There are many reasons why someone may choose to buy organic food: from environmental concerns to animal welfare. Also because organic produce is often perceived to be healthier or superior in terms of quality than the conventional one. But is this true?
First, what is organic food?
The word “organic” is linked to the way farmers grow or produce their products (fruit, vegetables, grains, dairy products, meat etc.). Organic food is produced focusing on sustaining the health of the soil, improving water quality, and supporting the environment and human wellbeing. This is guaranteed by using farming and production processes adapted to local conditions to promote biodiversity (1).
In the EU, a product can be certified with the EU organic logo if at least 95% of the agricultural ingredients meet the guidelines of the EU Organic Regulation. This regulation aims to produce high-quality products, protect customers, ensure the sustainability of farming and improve animal welfare (2). However, there isn’t always a meaningful difference between organic and conventional farming. For example, the use of pesticides is reduced in non-organic farming in many countries, however, common strategies - such as crop rotation - are often used in both types of farming (3).
What does the scientific evidence say?
You may have heard that organic food has a higher nutritional value compared to conventional products. Before giving you a straight yes or no answer - if there is one - let’s look at what the evidence says about whether or not organic food is healthier than non-organic products.
For example, if we consider the protein content of food some studies show that it may be slightly higher in non-organic products, while phosphorus may be higher in organic food. However, these differences don’t seem to have a huge impact on our health (4, 5).
Similarly, a larger study observed higher levels of omega-3, iron and vitamin E in organic milk, but lower levels of iodine and selenium (6). Again, these differences were small and not relevant in terms of health benefits. It was also explained that this difference could have been due to what the cattle were fed with - were they grass-fed or not? Also, the geographic area and seasonal differences could have had an impact on the nutritional content of milk.
Another study, comparing the nutritional value of organic and non-organic meat, found similar levels of saturated fatty acids, but higher levels of monounsaturated fat and lower levels of omega-3 in non-organic meat (7). However, again, the main difference may be linked to how the cattle were fed.
We can say that based on the evidence available there are minimal differences in the main nutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrates and fibre) between organic food and conventional produce. Most importantly, no strong evidence has shown that consuming organic food is better for health purposes (5). Non-organic foods like fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, eggs and meat are all as nutrient dense and beneficial for health as organic products.
When is organic food beneficial?
Choosing organic food may be the right choice for you if you are concerned about the environment. Organic production look at improving the health and fertility of soil encouraging wildlife and biodiversity. In the UK there are different control bodies ensuring organic products meet their standards, such as the Soil Association which is the most well-known in the country.
What if you can’t afford organic food?
Organic food tends to be more expansive than conventional produce - organic produce can be 13-200% more expansive than equivalent non-organic options (8). Families who can’t afford organic products may be afraid that they won’t be able to provide healthy options to their households.
However, it is crucial to remember that consuming organic or non-organic food is irrelevant to our overall well-being and health. Instead, we should all try to increase our consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fibre, as well as increase exercise as this has been shown to be beneficial for our health. Getting our five-a-day of fruit and vegetables, whether they are organic or not, will ensure we have all the vitamins and minerals our body needs to stay healthy. Therefore, if you can’t buy organic, don’t worry, you can still look after your health.
If you want cheaper and more sustainable options, you could try to find local producers at the farmer’s market. Many local producers tend to use farming practices in line with organic standards, despite being not certified - most of the time due to the cost of certification - and they follow the seasonality of products.
- International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement “Definition of organic agriculture” [Accessed November 2018 via: http://www.ifoam.org/en/organic-landmarks/definition-organic-agriculture]
- European Commission “EU Law on Organic Production: An Overview” [Accessed November 2018 via: https://ec.europa.eu/agriculture/organic/eu-policy/eu-legislation/brief-overview_en]
- McGee B (2008) “Survey of pesticide use in Ontario. Guelph (ON): Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food” [Accessed November 2018 via: http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/crops/facts/pesticide-use.htm]
- Smith-Spangler et al. (2012) “Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives? A systematic review” Ann Intern Med. 2012;157:348-366 [Accessed November 2018 via: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22944875]
- Dangour et al. (2009) “Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review”. Am J Clin Nutr [Accessed November 2018 via: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19640946].
- Średnicka-Tober et al. (2016) “Higher PUFA and n-3 PUFA, conjugated linoleic acid α-tocopherol and iron, but lower iodine and selenium concentrations in organic milk: a systematic literature review and meta- and redundancy analyses” Br J Nutr. 115(6):1043-1060.
- Średnicka-Tober et al. (2016) “Composition differences between organic and conventional meat: a systematic literature review and meta-analysis” Br J Nutr; 115(6):994-1011.
- Angood et al. (2008) “A comparison of organic and conventionally-produced lamb purchased from three major UK supermarkets: price, eating quality and fatty acid composition” Meat Sci:176-84. [Accessed November 2018 via: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22062268]