Part of my job is to stay up to date with the latest trends in the health and fitness world and vet the information for quality. From shake weights, ketogenic diets, and fasted cardio to magic weight loss wraps, diet pills, and green coffee beans, I need to know what it is and why it does or does not work. My stance always comes from that of a skeptic, especially if the claims made about a particular trend are extraordinary. And because science is always pushing forward, my opinions can change over time. The topic of organic food vs. conventional food has been a real SOB to tackle. However, today I wanted to go over where I currently stand. So, is organic food really worth all the extra $$$, or are you buying a Ferrari when a Honda Civic is really all you need?
What Makes It Organic?
Let’s first take a quick look at what goes into making a particular food organic. Being certified organic is really a matter of farmers adhering to USDA guidelines. There’s way too much info for me to go over in this post, but check out this link for the specifics. For something to be deemed organic, it needs to be in the condition of being ordered as a living being, or of any chemical that contains the element carbon, regardless of its source. So that means there are chemicals that are allowed in organic farming other than cow poop, such as copper sulfate, boric acid, elemental sulfur, sodium hypochlorite (bleach), ammonium carbonate, and magnesium sulfate. But don’t be worried about all those chemicals. For you to feel any negative side effects of eating conventional herbicide, you would need to eat tons of it per day. I’m sure it’s the same for the organic stuff too.
Organic Food Health Implications
So I’m going to dive right into the heart of the matter and start off by talking about what’s good for your health. And I’m sad to say that there really is no evidence to say that eating organic has any positive, or negative, health outcomes (1). However, there are a bunch of indicators that suggest there may be benefits. For instance, organic food has been shown to have:
– More Antioxidants (between 18% and 69%)
– Less cadmium (on average, about 48 % lower)
– Four-times less likely to contain detectable pesticide residues
– Slightly more omega-3 fatty acids (good for the heart)
– Slightly less saturated fatty acids (good for the heart)
However, conventional foods have been shown to have;
– higher concentrations of iodine and selenium (iodine deficiency can lead to impaired fetal brain development)
– higher concentrations of protein, nitrogen, nitrate, nitrite, respectively (these can have both positive and negative health impacts)
At the end of the day, organic foods are not really any more nutritious on a meaningful level but do have some small advantages (2). For instance, it may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria (3). Although pesticide residues for both conventional and organic crops are negligible compared to the safe minimum daily dosage, these are a small but meaningful difference for some individuals.
The Cost Of Organic
While everyone knows that the price of organic is greater than conventional foods (by about 47% in fact), what are the other costs of eating organic? Well, the thought of paying more to help out your local farmer is certainly noble, and I highly recommend buying from a farm that you trust and want to support. However, simply buying organic from the supermarket does not help out the little guy despite all the advertising. Organic farming is also bad for the environment.
Growing organic means you get 35% less food per acre when compared to conventional methods (4). It also means greater ammonia emissions (eye & lung irritant), nitrogen leaching (gets into our water), and nitrous oxide emissions (greenhouse gas) (5). Organic farming can be better for soil health, however.
At this point, it may seem like I have been bashing organic foods, but I want to be clear that I am laying out the facts and not making this about one ideology vs. another. The reality is that everyone should be eating more fruits and vegetables regardless of where they come from. No one should feel ashamed because they can’t afford to eat organic foods. Making the choice to eat organic should be about preferences. Although “organic” doesn’t mean it’s any healthier or tastes better if you prefer it over food stuff then go for it (6,7). Don’t let the PR firms fool you; you won’t have any worse health outcomes by eating non-organic foods. Just choose whole food sources from the produce section, and if you want to ensure the highest quality, grow it yourself and/or get to know your local farmers.
1. Barański, M., Rempelos, L., Iversen, P. O., & Leifert, C. (2017). Effects of organic food consumption on human health; the jury is still out!. Food & Nutrition Research, 61(1), 1287333.
2. Dangour, A. D., Dodhia, S. K., Hayter, A., Allen, E., Lock, K., & Uauy, R. (2009). Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 90(3), 680-685.
3. Smith-Spangler, C., Brandeau, M. L., Hunter, G. E., Bavinger, J. C., Pearson, M., Eschbach, P. J., … & Olkin, I. (2012). Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives?: a systematic review. Annals of internal medicine, 157(5), 348-366.
4. Seufert, V., Ramankutty, N., & Foley, J. A. (2012). Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture. Nature, 485(7397), 229-232.
5. Tuomisto, H. L., Hodge, I. D., Riordan, P., & Macdonald, D. W. (2012). Does organic farming reduce environmental impacts?–A meta-analysis of European research. Journal of environmental management, 112, 309-320.
6. Fillion, L., & Arazi, S. (2002). Does organic food taste better? A claim substantiation approach. Nutrition & Food Science, 32(4), 153-157.
7. Johansson, L., Haglund, Å., Berglund, L., Lea, P., & Risvik, E. (1999). Preference for tomatoes, affected by sensory attributes and information about growth conditions. Food quality and preference, 10(4), 289-298.