Organic food has been growing in popularity in recent years, especially with the debate surrounding GMOs heating up, and the increased consumption of processed and fast foods. But with the production of organic foods comes a hefty price tag, with some produce costing as much as 47 per cent more than conventional varieties. Despite this drawback, the demand for organic food is overwhelmingly increasing worldwide. We take a look at the possible health benefits of organic food and find out whether they are worth the extra expense…
What Exactly Is Organic Food?
The idea of organic food is a very simple one. It refers to the agricultural method of growing and processing foods, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, meats and dairy products. Organic farming resembles the origins of farming and food production, without the use of artificial chemicals, antibiotics or genetic modification. There are strict guidelines that farmers and producers must follow in order to legally label their food as organic, but, essentially it means there cannot be any artificial food additives in it. That includes artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, preservatives or MSG.
Producers who grow organic crops generally use natural fertilizers that would have been used generations ago on farms, such as animal manure and mulch. They also generally use old-style farming methods like crop rotation, ultimately improving soil quality and groundwater conservation in the process. Animals that are raised for organic meat or dairy products are not fed or injected with hormones or antibiotics. Organic farming reduces pollution, compared to modern-day farming methods, potentially making it better for the environment.
However, a label confirming something is organic, does not automatically translate to it being healthy. The same rules apply in relation to sugar content and food types…
What Is The ‘Dirty Dozen’?
About a decade ago, an organization called the Environmental Working Group (EWG) started releasing an annual list of foods with the highest pesticide load, called the ‘Dirty Dozen’. The most recent list includes strawberries, apples, nectarines, peaches, celery, grapes, cherries, spinach, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, and cucumbers. These fruits and vegetables tested positive for a number of chemical pesticide residues, showing higher concentrations of pesticides than other produce on the market. The EWG found that 98 per cent of strawberry samples, peaches, nectarines and apples tested positive for at least one pesticide residue. A single sample of strawberries showed residue of 17 different pesticides, while a single grape sample and sweet bell pepper sample showed 15. According to the EWG, nearly three-quarters of the 6,953 produce samples tested by the US Department of Agriculture in 2014 showed pesticide residue.
However, the claims that the ‘Dirty Dozen’ fruits and vegetables cause any harm to human health were debunked in a study published in the Journal of Toxicology in 2011. The research found that exposure to the 10 most frequently detected pesticides on the list are at negligible levels. Researchers concluded that substituting organic fruits and vegetables for the conventionally produced fruits and vegetables on the list would not necessarily have any measurable health benefits.
So, Does Organic Food Have Any Benefits?
The short answer is, yes. There is some evidence available today suggesting that organic foods have health benefits for humans. But on top of that, there are other benefits of organic food, including animal welfare and positive environmental factors. Here are 8 benefits of organic food…
1. Organic Foods Have More Antioxidants
Antioxidant levels in organic plants can be up to 69 per cent higher than in conventionally grown foods. A number of lab and animal studies have found that healthy organic food may increase antioxidant content, helping to protect cells from damage. Scientists haven’t conclusively agreed upon why organic plants produce more antioxidants. However, one theory is that they do not need chemical pesticides to protect themselves against disease – they product their own protective compounds, which are antioxidants.
Research also found that organic diets may benefit the immune system, growth and reproduction. A number of comparative studies into the health value of organic foods showed lower nitrate content, less pesticide residues, and higher levels of vitamin C, phenolic compounds and omega-3 fatty acids. In a study where chickens were fed an organic diet, researchers found that the birds had reduced weight gain and had stronger immune systems.
2. Organic Foods May Contain More Nutrients
This is a sketchy one, because studies comparing the nutrient content in organic food and conventional food have come back with different results. The evidence to date suggests that organically grown food may have more nutrients, but because of the variation in production and food handling, it is a difficult subject to determine conclusively. Some research has found that, as well as providing higher antioxidant content, organic foods tend to have higher levels of important micronutrients, including vitamin C, zinc and iron. One study found that berries and corn grown organically contained 58 per cent more antioxidants and around 52 per cent more vitamin C than non-organic berries and corn.
3. Organic Dairy And Meat Have Higher Levels Of Healthy Fatty Acids
A European study published in the British Journal of Nutrition in 2016 found that organic milk and meat contains about 50 per cent more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally produced milk and meat. In the largest study of its kind, researchers from a number of universities and research institutes, including Newcastle University, the Norwegian Institute for Biochemistry Research and Warsaw University of Life Sciences, reviewed more than 150 papers on milk and 67 papers on meat. They found noteworthy differences between organic and conventionally produced milk and meat, particularly in terms of fatty acid content, but also in concentrations of some essential minerals and antioxidants.
“Omega-3s are linked to reductions in cardiovascular disease, improved neurological development and function, and better immune function,” Newcastle University Professor of Food and Human Health, Chris Seal, said. “Our study suggests that switching to organic (milk and meat) would go some way towards improving intakes of these important nutrients.”