Is organic food REALLY healthier?


Many people now believe that organic foods are safer, healthier and tastier than regular foods. Others say it’s better for the environment and improves animal welfare.

You can pay up to 200% more for an organic label, but is that all hype?

It’s easy to see how organic is perceived as healthier – the image of wildlife and nature untouched by humans. It can paint a very vivid picture in our imagination of how we want to see the food we eat in harmony with the world.

As a result, people are willing to pay more for this ideal. But while the most privileged among us can buy organic, for many people that’s just not an option.

So what to do? Here I will lay out what the evidence shows.

WHAT DOES “ORGANIC” REALLY MEAN?

The emphasis of organic production is generally based on environmental sustainability and human well-being.

Organic farming is bound by regulations that restrict the use of artificial chemicals, hormones, antibiotics and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). For something to be certified organic, only organic pesticides are allowed. The EU organic logo, for example, can only be used when 95% of a product’s ingredients meet these standards.

In the UK, organic food can also be certified with the Soil Association logo. Products must meet EU standards as well as a higher set that protects animals, people and the environment.

PROOF OF ORGANIC

While there may be respected studies that find more nutrients in organic foods, many others have found insufficient evidence to recommend organic over non-organic for health or safety.

A review of 233 studies concluded that there is no strong evidence to suggest that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than foods from conventional agriculture. This was also the conclusion of the UK Food Standards Agency, although its research only considered 11 studies. (The FSA publicly supports consumer choice and is not pro or anti organic food.)

There are some small nutritional differences in organic foods, but they are marginal and will not play a significant role in overall health.

Some organic products have been found to be a little higher in phosphorus but lower in protein. Organic cow’s milk may contain higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, iron and vitamin E than non-organic milk, but, again, fewer other nutrients such as selenium and iodine .

I often advise my clinic clients to opt for certain organic foods – eggs and meat from free-range chickens – but certainly not exclusively, as it is certainly not essential for good health.

When it comes to meat and dairy, according to the Soil Association, organic herds have more room to roam. This can potentially have a role in the quality of the animal’s nutrition. However, that’s really a marginal difference and you shouldn’t feel bad or worried if you can’t afford organic.

That said, I always try to encourage customers to buy sustainably sourced fish. The environment is changing and we really need to make sure that the decisions we make will contribute to the future of the planet. This means eating fewer animal products and higher quality animal products.

Agricultural research is renowned for its varied results. The nutrient content of food depends on many factors, including soil quality, weather conditions and the time of harvest (which differs across the world). The composition of dairy products and meat can also be affected by genetic differences and the diet of animals. Even natural variations in food production and handling make comparisons difficult. The results of research studies should therefore be interpreted with caution.

Ultimately, there is not enough strong evidence available to prove that eating organic foods provides additional health benefits over eating foods from conventional agriculture.

WHAT ABOUT PESTICIDES?

Conventional agriculture relies on the use of chemical pesticides. Although overall safe, we are advised to wash our produce before eating to remove pesticide residue. Some research suggests that heavy exposure to pesticides early in life may impair cognitive development, but results are mixed.

Extract of The Science of Nutrition: Let’s Bust Food Myths and Learn to Eat Responsibly for Health and Happiness’ by Rhiannon Lambert, £20, published by DK.

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