Is Organic Food The Healthier Option?

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This article was first published in the December 2019/January 2020 edition of NHD Magazine.


‘Organic’ is a common buzzword within the wellness sphere. This is often used to suggest that a food is superior in terms of quality or healthfulness, but is this actually the case?

This article will examine the impact of organic food in terms of nutrition, food-safety and overall health.

What Is Organic Food?

Organic food production focuses on the sustainability of soil, the wider environment and human wellbeing.1

This uses farming and production methods which are adapted to local conditions and which promote biodiversity.1 

Organic food legislation varies between countries. In the EU, the EU organic logo can be used if at least 95% of the agricultural ingredients meet the standards of the EU Organic Regulation.2 This regulation, which is currently in the process of being reviewed and updated, aims to improve the sustainability of farming, improve animal welfare, produce high-quality products and protect consumers.2

The EU Organic Regulation promotes cycles using internal rather than external resources.2 For example, crop rotation techniques would be favoured over the use of synthetic fertilisers. 

But external resources may be used if they are:

  • Natural substances or materials (such as organically produced pesticides)
  • Organic products from other organic farms
  • Mineral fertilisers with low solubility

However, if there is no feasible alternative, then synthetic resources can be used.2 This regulation also states that sustainable farming methods should be used, and the finished product must contain less than 0.9% genetically modified organisms (GMOs).2 

If a products carries the Soil Association organic logo then it has been certified to meet the standards of the EU Organic Regulation, as well as a set of higher standards which have been devised by the Soil Association.3 These detailed standards aim to further protect animal welfare and the environment, as well as promoting social responsibility.3 Guides for numerous sectors related to food production can be found on the Soil Association’s website: www.soilassociation.org/our-standards 

Picture source: The Soil Association Website: https://www.soilassociation.org/our-standards/what-are-organic-standards/

However, there isn’t always a big difference between conventional farming and organic farming.

For example, pesticides are being used less often in conventional farming in many countries, and strategies such as crop rotation are often used in both types of farming.4

In some countries organic products differ because they aren’t produced using hormones and antibiotics, and cattle are more likely to be grass-fed. Check out this article for more information about these practices.

Whereas, in the EU there are laws against using hormones and antibiotics as a routine part of food production, and the majority of cattle are grass-fed.5-6 Similarly, synthetic pesticides may be used in organic farming; although this is less likely than with conventional farming. 

Nutritional Content

Some minor nutritional differences have been found between organic and conventional produce. For example, protein levels may be slightly higher in conventional produce, and phosphorus may be slightly higher in organic produce7-8. However, these small differences are not thought to have a meaningful impact on our health.7-8 

Similarly, a meta-analysis which analysed organic versus conventional milk, found higher levels of omega-3, iron, vitamin E and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) in organic milk, but lower levels of iodine and selenium.9 However, these difference were relatively small overall. Furthermore, the authors acknowledged that the main reason for this difference was whether the cattle was grass-fed, rather than due to overall organic production. Seasonal and geographical differences are also thought to have a big impact on the nutritional content of milk.

These authors also conducted a meta-analysis to compare the nutritional content of organic versus conventional meat.10 This found similar levels of saturated fatty acids, but slightly lower levels of monounsaturated fat, and higher levels of omega-3 fat in organic meat. However, the authors highlighted that the main differences were again likely related to grass-feeding, and that the reliability of the data in this study was found to be low. 

Studies which have examined biomarkers or nutrient levels, such as serum and urinary antioxidant levels, have not found any clinically significant differences when organic food was compared with conventional foods.7 

It could be argued that the avoidance of genetically-modified (GM) technology in organic food production is limiting in terms of nutrition. This is because GM technology can be used in very beneficial ways. The most famous example of this is production of ‘golden rice’ which is fortified with vitamin A in order to combat vitamin A deficiency in the developing world, which is a leading cause of mortality and childhood blindness.11 Another exciting application is the creation of a plant-based source of haem iron using the roots of soya plants from ‘Impossible Foods’ in the US. 

Food Safety

Pesticide residue has been found to exceed the maximum residue level (MRL) in both conventional and organic produce, however this is more common in conventional produce.12 For example, organically grown fruit and nuts exceeded the MRL in 0.4% of cases, whereas this occured in 2.7% of cases for conventionally grown versions.12 Similarly, organic vegetables exceeded the MRL in 0.5% of cases, whereas conventional vegetables exceeded this in 3.4% of sample.12 But, it isn’t clear whether pesticide exposure has a direct impact on human health.

A recent Danish study found that the effects of chronic pesticide residue consumption was insignificant to health.13

Specifically, chronic pesticide exposure was estimated to have the same health impact as consuming one glass of wine every seven years!13

A high exposure to pesticides in the womb, or in early life may contribute to worsened cognitive development in children; but evidence is mixed about this.14

Other studies have found that organic vegetables tend to contain lower nitrate levels, although nitrate levels in conventional vegetables are still well below safety cutoffs.15 There is also uncertainty about whether it is harmful to consume nitrates, as they have been linked with both increasing cancer risk, and also having possible heart health benefits (such as: reducing blood pressure).16-17 

Organic fruit and vegetables may contain higher levels of natural toxins, but this is based on speculation rather than direct research.15 Organic production of animal-based products has also been associated with slightly higher contamination levels, but this remains within food safety limits.15 Organic fruit and vegetables may have a slightly higher risk of E. coli contamination.7

That being said, it seems that food safety is more highly influenced by other factors, rather than whether organic or conventional production methods have been used.15 

Overall Impact on Health

There isn’t strong evidence that consuming organic food confers a significant health benefit.8

Some observational evidence have found that those who consume organic food are more likely to be within the healthy BMI range.14 But this link isn’t robust, as it is likely to have been confounded by the fact that those who consume organic food also tend to have other healthy habits.18

A systematic review from 2012 compared the safety of organic versus conventional food type.7 This identified no differences in terms of the risk of allergy or campylobacter infections between those who consumed organic or conventional food.  

The lower use of antibiotics in the production of meat and dairy is an important advantage of organic production, due to the global issue of antibiotic resistance.14 However, this is less of a concern in Europe, as there are laws against using antibiotics as a routine part of food production.5  

It could also be argued that the environmental and social benefits related to organic production methods may have a positive impact on human health in a wider sense.  

Organic Consumers

Some studies suggest that consumers who buy organic are more likely to be educated females in a higher income category.19-20 This may be related to the fact that organic produce can be 13 – 200% more expensive than equivalent conventionally-produced options (often because of smaller-scale production).21-22 

Despite this cost difference, sales of organic produce is increasing in most Western countries. For example, in the UK £2.2 billion was spent on organic products in 2018, which was a 6% increase on the previous year.24  

It is commonly believed that organic food tastes better than conventional products. However,  there is no strong evidence to back this up, as the research in this area has been very mixed.25-26  

Conclusion

Food can be labelled as organic if it adheres to region-specific standards which encourage sustainability. Some small differences have been found between organic and conventional produce in terms of nutritional content, food safety and impact to human health. But overall these have been found to have an insignificant impact on our health.

It is fine to consume organic food, but it isn’t necessary for good health.

There is much more evidence to support the benefits of a healthy balanced diet, which includes plenty of plant-based foods, regardless of whether these foods are organic or not. 

References:

  1. International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement “Definition of organic agriculture” [Accessed November 2018 via: http://www.ifoam.org/en/organic-landmarks/definition-organic-agriculture]
  2. European Comission “EU Law on Organic Production: An Overview” [Accessed November 2018 via: https://ec.europa.eu/agriculture/organic/eu-policy/eu-legislation/brief-overview_en]
  3. The Soil Association (2018) “The Organic Market Report” [Accessed November 2018 via: https://www.soilassociation.org/certification/market-research-and-data/the-organic-market-report/]
  4. 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]
  5. European Commission (2005) “Ban on antibiotics as growth promoters in animal feed enters into effect” [accessed November 2018 via: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-05-1687_en.htm
  6. European Food Safety Authority (2007) “ EFSA concludes review of new scientific data on potential risks to human health from certain hormone residues in beef” [accessed November 2018 via: https://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/press/news/070718]
  7. 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]
  8. 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].
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. Golden Rice Humanitarian Board “Golden Rice Project” [Accessed November 2018 via: http://www.goldenrice.org/]
  12. European Food Safety Authority (2011) “The 2009 European Union report on pesticide residues in food” [Accessed November 2018 via: http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/efsajournal/pub/2430.htm]
  13. Larsson et al. (2018) “Refined assessment and perspectives on the cumulative risk resulting from the dietary exposure to pesticide residues in the Danish population” [Accessed November 2018 via: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29155356]
  14. Mie et al. (2017) “Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture: a comprehensive review” [Accessed November 2018 via: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29073935]
  15. Teixeira et al. (2016) “Organic versus conventional food: A comparison regarding food safety” [Accessed November 2018 via: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/87559129.2016.1196490?scroll=top&needAccess=true&journalCode=lfri20
  16. Lidder & Webb (2013) “Vascular effects of dietary nitrate (as found in green leafy vegetables and beetroot) via the nitrate-nitrite-nitric oxide pathway” British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology; 75(3):677-696. 
  17. Bryan & Loscalzo (2011) “Looking Forward, in Nitrite and Nitrate in Human Health and Disease” Humana Press; 279-291.
  18. Kesse-Guyot E et al. (2013) “Profiles of organic food consumers in a large sample of French adults: results from the Nutrinet-Sante cohort study” PLoS One. 2013;8(10): e76998).
  19. Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN :Organic Agriculture” [Accessed November 2018 via: http://www.fao.org/organicag/oa-faq/oa-faq5/en/]
  20. Dettmann & Dimitri (2009) “Who’s Buying Organic Vegetables? Demographic Characteristics of U.S. Consumers” Journal of Food Products Marketing; 16(1): 79-91
  21. United States Department of Agriculture “SDA-ERS, Organic prices 2016” [Accessed November 2018 via: https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/organic-prices/]
  22. Angood et al. (2008) “A comparison of organic and conventionally-produce 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]
  23. Padel & Foster (2005) “Exploring the gap between attitudes and behaviour: Understanding why consumers buy or do not buy organic food” British Food Journal; 107(8): 606-625.
  24. The Soil Association (2018) “The Organic Market Report” [Accessed November 2018 via: https://www.soilassociation.org/certification/market-research-and-data/the-organic-market-report/]
  25. Bourn & Prescott (2002) “A comparison of the nutritional value, sensory qualities and food safety of organically and conventionally produced foods” Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr; 42(1): 1-34. [Accessed November 2018 via:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11833635 

Fillion et al. (2002) “Does organic food taste better? A claim substantiation approach” [Accessed November 2018 via: https://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/00346650210436262]


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