What exactly is organic food and is it worth the added expense? Nutritionist TJ Waterfall digs the dirt.
Do you buy organic food because it sounds like the right thing to do, but perhaps don’t fully understand the ins and outs? If so, you’re not alone, because while the term ‘organic’ remains a popular buzzword, most people don’t really know what it means.
Organic food is produced on farms that avoid the use of manmade fertilisers and pesticides. Genetically modified crops are also prohibited, allowing for environmentally sustainable management of the land and natural environment, which means more wildlife.
However, some natural fertilisers, pesticides and medicines can still be used in order to prevent food from going to waste, if and when required. But while there are nearly 300 pesticides allowed by law to be used on conventional farms, there are just 20 that are approved for use in organic farms – all derived from natural ingredients such as citronella and clove oil.
A key nutritional advantage to organic crops relates to the polyphenol content. These are not essential for humans, but they do have antioxidant properties and can reduce our risk of several non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.
The largest review to date, analysing over 300 studies, reported an average of 40 per cent higher antioxidant content in organic than conventional produce. For athletes looking for an edge, a higher antioxidant intake can help reduce inflammation and speed up recovery – vital for optimising performance.
However, in terms of macro and other micronutrient content, the difference between the two may be more subtle than you think. Several meta-analyses, reviewing hundreds of studies that examined the macro and micronutrient content of organic and conventionally grown crops, show either no or only a very slight difference in levels of vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates.
Regarding the nutritional content of meat, a recent review of 67 published studies showed that organic meat provides more omega-3 fatty acids, but the same amount of less desirable saturated fats. The same goes for dairy milk – higher omega-3 in organic, but the same amount of saturated fat levels and in fact lower levels of beneficial iodine and selenium.
The Pesticide Problem
Another nutritional consideration is that organic foods contain significantly fewer pesticide residues than conventionally grown crops. People who eat more organic foods tend to have lower risk of several chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancers.
But it’s also been shown that people who buy organic foods exercise more, drink less, eat more fruit and vegetables, and are less likely to smoke. So we can’t say for sure whether it’s the organic foods themselves, or the overall lifestyles of people who buy organic foods, that leads to these health benefits.
A better indicator would be controlled clinical studies, but as yet there are relatively few. The studies that do exist actually show no difference in health or nutrition status between organic and conventional diets, although these studies were conducted over short durations, which limit the ability to find long-term effects.
One recent study calculated that the risk to our health of pesticide residues is equivalent to that of drinking one glass of wine every seven years. This study has its limitations, but does help to put things into perspective: other lifestyle factors are probably more important for our health than whether or not we eat organic foods.
All About Antibiotics
Another key area of concern is in the use of antibiotics in livestock. Nearly two thirds of all antibiotics in the EU are used for farm animals, to treat disease and infection. Outside the EU, many countries routinely use low-dose antibiotics to promote faster growth in their farm animals, too.
When bacteria are frequently exposed to antibiotics, they can develop a resistance to them, so the antibiotics become less effective for both humans and animals. This is considered a serious threat to human health. Organic practices limit the use of antibiotics unless necessary, so antibiotic residues may be lower in organic meat and dairy.
The Natural World
There are loads of environmental benefits to organic farming, including protecting nearby rivers and lakes from contamination, increasing biodiversity on farmed land, lower carbon emissions, healthier soil, and improved living conditions for animals.
However, organic farming isn’t perfect. Consider this: because organic farming doesn’t use synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, the productivity and yields tend to be lower than conventional farming. In other words, you need more land to grow the same amount of food.
And what are the environmental consequences of using more land? More deforestation? Does it mean more water needs to be used? Are the benefits to biodiversity offset by the extra land required to produce the same amount of food? Scientists don’t know yet – the research is inconclusive.
The truth is the answer is much more complex and nuanced than simply labelling organic farming as ‘good’ and conventional as ‘bad’ for the environment, as there are many benefits and trade-offs at play.
If the environment is an important matter for you, then bear in mind that one third of all crops grown globally are used to feed cattle and other farm animals, and most of these crops are not grown organically. When you combine that with the space required to house the animals and the land used up for grazing, animal agriculture represents a total of 80 per cent of all agricultural land.
So the most significant change you can make to your diet for the environment is getting more of your energy directly from plants, which is far more energy- and land-efficient. Try swapping some meals with high-protein plant foods like beans, chickpeas, lentils, nuts and seeds.
Clearly, the science behind the health and environmental advantages of organic production is not as clear cut as many think. There are complexities, nuances, and gaps in the research that need to be taken into account.
While it’s great to opt for organic foods if they’re affordable and accessible, you certainly shouldn’t worry about buying conventional produce when organic options aren’t available or too expensive.
If you’re eating organic to protect the environment, your best bet is to buy seasonal and local produce where possible, incorporate more plant foods into your diet, and opt for unpackaged, loose produce to reduce plastic use.
TJ Waterfall is a registered nutritionist and the founder of Meat Free Fitness – helping plant-based clients reach their health and fitness goals by optimising their nutrition, using a scientific, evidence-based approach. Check out his Instagram @tj_waterfall