Is organic food healthier?
In 2020, USA inhabitants spent about 56 billion US dollars on organic foods. Organic fruits, vegetables and meats are becoming more common in supermarkets around the world, and many of us are happy to pay for these items despite their higher prices. One of the things that make organic foods attractive is that they are thought to be farmed more naturally, and therefore might be healthier than non-organic foods. In order to fact-check this, we asked 6 experts, ‘Is organic food healthier?’ or ‘Is organic food more nutritious than conventionally grown food?’, here is what they said..
Is organic food healthier?
4 out of 6 experts say ‘No’
What is organic food?
Organic food is produced by methods that follow specific guidelines. Whilst these guidelines vary between countries, they usually involve limiting the use of or using only particular pesticides and fertilizers. Other rules might be related to animal welfare or limiting the number of additives that can be added to the food products. All of these restrictions mean that producing organic food is more expensive than conventional food production.
Although there are restrictions, organic farming does use pesticides. In the USA, the only pesticides that can be used in organic farming are those that are naturally occurring, but that doesn’t mean that they are healthier than normal pesticides. Dr Jose Mulet, an expert in agricultural science from Polytechnic University of Valencia in Spain, says “the basis of the regulation is philosophical not scientific, as the properties of any material depend on its composition, not on its origin.”
Are organic foods more nutritious than conventionally grown foods?
There have been several meta-analysis publications that have compiled data from many studies which looked at the nutritional value of organic foods and compared them to conventionally grown foods.
Professor Cynthia Curl, an expert in agriculture and human health from Boise University in the USA, highlights a 2014 review that found that “Organic fruits and vegetables have antioxidant concentrations about 25% higher than fruits and vegetables that are conventionally grown.” She adds that “organic milk has been shown to have a lower omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio than conventional milk. Omega-3's are the ‘healthy’ fatty acids, and while the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3's in conventional milk was about 5-10, that ratio was ~2 in organic food. This finding is primarily attributed to the higher proportion of grass in the diets of cows in organic dairies.”
However, Dr Mulet explains that “there were some studies describing some improvements in organic cultivation like more antioxidants and less cadmium, but according to the same data, the amino acid and the vitamin content was lower. So, what you earn on one side, you lose on the other. And the consensus is that the nutritional content is similar in both cases.”
Are people who eat organic foods healthier than those who don’t?
Dr Mulet says “Several reports indicate that organic food consumers present better health than conventional food consumers. But these results are explained because organic food consumers are usually more health-concerned that conventional food consumers and have better diets, or are mainly vegetarian, which lowers the risk of obesity and type II diabetes.”
Professor Curl adds that “While these data suggest that organic food may, in some ways, be considered more ‘nutritious’, it is important to note that these differences in nutritional content have not been shown to be directly associated with any measures of improved health. In other words, it is difficult to draw a firm conclusion as to whether these differences are sufficient to result in any clinically-relevant health benefits. One can achieve a healthy diet rich in antioxidants and low in omega-6 fatty acids from either conventional or organic sources.”
Dr Roberto Lo Scalzo, an expert in food science from the Research Council in Agriculture of Italy, concludes, “A recent article has an interesting and confirming title: ‘Effects of organic food consumption on human health; the jury is still out!’. This means that the argument on the effect on human health of the consumption of food obtained from organic is far from being fully understood.”
Organic foods are not necessarily healthier than conventional foods, what kinds of food you eat is more important than how the food is grown.
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