Organic food is healthier. It stands to reason.
If you don’t use chemical fertiliser and pesticides the end result has simply got to be healthier – for you and me and the environment. And besides, everyone knows that organic food is just better for your body. End of story – I might as well end this post right here.
But maybe we need to examine this just a bit. While the taste differences between organic and non-organic food have been studied, the subjective nature of the subject has meant that it hasn’t been studied very much. The question of nutrition is much more amenable to testing and experimentation, so there should be some good evidence one way or the other.
In 2003 a survey found that 68.9% of people who buy organic do so because they believe that organic food is healthier. That was the most popular reason given.
But this study published in 2010 examined data from 50 years worth of papers and studies and concluded:
From a systematic review of the currently available published literature, evidence is lacking for nutrition-related health effects that result from the consumption of organically produced foodstuffs.
And this one from 2009 looked at the nutrient content in organic and conventionally grown produce and found:
On the basis of a systematic review of studies of satisfactory quality, there is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs. The small differences in nutrient content detected are biologically plausible and mostly relate to differences in production methods.
There are some studies that have found small differences in nutritional content, but the reasons are likely due to issues other than the farming methods. For instance, organic produce is, on average, smaller than non-organic produce. That is likely to mean that an individual vegetable has the name nutrients but simply weighs less thereby changing the measured amount of nutrient per kilo. In any case the difference in nutritional content is very small, too small to make a difference to our overall health.
The research on the health benefits of organically grown food is almost unanimous in supporting the position that there’s not much, if any, difference between the two in regards to nutritions.
What about pesticide residue?
Pesticides are used in conventional farming and they are also used in organic farming. Conventional farming uses synthetic pesticides which have been tested and proven to be have no effect on people in the quantities that we encounter on the produce we purchase at the market. The same applies to the pesticides used in organic farming. Both synthetic and “natural” pesticides are dangerous in large quantities but not in minute quantities. There have been studies comparing the toxins in in organic and convention foods and they have found zero difference between them (the actual study is available in Swedish here).
The vast majority of pesticides we ingest in food are the ones that plants themselves produce to protect themselves from insects, fungi and sometimes animals. The fact that they are produced in a plant does not make them automatically better for you, but it does mean that we’re ingesting a lot of different pesticides every day and most of them have never been tested as well as the ones that are used by farmers. If you want to reduce your exposure to synthetic pesticides eating organic is probably a good idea but:
Over 30 separate investigations of about 500,000 people have shown that farmers, millers, pesticide-users, and foresters, occupationally exposed to much higher levels of pesticide than the general public, have much lower rates of cancer overall (Taverne 2006: 73.)
And synthetic fertiliser?
A lot of the opinions about the superiority of organic food is driven by the concept of “toxins”. While many things are poisonous to us humans the word “toxin” has come to mean something more. It rarely, in day to day conversation, relates to something identifiable that is toxic, but to a great cloud of stuff that is somehow bad and evil. While that cloud undoubtedly contains some things we’d be well advised to avoid, it mostly is too foggy and general to be of any real use. Given the foggy nature of “toxins” it’s easy to incorporate anything that has the words synthetic, artificial or chemical in it. At the same time it’s popular to exempt from the toxin-cloud anything with the word “natural” applied to it. That seem to be so even though curare, strychnine and even oleander are natural but deadly. By that logic synthetic fertilisers are toxic and natural fertilisers are completely safe. That is simply not true.
A popular organic fertiliser is cattle manure. The most dangerous bacteria in our food supply is E. coli, which is found in abundance in cattle manure. While I was able to find opinions about the health effects of using synthetic fertiliser I could find nothing that supports the proposition that it has negative health effects. I’ll talk more about this when I write about organic food and the environment. For now you might want to have a look at this chart.
A recent review of 240 studies has concluded that:
The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Not all the research says that organic and conventionally grown food is nutritionally equivalent, but most of it does. The proponents often acknowledge this by saying that the real studies haven’t been done yet, but a lot of studies have been done and most do not support the proposition that organic food is better for you. That is not to say you shouldn’t buy organic, but if you are paying that much more for your food you may want to find another reason other than taste and nutrition. Luckily there are other possible reasons. I’ll look into some of them soon.