Organic foods have grown increasingly popular over the last 2 decades. In fact, U.S. consumers spent $56 billion on organic produce in 2020. This number increased by nearly 13% from 2019, so their popularity does not seem to be slowing down. Some people think organic food is safer, healthier, and tastier than conventionally grown food. Others say it’s better for the environment and the well-being of animals. This article compares organic and non-organic foods, including their nutrient content and effects on human health.
What is organic food?
The term “organic” refers to how certain foods are produced. Organic foods have been grown or farmed without the use of:
• Artificial Chemicals
• Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)
In order to be labelled organic, a food product must be free of artificial food additives. This includes artificial sweeteners, preservatives, coloring, flavoring, and monosodium glutamate (MSG).
Organically grown crops usually use natural fertilizers such as fertilizers to improve plant growth. Animals raised organically are not given antibiotics or hormones.
Organic agriculture tends to improve soil quality and groundwater conservation. It can also reduce pollution and be good for the environment.
The most commonly purchased organic foods are fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products, and meat. Processed organic products are also available, such as sodas, cookies, and meat substitutes.
Organic foods are produced through farming practices that only use natural substances. This means avoiding all artificial chemicals, hormones, antibiotics, and GMOs.
Organic foods may contain more nutrients
Studies comparing the nutrient content of organic and non-organic foods have had mixed results. This is most likely due to natural variation in food handling and production. However, evidence does suggest that foods grown organically may be more nutritious.
Organic products contain more antioxidants and vitamins
Some older studies show that organic foods generally contain high levels of antioxidants and certain micronutrients such as vitamin C, zinc and iron. In fact, these foods have antioxidant levels as high as 69%. A 2003 study found that organic berries and corn had 58% more antioxidants and up to 52% more vitamin C. Additionally, one study reported that replacing conventional fruits, vegetables, and grains with organic varieties increased antioxidants in the diet. It was like eating extra. Organic plants do not rely on chemical pesticide sprays for protection. Instead, they produce more of their own protective compounds, or antioxidants. This may partially explain the higher levels of antioxidants in these plants.
Nitrate levels are generally low
It has also been shown that organic plants have lower nitrate levels. In fact, studies show that the nitrate levels in these plants are 30% lower. High levels of nitrates have been linked to an increased risk of certain types of cancer. It is also linked to a condition called methemoglobinemia, which is a disease of infants that affects the body's ability to carry oxygen.
Dairy products and organ meats may have better fatty acids
Organic milk and dairy products may contain higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, smaller amounts of iron, vitamin E, and some carotenoids. However, organic milk may contain less selenium and iodine than organic milk. These two minerals are essential to health. A review of 67 studies found that organic meats contain higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and lower levels of saturated fat than conventional meats. Consuming more omega-3 fatty acids has been linked to several health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease. However, several other studies have found no difference. While several studies show that organic foods can have significant positive results, others have not found enough evidence to recommend organic over conventional foods.
An observational study comparing the diets of nearly 4,000 adults who ate organic vegetables with conventional vegetables produced conflicting results. Although slightly higher intakes of some nutrients were observed in the organic group, this is probably due to the higher total vegetable consumption.
A review of 35 studies found some positive results regarding organic food, but could not come to a definitive conclusion.
Another review of 233 studies found no strong evidence to conclude that organic foods are more nutritious than regular foods.
However, it is important to remember that these studies differ widely in their results. Because the nutritional value of food depends on many factors, such as soil quality, weather conditions and harvest time. The composition of dairy products and meat can be affected by differences in animal genetics and animal breed, what the animals eat, the time of year, and the type of farm. The natural variations in the production and handling of foods make comparisons difficult. That’s why the results of these studies aren’t conclusive.
Organically grown crops may have less nitrate and more of certain vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Organic dairy products and meat may have more omega-3 fatty acids. However, the evidence is mixed.
Less chemicals and resistant bacteria
Many people choose to buy organic food in order to avoid artificial chemicals. Evidence suggests that consuming these foods may reduce your exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
One study found that levels of cadmium, an extremely toxic metal, were 48% lower in organic produce. In addition, pesticide residues were four times more likely to be found in non-organic crops.
It is important to note that the higher levels of cadmium and pesticide residue in conventionally grown produce were still well below safety limits However, some experts worry that cadmium can accumulate over time in the body, potentially causing harm.
Washing, scrubbing, peeling, and cooking food can reduce these chemicals, although it doesn’t always remove them completely. Nevertheless, evidence suggests that the risk of exposure to pesticide residue in foods is small and unlikely to cause harm.
Choosing organic foods may reduce your exposure to toxins, pesticide residues, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. However, the levels of toxins in regular produce are generally well below the safety limits.
Do organic foods have health benefits?
There is some evidence suggesting that organic foods have health benefits. For example, several lab studies found that their higher antioxidant content helped protect cells from damage. And animal studies show that organic diets may benefit growth, reproduction, and the immune system. One study also reported that chickens fed an organic diet showed reduced weight gain and had stronger immune systems. Older observational studies suggest that organic foods may lower risk of allergies and eczema in children and infants. A large 2014 observational study of 623,080 women found no difference in cancer risk between people who never ate organic food and those who ate it regularly. Unfortunately, there’s simply not enough strong evidence available to confirm that organic foods benefit human health more than conventional foods. More high quality human studies are needed.
There is not enough strong evidence available to prove that eating organic provides health benefits over eating regular foods.
Not all organic foods are nutritious
Just because a product is labeled organic doesn't mean it's nutritious. Some of these products are highly processed foods that are high in calories, added sugars, salt, and added fats.
For example, products such as organic cookies, chips, soda, and ice cream should be consumed in moderation. Although these products are organic, they may have low nutritional value.
When choosing foods, it may be more beneficial to choose based on your dietary needs and the vitamins and minerals that foods contain rather than eating organic or conventional foods.
Organic and highly processed foods can still be low in nutrients and high in fat, sugar and calories.
This is how you know whether you buy organic or not
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has established an organic certification program. This means that any farmer or food producer who sells organic food must meet strict government standards.
If you choose organic, it's important to look for the USDA organic seal.
Also, look out for these claims on food labels to help you identify foods that are truly organic:
• 100% Organic. This product consists exclusively of organic ingredients.
• Organic. At least 95% of the ingredients in this product are organic.
• Made from Organic Ingredients. At least 70% of the ingredients are organic.
If a product contains less than 70% organic ingredients, it cannot be labeled organic or use the USDA seal. Similar standards are enforced in Europe, Canada, and Australia. Each country or continent has its own seal to help consumers identify organic food.
To identify organic food, look for the appropriate seal or a statement like one of the three examples above.
The bottom line
The evidence is mixed on whether organic foods contain more antioxidants and nutrients than conventionally grown food. Consuming organic food may reduce your exposure to artificial chemicals, added hormones, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. However, it can cost more and may not be accessible to everyone. Additionally, it’s not clear if going organic has additional health benefits. Whether to buy organic is a choice you should make based on your personal preferences.