Is it really worth buying organic produce? What does it mean and what really is the difference between organic and non-organic? Read my short article to find out what the research says so you can make an enlightened decision on whether you should buy organic or not.
What does organic mean?
According to the Department for Agriculture and Rural Affairs (DEFRA),
‘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.
Organic agriculture is a systems approach to production that is working towards environmentally, socially and economically sustainable production. Instead, the agricultural systems rely on crop rotation, animal and plant manures, some hand weeding and biological pest control’.
So basically, for a food to be labelled ‘organic’, it must be produced without pesticides or synthetic fertilisers and ‘organic’ meat must be sourced from animals that are fed organic feed and are not inoculated with hormones or antibiotics. Organic farming means that animals are reared in a more natural, free habitat.
Organic food is produced without any commercial pesticides. Animals that are organically farmed are not subject to genetic modification.
According to EU regulations, the ingredients in ‘organic’ packaged foods must be at least 95% organic. As some foods are simply not available ‘organically’, they are permitted to have a certain number of such ingredients but they cannot contain artificial colourings or sweeteners.
Organic foods must be certified and it is a highly regulated industry. The Soil Association is a good label to look for. Some food stuffs with minimal ingredients may be labelled ‘100% organic’ if they meet the criteria.
To ensure you are buying organic, make sure it has an appropriate label.
What does the research tell us?
Many people believe that organic food is healthier and safer and as such, its demand is on the rise. But are such health claims justified?
Research has revealed that organic foods actually have the same nutritional profile as their non-organic alternatives. They contain the same amount of calories, fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Researchers have therefore concluded that organic does not provide the enhanced health benefits that many ‘gurus’ will have you believe. This study in fact revealed no significant difference in health bio-markers when subjects consumed organic food.
Another systematic review concluded the same. It did, however, also find that organic foods do have 30% lower pesticide residues than conventional foods BUT levels in both organic and non-organic foods were within allowable safety limits.
There is some evidence that organic produce does contain higher levels of vitamins, antioxidants and Omega 3 but this difference is negligible.
Research reveals that organic food has no significant, superior health benefits.
Organic junk food
Just because a food is labelled ‘organic’ doesn’t automatically mean it is healthy. Organic crisps, biscuits, ice cream etc can all be found on the supermarket shelf but these are still processed goods high in calories, fat and sugar.
Organic foods will often claim that they contain ‘natural’ sugar because they use raw cane versions but at the end of the day, sugar is sugar. You may be attracted by the fact that you are buying a slightly higher quality version but it still contains the same amount of calories.
The truth is that the majority of the Western world is already consuming too much sugar; whether this is ‘organic’ or not bears no difference on your health and weight management.
Overly processed ‘organic’ food often provides no nutrient benefits and can actually harm your health.
Is organic worth the cost?
Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables from a variety of sources is the most important part of any healthy diet. Having an abundance of these in our supermarkets does require the use of pesticides to avoid insect infestation and produce adequate crops. This is what helps to keep the costs of non-organic down.
There are many reasons that people choose to eat organic and if it is affordable then it certainly cannot do any harm. Unfortunately, however, many of us are on a tight budget these days. If ensuring that you are consuming plenty of fresh, unprocessed food means you purchase predominately non-organic produce, then rest assured that you are not damaging your health – you will more than likely be improving it! My tip would be to make sure that you wash everything well and increase your variety with the money you save.
It is also worth noting that the Environmental Protection Agency has set appropriate levels of pesticide residue and this is actually higher than what we are exposed to through our diet.
Organic food is expensive. Before making the decision to switch, look at the quality of your diet and focus on improving that first.
Whilst organic food may contain more vitamins and minerals, the actual amounts are insignificant to overall health.
Yes, you will be exposed to less artificial chemicals by eating organic but bear in mind that the levels we find in non-organic are safe for human consumption. They also prevent foods from deteriorating fast which helps to keep costs low.
It has been demonstrated that organic has no superior health benefits so ultimately the choice all comes down to personal preference and affordability.
Health is multi-faceted and economic status must be taken in to account. If buying organic means you have to make sacrifices that would otherwise benefit your health, i.e. less fresh food, then it may not be the sensible approach for you.
This was brought to you by Rebecca Flannery, Evidence Based Nutritionist at Transformational Nutrition.