Organically grown food is a multi-billion dollar a year industry.
People often purchase organic food out of the belief that it is healthier than conventional food but how beneficial is organic food in long-term health and disease prevention?
In this article, I’ll provide a brief rundown of what organic foods actually are and what benefits organically sourced foods provide over that of their conventionally grown counterparts.
What is Organic Food?
The food label “organic” is a term that denotes the food was produced while abiding by standards set forth by organic agriculture.
Typically this means that when you buy food labeled as organic, the food was produced without the use of substances such as pesticides for produce and antibiotics/drugs for livestock.
The production of food without the use of these substances is widely believed to provide a more nutritious, natural food while helping to encourage more ecologically sustainable practices.
Further, foods that appear to be safer due to lack of pesticide use seem to be a major driving force behind why people choose organic over conventional foods.
As it turns out, there are many that subscribe to this notion. In fact, in 2015 the Organic Trade Association (OTA) reported that U.S. organic sales hit a new record of $43.3 billion. No small feat considering that amount doubled from just 2012 (8).
Issues with Comparison of Organic vs. Conventional Foods
On face value, it seems fairly straightforward that organically grown foods must be in fact “healthier” than conventionally grown foods.
However, it is actually quite difficult to objectively determine this.
Just purchasing organically grown food by accepting that is superior to conventional, is a difficult task for many, given that traditionally organic food is accompanied with a higher price tag.
In comparing organic versus conventional food, there are many different variables that must be considered such as the general environment, the type of food, the season in which it was grown, when it was harvested and when testing of both the foods being compared took place (in terms of their ripeness).
While some studies indicate that organically grown foods have higher concentrations of minerals, the same studies often fail to confirm that the produce being tested was actually grown using organic practices (9); a major confounding factor.
Potential benefits of Organic versus Conventionally Grown Produce
Some studies have revealed that organically produced foods may, in fact, possess higher amounts of micronutrients and minerals.
One such study revealed that originally grown food might provide higher amounts of vitamin C, while another revealed that organically produced food did, in fact, contain significantly higher levels of micronutrient content, which long term may provide immense health benefit (4, 5).
Additionally, a recent meta-analysis confirmed that on average, organically grown foods contained higher levels of antioxidants and lower levels of cadmium, a naturally occurring substance that when ingested, can lead to intense stomach irritation and in high levels, even death (8, 11).
Unsurprisingly, multiple studies have revealed that organically grown produce do typically show a significantly lower level of pesticide residue (8, 7); a major driving force behind consumers purchasing organically grown food.
It seems that while organic food may provide little benefit over conventional in terms of micronutrients, it does seem to provide less pesticide residue which may be reason enough to choose it.
Potential Benefits Of Organic Versus Conventionally Raised Livestock
Organically raised animals and their by-products are also of concern.
Some studies have revealed that organically raised cows produce milk that contains higher levels of essential fatty acids, such as n-3 linoleic acid than do milk products from animals that have been conventionally raised (2).
Additionally, a recent meta-analysis comparing conventional and organically raised meat concluded that organic meat had significantly higher levels of n3 PUFA or Polyunsaturated fatty acids (10). These fatty acids have been indicated to potentially have a fat burning effect along with a reduction of chronic inflammation (6, 3).
As such, organically raised meat may provide greater benefit compared to conventionally raised but again, will come with a higher price tag.
Unhealthy Food Can Be Labeled Organic
As with any new trend that produces money, along will also come companies that are willing to deceive for monetary gain. Organically labeled foods are no exception.
Many processed food products often come with labels indicating that their product is organic, which unfortunately gives many the impression that it is somehow healthier than its counterpart that is not labeled in the same way.
Unfortunately, just because a product has a label indicating it comes from an organic source does not mean that it has fewer calories or will somehow be a healthier option.
While it is true that organic foods may provide additional micronutrient benefit over conventionally grown, calorie counts for both products can often be the same.
Unfortunately, ingredients simply need to come from an organic source to be considered an “organic” food. This often tricks consumers into believing that they are consuming a healthier option, in the hope of obtaining weight loss.
If your goal is weight loss, be aware that just because it is labeled organic it does not mean it is healthier or has fewer calories. At the end of the day, calories and overall macros are a key driver in weight loss and should be considered in your overall judgment of whether a food is healthy or not.
Should You Buy Organic over Conventional?
Based on the limited evidence available, it often comes down to personal preference and how much money you have to spend.
While organically grown and raised food may provide benefits in terms of micronutrients and fatty acid composition, the difference, despite being significant, is still quite small.
When it comes to reducing potentially toxic ingredients such as pesticide residue, organically grown produce seems to be the appropriate route as growing in the absence of such chemicals is organic food’s flagship argument.
More importantly, most people don’t have a perfect diet, so choosing organic vs conventional really makes little or no difference if they are still eating pizza, candy, and ice cream multiple times in a week.
In terms of its ecological impact, organically sourced foods do seem to be the better option for wildlife and water preservation (1). In choosing to consume organically sourced food, you are actively participating in preventing contamination that may lead to damage of the environment and its wildlife.
If money isn’t an issue, there’s no harm buying organic; however, it’s probably not as big of a deal as some people would like to believe. I certainly don’t class it as a key factor in nutrition or essential for a healthy diet, so consequently do not emphasize it to clients.
- 1. Bourn, D., & Prescott, J. (2002). A comparison of the nutritional value, sensory qualities, and food safety of organically and conventionally produced foods. Critical reviews in food science and nutrition, 42(1), 1-34.
- 2. Bloksma, J., Adriaansen-Tennekes, R., Huber, M., van de Vijver, L. P., Baars, T., & de Wit, J. (2008). Comparison of organic and conventional raw milk quality in the Netherlands. Biological Agriculture & Horticulture, 26(1), 69-83.
- 3. Cleland, L. G., James, M. J., & Proudman, S. M. (2005). Fish oil: what the prescriber needs to know. Arthritis research & therapy, 8(1), 202.
- 4. Huber, M., Rembiałkowska, E., Średnicka, D., Bügel, S., & Van De Vijver, L. P. L. (2011). Organic food and impact on human health: Assessing the status quo and prospects of research. NJAS-Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences, 58(3), 103-109.
- 5. Hunter, D., Foster, M., McArthur, J. O., Ojha, R., Petocz, P., & Samman, S. (2011). Evaluation of the micronutrient composition of plant foods produced by organic and conventional agricultural methods. Critical reviews in food science and nutrition, 51(6), 571-582.
- 6. Kunesova, M., Braunerova, R., Hlavatý, P., & Tvrzicka, E. (2006). The influence of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and very low calorie diet during a short-term weight reducing regimen on weight loss and serum fatty acid composition in severely obese women. Physiological research, 55(1), 63.
- 7. Pussemier, L., Larondelle, Y., Van Peteghem, C., & Huyghebaert, A. (2006). Chemical safety of conventionally and organically produced foodstuffs: a tentative comparison under Belgian conditions. Food control, 17(1), 14-21.
- 8. Simonne, A., Ozores-Hampton, M., Treadwell, D., & House, L. (2016). Organic and Conventional Produce in the US: Examining Safety and Quality, Economic Values, and Consumer Attitudes. Horticulturae, 2(2), 5.
- 9. Smith, B. L. (1993). Organic foods vs. supermarket foods: element levels. Journal of applied nutrition, 45(1), 35-39.
- 10. Średnicka-Tober, D., Barański, M., Seal, C., Sanderson, R., Benbrook, C., Steinshamn, H., … & Cozzi, G. (2016). Composition differences between organic and conventional meat: a systematic literature review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Nutrition, 115(06), 994-1011.
- 11. Toxic Substances Portal – Cadmium. (2015, January 21). Retrieved April 20, 2017, from https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/phs/phs.asp?id=46&tid=15