Are Organic Food Choices Really Healthier Than Conventional Ones?


by Alejandra "Alex" Ruani — Get free science updates here.
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Photo Credit: Pixabay

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.

Conclusion

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!


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22 Comments

  • Diane @influencer.biz

    Reply Reply August 7, 2014

    This year I have been buying organic and its more expensive than other veg but thought I was doing my health some good. It seems the “experts” can’t agree.

    I had no idea chemicals were used on organic veg although I did wonder how they managed to grow it and keep the slugs/insects away.

    I personally am not up for listening to places like the food standard agency because they have their own agenda. All of these guys do. Just look at the poor man who in the 40s who tried to warn us about sugar and he had his research disparaged by “experts” – we all know what the experts are saying about sugar now.

    They discredited him not because they were sure he was wrong but because if he was right a lot of people would lose a lot of money.

    So I am going to have to hope that the way that organic veg is grown makes it better. You can’t get everything organic anyway so I eat a mixture of the two.

    Ultimately I would love to grow my own.

  • Anne

    Reply Reply August 7, 2014

    I tend to buy conventional unless there is an offer for organic. I think organic produce is pricey for most of us. Also I find the taste of organic fruits to be bland. But some of my friends say that organics are tastier. So it could just be a personal preference. Some people defend organics like a religion and it is interesting to learn here that not even scientists agree! Personally I would say it is better to eat tons of vegs and fruits no matter the origin. No one should feel bad for choosing conventional, I like to think of all the goodness in the vegs and fruits I am eating. So I probably agree with professor Tom Sanders. Thanks a lot for the cutting edge science, excellent newsletter!!

    • Alex

      Reply Reply August 8, 2014

      Anne, thanks for sharing. With only 1% of the total global land using organic methods, there just isn’t enough organic produce to feed all 7.2 billion humans… it’ll take a long time for this to change (if ever). Having your 5-10 a day is the first most important thing :-)

  • Anita Huber

    Reply Reply August 7, 2014

    If I can buy organic and eat it the same day I do. I believe it tastes and is better because it’s natural. Otherwise I too think that eating fruit and veg is more important than whether it’s organic or not, but I go as local as possible to avoid unnecessary life length additives.

    • Maurice Castelijn

      Reply Reply August 8, 2014

      Anita, interesting comment you made about taste. “Organic” and “natural” aren’t the same though. Only if food is grown and processed according to the country’s organic standards can it be called organic. Manufacturers do put a lot of effort in making it look better (e.g. green or rustic packaging).

      I personally remain to be convinced that the term organic isn’t exploited through marketing tricks. Who wouldn’t feel good buying organic produce, at a significantly higher price?

      That said, if you are convinced organic is more healthy and tastes better you can still benefit from the placebo effect! ;-)

      Alex, nice article. Thanks.

    • Alex

      Reply Reply August 8, 2014

      Anita, going local (organic or conventional) is such a great choice, organic imports tend to have quite a high carbon footprint, which sort of defeats the purpose…

  • Christopher

    Reply Reply September 2, 2014

    I rather eat the fruits and vegetables in general than worry about the organic classification. I body build and train on a tight budget. When I have extra money I might do a farmer’s market or buy organic.

  • katieB

    Reply Reply April 2, 2015

    I live in an area where organic is barely available at our one grocery store, the growing season is only 3 months and an organic lemon costs $4! I am glad to find out there are no significant health benefits to organic besides better flavor because my location has so far prevented me from over spending on organic everything.

  • Nick

    Reply Reply August 26, 2015

    I think that currently “Organic” is just a hype word!
    You put the “Organic” word on any product and bump the price up $2 (or more) and people think its doing good for them.
    – I like the Placebo idea that Maurice pitches :)

    Either way we don’t eat enough fruit and veg, because even the conventional groceries can be more expensive than the processed foods.

    A little off topic but.. the other day i was in the supermarket and a 2lt bottle of Coke was $2 (on sale) whilst a 600ml plastic bottle (Not BPA free) was $1 and 750ml ‘glass bottle’ of water was $4.5 – crazy!
    – of course kids are going to buy the bigger bottle of soda.

    I would personally like to try 2 slices of fruit or veg (1 conventional, 1 organic) blindly, and taste which one was better.

  • Neeta Sanders

    Reply Reply September 10, 2015

    My family and I have been eating organic for 10 years now. At first we too thought it was all hype but after we saw a difference in our health we were convinced. We used to get sick (flu like symptoms) at least 4-5 times a year but after switching to organic food we rarely went to the doctor. Just my own personal experience that I wanted to share.

    Plus according to the Organic Center’s science report entitled Minimizing Pesticide Dietary Exposure Through the Consumption of Organic Food” children especially unborn fetuses and babies are especially vulnerable to exposure to synthetic pesticides. Also converting 10,000 medium sized farms to organic production reduces carbon dioxide (which accounts for 80% of global warming). This is as much as taking 1,174,400 cars off the road. Every time we buy an organic product, we’re helping to save the earth. Also a Harvard study has linked pesticide exposure to a 70% increase in Parkinson’s disease. The study which is the largest ever conducted was released in July 2006 issue of the Annals of Neurology.

    • Rae

      Reply Reply December 17, 2015

      Thank you, Neeta! I was reading through these comments hoping someone would say something positive about organic food & back it up! We only buy organic at my home too. HUGE difference for us. It just makes sense. The term “Organic” isn’t part of a conspiracy theory. It may not be a perfect system, but as you mentioned, it is MUCH better for the planet overall than conventional farming.

  • Tanya Leake

    Reply Reply December 7, 2015

    I think there should be a distinction between organic “food” AND organic produce. If you use my one of my favorite author’s (Michael Pollan) definition of food, “real” food is food that is NOT created by the “food industrial complex.” In my simplistic terms, “real” food does not have an ingredients list. It is whole, unprocessed and very likely produce. ;-) A whole, unprocessed food/produce cannot be classified precisely as 95% organic (the process to grow them I guess can but that’s true of anything in nature – an organic farmer can’t prevent stuff from blowing into their gardens).

    I agree with Neeta, I have seen a difference when I am eating organic, local and whole. I am a big advocate of the Environmental Working Group’s annual review of Dirty and Clean produce (Dirty Dozen + and Clean Fifteen) to recommend those that have the most and highest concentrations of pesticides.

  • Mary Abrahams

    Reply Reply April 15, 2016

    This article and the youtube videos are such an eye opener. I have often toyed with the idea of buying organic. I was sold the idea it was “chemical-free” and with my personal experiences that chemicals are the enemy to my body – I thought that I would have to bite the bullet and spend more money. However after studying through this website and doing online research – I have made up my own mind.

    I now truly believe that nutritional factors, a balanced food lifestyle is more efficient for me. Yes I clean eat but only to the extent that I do not buy organic. I have done this for years and I can see improvements in my health.

    Personally it is now a journey for me to eat ENOUGH nutritional foods for a balanced food lifestyle and to focus on vitamins, minerals etc then to be obsessed with organic.

  • Marie Mock

    Reply Reply April 21, 2016

    I have quite a few food intolerances, but one thing that really sends my gut into a frenzy is salad items and certain fruits/veg that are not organic. I know that if I eat salad that isn’t organic, I’ll be getting terrible cramps and making frequent bathroom visits within 20 minutes of eating the item! A friend made me a salad once, promising it was organic…I was stuck at her house for the entire afternoon suffering the consequences of eating salad that was not organic. She obviously felt terrible and presumed I was just being ‘fussy’, hence thought she could get away with not telling me, not realising the effect chemicals have on my body. I have the same problem with my skin using most commercially sold skin and beauty items containing synthetic chemicals and ‘fragrance/parfum’; I now make my own using organic, unrefined butters and essential oils etc. and notice a huge difference. Juicing is something that has helped enormously too; I won’t get into the whole juices v smoothies debate! I think, personally, that organic produce has to contain more nutrients; chemicals can deplete those nutrients before they’re taken into the body, and can also reduce their absorption in the body. I guess it’s a case of living by what’s right for you and your family, within your means, doing the best that you can with the knowledge you have at the time, whilst always being receptive to learning more and having your opinions changed by evidence-based information.

  • Gabriela

    Reply Reply June 15, 2016

    Here is my opinion as a consumer. I have noticed that organic produce actually tastes a lot better! For example when it comes to apples, strawberries and avocados, I notice a HUGE difference in my mouth. Just taste alone makes me WANT to buy the organic kind. I grew up in the country, picking at fruits and veggies right from grandma’s garden and when I eat organic my tastebuds are reminded of those happy days. Now as an adult, I buy organic when I can, however if I have to watch my wallet I will also buy conventional more often. This is because I have come to appreciate the addition of ANY phytonutrients in the diet. Conventional is better than none at all.

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