Is organic food really better?
Updated: Apr 5, 2022
Well, yes and no. Let me start by saying that despite my best efforts, I could not really find any solid scientific data with long term follow up and truly randomized trials (the gold standard of scientific trials) to guide me one way or another. So, most of my advice is based on small studies that may have confounding factors.
But let’s start by defining what is organic food. Organic food simply means that the food producer has not used any artificial chemicals to boost the growth of the product (growth hormones) nor has used certain synthetic toxins to eliminate harmful bugs. Basically, no use of artificial growth hormones and pesticides. It also means that the soil in which the product was grown has been free of these chemicals for the past 3 years. In order to be labeled organic, the US department of agriculture (USDA) has to inspect the farm and food processing and certify that all metrics have been met. Now, this does not mean that organic food has no pesticides or other chemicals. It just means that certain pesticides and growth hormones deemed harmful are prohibited. For a complete list of allowed and prohibited substances visit the USDA official web site here.
Organic food was initially created in response to produce (fruits and vegetables) and meat/poultry that were heavily treated with growth hormones, antibiotics and artificial pesticides. There was evidence that the food products contained some concentration of these chemicals which we consumed. There was also concern that these chemicals will contaminate the soil and water. As a result some producers started to use more natural products, reducing the amount of synthetic chemicals. And in order to protect the consumers from false advertising, the USDA created a strict set of guidelines that had to be met before producers can label their food organic.
Now, as you can imagine, anything that requires uncle Sams seal of approval is cumbersome and expensive. In addition, since organic means less growth hormones and pesticide, the yield is lower. So, organic food costs more to make and is therefore more expensive than none organic food.
And to make things more complicated, not everything labeled organic means its 100% organic. If a food is labeled as “Made from Organic” or “Contains Organic” it simply means that some of the products are organic, but not all. For example, reading the fine print on Organic Pasta Sauce, you will find that some of the ingredients were organic, and some were not. In addition, various other organizations can make their own organic label, this does not mean that the food underwent the government rigorous inspection, the label is defined by whatever agency or private entity created it.
So, should you pay the extra money and buy organic?
There are three parts to this question: 1) is organic food better for our health? 2) is organic food more nutritious? And 3) what is the impact of organic farming on our planet.
We know that commercial (none-organic) food has a higher concentration of synthetic chemicals such as certain pesticides and growth hormones. But these levels are very small. To date, there are no definite human studies that link a direct causal harm from eating commercial food compared to organic food. There are observational studies that show people who consume organic are less likely to get certain illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers. But there is a lot of confounding factors in these conclusions: most import is that people who eat organic tend to be more health conscious; so they live a healthier life overall. Therefore, we can not link organic food as the cause of their better health. There is also some evidence that the chemical composition in organic versus none organic is too small to be deleterious to our health (there is simply not enough chemicals absorbed in the produce to cause harm). But again, this is only an observation, there are no studies to conclusively back this claim. ’
There is some evidence that some organic foods have a healthier content of fats, vitamins and anti-oxidants. But the differences are very small and insignificant. There is no evidence that the nutritional benefits of commercial food is any different than organic food.
The last debate for organic versus conventional farming is the impact on the environment. This is an ongoing debate and beyond the scope of my expertise. But in summary, while organic food uses less synthetic chemicals and has less soil pollution, but it requires more land which in turn leads to more greenhouse gases, a major cause of global warming. In addition, as the population grows, there is concern that organic farming will not be able to sustain enough food for the masses.
Eating organic is not as straight forward as you may have assumed it to be. So, what should you do? If you can afford it, try to eat organic. Although there is not any gold standard tests to show a significant benefit, but we know from some observational studies that it may be beneficial to our health. It certainly is not harmful. If you want to be more selective, then buy organic produce you eat as a whole since the chemicals tend to concentrate in the outer layer. Some examples are apples, peaches and grapes. On the other hand, if you want to save money, then buy conventional the ones you peal, like potatoes, watermelons and oranges. And what if organic food is too expensive all together? Then you have 2 options: you can either wash your fruit or vegetable under water and rub the outer layer or you can peel it. Remember, most of the chemicals are on the outside.
How about dairy and meat? What does organic mean for these products?
In order to be labeled organic, the animals where the product comes from must have met the USDA guidelines of being fed at least 95% organic food from organic soil. So, the animal ate and lived in organic food and soil and as the result their meat, dairy or egg is considered organic. And just like fruits and vegetables, we know that organic poultry, meat, milk and egg have less chemicals, but if that translates to improved health is still unknown.
My favorite new organic items are the highly processed food products labeled organic. Chips made with organic potatoes, ice cream made from organic fruits, and the most ridiculous one so far: organic apple juice with concentrate (with 25 grams of added sugar). This is nothing but wise advertising. By this time you are eating such processed unhealthy food filled with artificial ingredients and preservatives that the organic vs none-organic is not even an issue. You are just being mislead to pay the higher price for the "organic" product.
Now, one word about the healthiest food source that may not bear the sexy Organic label: food from your local farmers. As mentioned above, in order to be labeled Organic, the food producer has to go through many regulatory processes and be certified by the USDA, making it a long, cumbersome and expensive endeavor. Most local and small farms simply do not have the financial recourses to do this. However, their food is not only organic, but also much healthier and tastier than the industrial food produced by large Organic producers. The product at farmer market is seasonal, meaning it is tastier and richer in nutrition. It is also served farm to table, meaning it is much more fresh than the Organic Strawberries produced in another state, country or even continent and then shipped to your store. So, don’t shy away from your local farmer because the food does not have all sorts of fancy labels, it does not need any labels. The farmers hard work, personal attention and expertise produces the healthiest and tastiest produce and animal products.
So, if you are going to spend any extra money on food, spend it at the local farmers market, not at the grocery store. Learn to touch, smell and taste fresh produce at the local market instead of buying a bulk organic product wrapped in plastic.
On a personal note, we just came back from Costa Rica where food is picked from the naturally growing trees, farms and the ocean by the locals and served right away. There are no preservatives, pesticides or machines processing the food. They pick what they eat that day. And how was the food? The most colorful, delicious and nutritious. I had forgotten how strawberries, pineapples and fresh fish should taste like! So, if you really want to be healthy, stop reading and researching labels and regulations, head out to what is available in your local area or buy directly from the farmer. And if like me you are land locked then get your fish frozen, its the freshest form. Money well invested in your health.
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3)Nutrients. 2020 Jan; 12(1): 7. Published online 2019 Dec 18. doi: 10.3390/nu12010007 PMCID: PMC7019963 PMID: 31861431Vanessa Vigar,1,2,3,4 Stephen Myers,1,3,4,* Christopher Oliver,1,3,4,5 Jacinta Arellano,3 Shelley Robinson,1,3,4 and Carlo Leifert4