Is Organic Food Healthier?
Since the late 1990s, the organic food market has grown exponentially, becoming the fastest growing sector in the American food industry. Between 1997 and 2017, sales of organic foods in the United States increased from $3.6 to $45.2 billion (1). Globally, sales increased from $18 billion to a staggering $90 billion (2). Although consumers pay up to twice as much, the popularity and demand for organic food continues to grow.
People choose to purchase organic food for many reasons, primarily motivated by concerns over the potential effects that conventional farming practices may have on human health, animal welfare, and the environment.
In large part, the popularity of organic food has increased due to a widespread belief that organic food is not only safer to consume, but that it’s healthier, more nutritious, and better tasting than foods that are conventionally produced. In the minds of many, eating organic has become the definition of what it means to eat healthy.
In this blog, we’ll review the current body of scientific literature examining organic and conventionally produced foods as they pertain to human health. Due to the shear extent of this topic, environmental implications, animal well-fare, taste comparison, and economical concerns will not be addressed. The primary focus will be on that of safety, nutritional differences, and human health outcomes.
First things first, what makes food organic?
Organic certification requirements and farming practices vary worldwide, but generally, the main criteria include growing food without the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers and without the routine use of antibiotics or growth hormones. Typically, organic livestock are fed with organically produced feed and must be provided with routine access to the outdoors. Organic regulations also require that organic foods be processed without irradiation or the use of chemical food additives (3,4).
Let’s make one thing clear from the get go,
Eating organic is not synonymous with eating healthy.
If you read my email newsletter 'Is Organic Food Healthier?' then you already understand the rationale behind this claim and can skip ahead to the Pesticide Exposure and Food Safety section. If not, please read on!
Prior to the early 2000s, before the organic food market exploded, the demand for organic food was relatively low and the selection was fairly limited. The majority of products that were available on the market consisted mainly of whole and minimally processed produce, meats, and dairy. For this reason, eating organic typically promoted a very healthy way of eating, by which it encouraged individuals to consume mostly fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other lower-calorie, unprocessed, and whole foods.
However, with a growing demand for organic products, a large variety of processed, highly-palatable (very tasty), and calorie dense organic items have been added to the market. We have organic soda, organic cookies, organic chips, organic cereal, and organic pizza. Whatever your guilty pleasure is, chances are, you can find it in an organic form, helping you to feel a little less guilty about consuming it. If its organic, it’s got to be healthier, right?
Calorie intake is by far the most important nutritional principal in determining whether or not a diet is healthy. From dietary standpoint, calorie intake is the main driver of bodyweight, and bodyweight is highly correlated to overall health. Food composition, or the type of food that comprises those calories is the second most important factor.
In terms of calories and food composition, organic junk food is almost identical to that of non-organic junk food, making it no better. It tastes just as good as the regular stuff, it’s easy to consume a lot of, it’s calorically dense, and somewhat void of nutritional value compared to other options. Foods that contain properties such as these can easily facilitate a diet high in calories, and a diet too high in calories and too low in whole foods is unhealthy, regardless of whether it’s organic or not.
With the emergence of a wide variety of highly processed organic food products, it can’t be assumed that an organic diet is a healthy diet without also considering calorie intake and food composition.
This point may seem somewhat obvious, however, many individuals are easily mislead into thinking that organic automatically means healthy.
With point set aside, lets focus on the more controversial topics surrounding conventionally farmed foods, such as pesticide exposure, nutritional value, and its overall effects on human health when calorie intake and food composition are controlled for.
Pesticide Exposure and Food Safety
A pesticide is a chemical or biological agent that is used to protect crops from insects, weeds, and infections. Pesticides are used for good reason, they allow farmers to achieve greater crop yields, they help to increase the overall food supply, making food more available and affordable, and they protect consumers from potentially harmful food borne illnesses. The drawback is that these benefits come at the risk of potential pesticide exposure, which poses health concerns in and of itself.
Although organic farming practices don’t allow the use of synthetic pesticides, many naturally occurring substances have been approved for pesticide use and are commonly employed in organic agriculture (5). It goes to mention that many of these natural substances, such as rotenone, an insecticide from the seeds and stems of certain plants, although natural, still carry possible health consequences (6).
The potential toxicity of a substance can’t be judged solely on whether it is artificial or natural. This is a very common fallacy held in the general public. In fact, some natural pesticides have actually been found more harmful than synthetic ones and have even been banned from conventional farming use (7). In evaluating toxicity, it’s very important to consider the dose. Even water, a chemical necessary for the very maintenance of life itself, can kill you at high enough doses. On the other end of the toxicity spectrum, cyanide, a highly toxic chemical used in Nazi gas chambers during WWII, is perfectly safe to consume in small doses and is naturally occurring in apples.
Reviews of the scientific literature have consistently concluded that organic produce carries a much lower risk for pesticide exposure (8,9,10). Even though conventionally farmed foods are approximately 4x more likely to be contaminated with detectable pesticide residues, the measurable amounts are still well below the government established guidelines for what is considered to be safe (11). While negative effects of high dose pesticide exposure have been documented, the effects of relatively low-level pesticide exposure, such as that typically experienced in the diet, are unclear.
In evaluating the potential health risk of pesticides, we must consider their relative risk in comparison to other known environmental toxins and carcinogens that humans encounter on a daily basis. The sun, for example, is a far more potent carcinogen than any pesticide currently in use, and many of us are exposed to its harmful radiation on a daily basis. When put into perspective, relatively low-level pesticide exposure may not be the worst of our concerns. This doesn’t mean that the potential risk should be completely avoided, however it does suggest that our efforts at avoiding environmental toxins and carcinogens should be both realistic and directed things that are well within our control and that carry the greatest risk. It’s counter-productive to avoid pesticides like the black plague if you spend time in the sun each day, consume alcohol, deprive yourself of sleep, perform shift work, do little to no physical activity, or eat a terrible overall diet, as these lifestyle factors incur a much greater overall risk than the potential risk coming from pesticides.
For a more in depth discussion on environmental carcinogens, see the American Cancer Society’s webpage at this link https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/general-info/known-and-probable-human-carcinogens.html which discusses how carcinogens are identified and classified.
A cohort study following 623,080 women over the course of nine years, the longest and largest study of its kind, found that there was no significant association between cancer incidence and the consumption of organic versus conventionally produced foods (12). In fact, the incidence of breast cancer was actually higher in individuals who claimed to consume a diet higher in organic foods. However, when considering all cancer types as a whole, there was no significant correlation between conventional food and cancer indices.
Taken collectively, the current body of scientific evidence from human studies does not conclude that there are any significant health risks associated with the consumption of conventionally farmed foods, even though a higher risk of pesticide exposure may suggest the possibility (14,18,19). The American Cancer Society states that there is no current evidence suggesting that small amounts of pesticide residues found on conventionally produced foods increases the risk of cancer. However, it still recommends thoroughly washing fruits and vegetables to remove as much potential pesticide residue as possible (13).
In assessing the safety of food, it’s also important to consider the potential risk for bacterial and other microbial contaminations. Because organic farming uses fewer pesticides, doesn’t irradiate food during processing, and uses manure as fertilizer, the risk for bacterial contamination, including that of E. Coli and Salemenila, may be slightly higher. Although there’s some evidence of this, a systematic review and meta-analysis from 2012 concluded that significant differences in bacterial contamination have not been observed between farming types (14). While antibiotic use in conventional livestock may reduce the possibility of bacterial contamination, it also increases the risk producing and spreading antibiotic resistant bacterial strains (14). Therefore, the use of antibiotics may be a double-edged sword.
Composition and Nutritional Differences
It is often thought that organic food is more nutritious in terms of its vitamin, mineral, fat, protein, carbohydrate, and calorie content. Due it’s theoretical superiority in nutrients, it is believed that organic food provides health benefits that conventionally produced food does not.
It’s hard to make a blanket statement about the relative nutritional value of organic versus conventional foods as a whole because it varies from one food item to the next. Even if you were to compare two of the same food item, say organic apples versus conventional apples, the soil conditions, weather, and farming practices that each are grown in will vary slightly from one farm to the next and from one location on a farm to another, yielding nutritional differences that are irrespective farming type. Therefore, it can be hard to make accurate nutritional comparisons between foods based solely on the criteria of being organic or conventionally produced.
With that said, the most recent meta-analysis and systematic reviews of the literature have identified a few significant compositional differences between various organic and conventionally produced foods. On average, organic produce tends to have slightly higher antioxidant and phosphorus content and lower levels of the potentially harmful metal cadmium (14,15,16). Organic meat and dairy typically contains higher concentrations of desirable omega-3-fatty acids and less saturated fat, while conventional dairy tends to have more selenium and iodine (17). In terms of calorie density and macronutrient profiles, organic foods are almost identical to that of conventional, with the exception that conventional produce tends to contain more protein on average (16).
While compositional differences do in fact exist, the differences are small and probably of little relevance to populations with ample nutrient supply. This begs the question of whether or not these differences are significant enough to practically manifest themselves as differential health outcomes in the long-term. At this point, the data is insufficient to conclude whether or not they actually confer meaningful effects on human health when habitually consumed (14,18,19).
On the net balance, its simply inaccurate to say that organic food is more nutritious than conventionally produced foods. For some food items, organic provides a slight advantage and others, conventional food does. For the majority of food properties, they are almost identical.
Pros of organic food
Less risk for pesticide and antibiotic resistant bacterial exposure
Typically, produce is a bit fresher
Better fatty-acid profile in meats and dairy
Produce contains slightly greater antioxidant content on average
Cons of organic food
Shelf-life isn’t as long
Increased risk of bacterial and microbial contamination
Practical Implications and Take-home
While the research does indicate that there may be some slight advantages to consuming organically produced foods, the evidence as a whole is insufficient to conclude whether or not it’s actually safer to consume long-term or that it provides meaningful health benefits.
It must be stated that it’s extremely hard to design and undertake studies that appropriately compare organic and conventional foods and their effects on human health. Due to methodological limitations, as well as a limited number of controlled long-term research studies, it’s difficult to make any truly definitive conclusions at this point. It’s fair to say that the jury is still out when it comes to the long-term effects of either type of food and further research is needed.
Although we can’t necessarily say that organic food is healthier, we can definitely say that a diet filled with fruits, veggies, and whole foods, provides a vast number of health benefits, regardless of whether it’s is organic or conventionally produced. Hands down, the two most important nutritional principals to a healthy diet and life are controlling your calorie intake and eating mostly whole foods. Exercise and good sleep aren’t bad ideas either. The truth is, most people could enhance their health simply by addressing these few factors alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the prevalence of obesity is almost 40% among adults in the United States (20). Eating organic is not going to reverse this problem alone. We need to address larger and more profound lifestyle changes.
Even worse, obesity correlates with socioeconomic status, and those in the lower income brackets tend to experience greater rates (21). For these individuals, pushing them to eat more expensive organic food is the wrong piece of advice when they could benefit just as much from a diet filled with more affordable conventionally produced whole foods. Overall, pushing the consumption of organic food gives people the wrong idea about what healthy eating is and causes them to mis prioritize their nutritional principals.
Here’s my practical advice and take-home message based on the current state of evidence;
If you can afford organic food, or the price for a given food item is comparable to that of conventional, then buy organic, especially when it comes to fresh produce, meats, and dairy. I would question the merit of purchasing processed organic food all together, as improving food selection probably affords a greater benefit to your health than any potential advantage that might come from eating a processed food that is organic compared to conventional.
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2. FIBL (Res. Inst. Org. Agric.), IFOAM (Int. Fed. Org. Agric. Mov.)-Org. Int. 2016. The World of Organic Agriculture: Statistics and Emerging Trends 2016. Frick, Switz./Bonn, Ger.: FIBL, IFOAM-Org. Int.
3. International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). The IFOAM Norms for Organic Production and Processing Version 2005. Bonn, Germany: IFOAM; 2006. Accessed at http://shop.ifoam.org/bookstore/download _preview/IFOAM_NORMS_2005_intro.pdf
4. National Archives and Records Administration. Electronic Code of Federal Regulations, Title 7: Agriculture, Part 205—National Organic Program, Subpart C—Organic Production and Handling Requirements. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office; 2010. Accessed at http://ecfr.gpoaccess.gov/cgi/t /text/text-idx?c ecfr&rgn div5&view text&node 7:126.96.36.199.32&idno 7#7:3 .188.8.131.52.3
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7. Comm. Eur. Communities. 2008. Commission Regulation (EC) No 889/2008 of 5 September 2008 laying down detailed rules for the implementation of Council Regulation (EC) no 834/2007 on organic production and labelling of organic products with regard to organic production, labelling and control. Off. J. Eur. Union 889/2008:1–84.
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