by Alejandra "Alex" Ruani — Get free science updates here.
Are you a fan of organic produce or do you stick to conventional?
Either way, there are solid scientific arguments defending both sides. Let’s have a look at these and then vote.
By and large, when someone makes a conscious decision in choosing organic over conventional, it’s for two primary reasons:
The first is that organic food choices are for the most part free of synthetic pesticides. The second is they typically boast a substantial nutritional superiority.
But, is that true?
In comparison to conventional foods, organic foods are actually perceived as healthier in the public eye. Known as the “health halo effect“, people often assume that if the foods are healthy in one attribute, then they are wholesome in all ways. However, in recent years many scientists have disagreed that organic foods are actually healthier, and a good number are highly skeptical.
The most recent meta-analysis this year looked at 343 studies comparing the compositional differences between organic and conventional crops. This study concluded that organic crops are up to 70% richer in key antioxidants and significantly lower in harmful heavy metals.
But the ‘challengers’ proclaim a result like this still isn’t conclusive enough. Several scientists even launched scathing attacks on the research, which they said was flawed and misleading.
Two other studies of similar magnitude both established that there is insufficient evidence proving any differences in the nutritional content of organic vs. conventional foods:
- In 2009, the UK Food Standard Agency’s 50-year systematic review reported no nutritional superiority for organic foods.
- In 2012, a Stanford University study concluded the literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.
So, which one is it?
Scientists are so divided on this, let alone the consumer, no wonder this is totally confusing. Sometimes even conclusions on these food studies don’t even tell the whole story.
Let’s open up this scope a little wider and take look at the basics of what organic food really is first.
What does ‘organic’ actually mean?
Here is the definition according to the Department for Agriculture and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in the UK:
Organic food is the product of a farming system which avoids the use of man-made fertilisers, pesticides; growth regulators and livestock feed additives. Irradiation and the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or products produced from or by GMOs are generally prohibited by organic legislation.
The United States Department of Agriculture shares a similar definition, in that an item must have an ingredients list and the contents should be 95% or more certified organic.
Organic foods tend to be pricier because of more laborious manual labour, higher costs of compost fertiliser, more sophisticated crop rotation, and the cost of organic certification – just to name a few.
Does this mean organic foods are healthier?
This decade-long debate has provoked disagreement and controversy amongst scientists.
That previously mentioned study published less than a month ago in the British Journal of Nutrition included a team of experts at Newcastle University. They concluded there are “statistically significant, meaningful” differences between organic and conventional fruit and vegetables, with a range of antioxidants “substantially higher” – between 19% and 69% – in organic. The evidence presented here is astounding – organic food is higher in antioxidants and lower in toxic metals and pesticides.
One of the many differing opinions in the same analysis is Tom Sanders, a professor of nutrition at King’s College London, who’s not persuaded by these new peer-reviewed studies. He thinks people are buying into a lifestyle system. They feel better because the food is chemical-free and it’s not grown by big businesses. He believes that it’s more important that you eat fruits and vegetables, whether they are organic or not.
What’s the reality about pesticides?
Popular assumptions can actually be quite misleading on the use or non-use of pesticides with organic farming.
Most people think that organic foods are pesticide-free. I hate to burst your bubble – because mine was shattered too – but this is simply untrue.
What makes organic farming different is that it’s not the use of pesticides; it’s the origin of the pesticides used. Conventional agriculture allows the use of synthetic pesticides, where as organic farming allows those derived from natural sources; those which come from plant or mineral sources.
It is assumed that ‘natural’ chemicals are automatically better and safer than synthetic materials. This is a dangerous mistake and a misleading idea.
There is a plethora of mixed information out there, but the fact is that organic production is regulated, strictly monitored, and documented. As a last resort, certain botanical or other non-synthetic pesticides may be applied.
As a consumer, you have choices and decisions to make about whether to go organic or not. Below are two short videos which present both sides of the inquiry.
Here’s a cool two minute video that explains what organic food is and why it may the healthiest food for you, not just because it’s labelled as organic.
Here’s an even more in-depth one that challenges the claims of organic food a little deeper. (Hang in there for the first 30 seconds whilst YouTube displays a commercial. This video will be well worth your wait.)
They’re both well done and informative, feeding you the background and details expeditiously.
If you find it hard to afford organic, try this instead.
What’s your typical choice? Do you prefer to go the organic route or stay conventional?
Use the comment section below to share your opinion – and please pass this along to anyone who needs help deciding!