nutrient content of a food has a huge amount of variability. It can be affected by the growing region, rainfall, time of year of harvest and post-harvesting storage time. Each one of these factors can affect nutrient levels – to levels up to a 3-fold difference between the same food. And none of the factors I just outlined belong exclusively to the organic food domain – they apply to all grown food.
Getting a clearer picture if organic produce has more nutrition than conventional produce needs a lot of research work. In 2012, a systematic review that included 223 studies concluded that there was a lack of strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventionally grown foods.
But among all those 223 studies, there was plenty of variability. Yet the only nutrient that stood out as being higher was phosphorus, but….it was in conventional produce, not organic food. However, even with higher levels, the difference has no clinical health significance.
Moving ahead to 2014, a new review study – this one including 343 studies – came out with a different conclusion. It found that organic crops had higher levels of polyphenol antioxidants by about 20 percent compared to conventional ones. But contrasting that, levels of proteins, amino acids and nitrogen were lower in organic crops.
Protein certainly is an important nutrient but so too are all those polyphenols so which one do you give more weight to in whether to choose organic or conventional? The choice is not that clear cut is it?
There have been studies that found organic meat and milk have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, but the word ‘organic’ here is misleading. The nutritional differences were simply because the animals foraged more on grass. It is already well known that the fatty acid profile of beef and milk will vary depending on what the animal was raised on. Raising cattle on grass doesn’t make a food ‘organic’ by that alone. It’s just grass-fed cattle that’s all.
But before you get too excited about those ‘amazing’ fatty acid differences in grass-fed cattle, here’s the other point: milk and meat are not the main sources of omega-3 fats in our diet. It is fish, plants, nuts and seeds that are the key dietary sources of omega-3s. So the higher levels of one nutrient in meat and dairy don’t make a big difference to your diet as a whole.
All those pesticides
Okay, so no article on organic produce is complete without covering pesticides as is a key selling point of the health merits of organic.
When choosing organic produce, the absence of synthetic pesticides ranks high on the consumer health radar. Thankfully, pesticide levels on food in Australia are monitored and kept within very, very safe levels. And we’re talking levels below 1 percent of what is an already safe daily dose that already has its own huge margin of safety built into it. Washing and peeling food before eating can reduce residues even more.
However, there is research that came out of those earlier systematic reviews I covered that signalled that eating organic food means less synthetic pesticides. So, surely that’s a lay-down misère for choosing organic? I mean, everyone wants less pesticides in their body? What you’re missing here is the very misleading marketing claim of organic food that they’re ‘pesticide free’. Because they don’t always asterisk this to explain that it is only free of synthetic pesticides.
Let me explain. Organic certification allows produce to be grown with the use of naturally occurring pesticides such as pyrethrins, light oils, copper and sulphur and even some types of pesticide-producing bacteria. All these pesticides are just as harmful to humans in high enough doses as synthetic pesticides. There is nothing ‘safe’ about these pesticides – they’re used to kill pests after all.
It is what I like to call the ‘dirty little secret’ of the organic food industry. Organic food proponents are very quick to call out the potential harms of synthetic pesticides and that their food doesn’t contain any of them, but are a little more coy in letting you know that pesticides can be used in producing their food. Pesticides that aren’t normally part of the health monitoring system.
But let’s put pesticides in context before you get too panicked. Over 99 percent of the pesticides eaten in a typical diet are naturally present in the food to start with, not added by farmers. And of these pesticides, half will cause cancer in rats if given in high enough doses. And that cup of coffee you had this morning? It contained the same weight of known rodent carcinogens as a year’s worth of exposure to synthetic pesticides.
No need to be alarmed as it is these very low doses of natural pesticides in foods that may explain some of the health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables. They can stimulate the immune system by placing a very mild level of stress on the body. So, life is not about removing all pesticides from it – small amounts could be beneficial.
The fearmongering behind the ‘dirty dozen’
Anyone who has delved into the world of the merits of organic produce will likely have come across the ‘dirty dozen’. The dirty dozen is a collated list of foods to avoid because they contain the most pesticides. Just no. There is so much wrong with this.
First of all, if you measure anything – be it pesticide residue, fibre or vitamin C, you will always be able to produce a ranked list. What matters is not where a food is placed on that list, but if the values are of any health significance. And when it comes to pesticide residues, even foods at the top of the list are still well, well under any level that presents any safety concerns.
The data used to compile the dirty dozen list is legitimate as comes from US Government sources. But the ranking system takes no account of the different levels of toxicity between pesticides – they purely go on the amount present. And because it’s a list, no matter what the conventional food industry did to reduce pesticide levels, this list will always have a ‘dirty dozen’ on the top of it.
An even bigger issue with the dirty dozen list is that it is only about synthetic pesticides. A free pass is given for all the ‘organic’ pesticides that I mentioned before that can and are used in producing organic produce.
And here’s one interesting thing you may not know about the ‘dirty dozen’ list: it’s put together by an organisation called the Environmental Working Group. Sounds legit doesn’t it? Except this group, while being a not-for-profit organisation, gets a nice slice of its funding from the organic food industry. This is also an organisation that has a clear anti-GMO stance and has dipped its toe in the water of some anti-vax rhetoric too. To say they are not held in high regard by the general scientific community would be polite.
But here is the biggest kicker for any concerns you may have about pesticides in food. If pesticide residues in conventional produce were so bad for us, we should see clear evidence of an increased risk of cancer and other chronic diseases with increasing fruit and vegetable consumption. The opposite is true.
Okay, so if there isn’t a strong case to choose organic based on nutrients and pesticide residues, then surely organic is better because it simply tastes better? Um, no. Now, I’m not denying for one second your taste experience of organic food – it is 100 percent correct and valid. But you see, taste is a very personal one and is largely based on expectation.
Comparing the taste of organic versus conventional needs to be based on produce of similar quality. A freshly picked conventional apple will taste better than an organic apple that has sat sadly unloved for weeks on the produce shelf. And the same applies in reverse too. So you have to take this into account to have a fair taste test of organic versus conventional.
But what does science say when you do the only valid experiment here and that’s blind people to whether the food they’re tasting is organic or conventional? Are you ready to be shocked? People can’t taste the difference.
Now I could cite some nerdy scientific studies to support this, but for a change of pace, I’m going to cite a YouTube clip. Not just any clip mind you, but one involving a bunch of pranksters who infiltrated a high-end foodie trade show. They passed around plates of McDonald’s food they deconstructed and reassembled into gourmet hors d’oeuvres. All complete with a tale of the foods’ providence (and being organic too obvs). And the foodies lapped it up and raved about the taste sensation.
If they were told it was McDonald’s they would have had utter disdain for it. But change the description and appearance of the food and you have yourself a gourmand’s delight. Taste: it’s largely based on expectations. If you want to catch the 3-minute clip, here it is and heads up: it’s in Dutch so put your subtitles on.
What it all means
This article was not written to change your mind to turn you from organic back to conventional produce. You do you and if you like organic, keep eating it. Because the whole organic versus conventional food debate is a pointless distraction. On the health scales, there is little to separate organic and conventional produce – apart from price.
Rather than focusing on getting a few extra antioxidants from organic fruit, we should be trying to eat a lot more fruit and vegetables to begin with. The biggest food health issue we are facing is how little fruit and vegetables we are eating in the first place. Addressing this by eating more foods that we know are good for us will make any ‘organic vs conventional’ debate fade into insignificance.
If you feel the price premium of organic is worth it, then by all means, make buying organic a priority. For someone on a tight budget, then fear not that you are doing your health any harm by buying conventional produce.