Many of us assume that organically grown foods are more nutritious and healthier than standard crops. Some people also feel it’s an environmentally-friendly way of eating, as fewer chemicals are used in organic farming and intensive methods are rare. These beliefs mean we are willing to pay up to 80% more for everything from eggs to baby food and coffee (1). However, some research suggests that while the ethical benefits are clear, there is little evidence to suggest organic food is nutritionally superior (2). So, is it worth buying organic and are organic foods better than non-organic produce?
What Is Organic Produce?
Many of us see or hear the word “organic” and associated it with being a healthier or more nutritious option. But what does this word mean? There is no agreed meaning for this internationally. But generally, it is perceived as produce that has not been contaminated with pesticides, artificial fertilisers and chemicals, or hormones and antibiotics in the case of animal products (3).
As there is no international standard around this, it is important to be aware that some countries may have different standards around the use of chemicals, hormones and antibiotics. As the UK does not grow and produce all of its own fresh produce, some fruit and vegetables labelled as organic may not fully comply with the laws of producing organic foods locally.
When to Choose Organic over Non-Organic
There are many reasons to choose organic over non-organic produce, excluding their nutritional content. These reasons are as follows:
1. Avoid Intake of Pesticides and Hormones
The pesticides used in farming are certainly present in conventional foods, but the levels are very low and therefore considered safe for human consumption (4). For many foods, these foods are rinsed during farming and then advised to wash at home. Nevertheless, some people don’t like the idea of ingesting synthetic toxins.
It is important to be aware that most organic farming doesn’t use synthetic pesticides, however, in cases where there is no other alternative, some synthetic pesticides may be used. An example of this is copper sulfate (5). Copper can be harmful if consumed in high doses. But most likely the levels used, if used at all are safe.
Which foods should you buy organic to avoid pesticides
Certain foods are known to harbour more pesticides than others. This may be due to the way these foods grows or because they have thin or porous skin. Perhaps if you have health issues or are pregnant, you would prefer to avoid these the err on the side of caution. But when it comes to finding a list of which foods that are best to buy organic, the lists can vary. The guides in the US vary greatly from the UK, and even within the UK, these lists differ quite a bit. This makes it hard to know which foods to buy as organic or non-organic.
Many of these lists are compiled from different research that seem to pull conflicting results. But we look at the “dirty dozen” and “clean fifteen” list of foods said to have the most amount of pesticides by the EWG (Environmental Working Group) as a guide (6). Added to the list of organic foods includes milk and meat. These are not on the pesticide list by the EWG, but have been added if you prefer to avoid having animal products that may contain hormones and antibiotics.
|Organic Foods to Buy||Non-Organic Foods to Buy|
|Meat (not on EWG list)||Eggplant|
|Milk (not on EWG list)||Cabbage|
|Sweet peas (frozen)|
2. To Protect Our Environment
Moreover, even if pesticides are not harming us as individuals, a bigger problem is happening earlier in the production cycle. Farmers who rely on synthetic pesticides can be exposed to unsafe toxins, as can people living in the local area (7). This also has a damaging effect on the environment. Pesticides don’t just kill insects that damage crops, but can affect wildlife too. They can harm bees, birds and animals that make up the ecosystem, as well as infecting rivers and streams.
3. Taste Preferences
Many people choose organic produce due to taste. There is limited evidence to support that organic food tastes better than non-organic, but it does come down to personal preference. Fruit and vegetables have many different factors that affect its appearance and taste. These include but are not limited to area, soil type, weather and temperature in which these foods are grown. This makes it very difficult to determine what makes these foods taste different, also affecting its nutritional content. At the end of the day, if you prefer the taste of organic milk or berries to conventional ones, then that is your choice. There is no harm in having these, and on the plus side, you are helping out the environment too.
Other reasons people tend to choose organic produce include supporting smaller farms and voting against modern farming practices (8). However, one of the most common reasons is the perceived “better” nutrient content of organic produce. But is this really true?
Are Organic Foods Packed with Extra Nutrients?
Opinion is split on whether organic foods are intrinsically more nutritious than standard, conventional or non-organic foods. As research has to take into account soil quality, weather and farming techniques, it may take years before the debate is finally resolved. At present, some studies do suggest that organic foods contain higher levels of nutrients such as iron, magnesium and Vitamin C (9). This could be because organically grown produce has to create its own antioxidant compounds, without assistance from synthetic chemicals. Alternatively, these organic foods may happen to be grown in an area or on soil that contributes to this.
Despite organic food possibly having higher levels of certain nutrients, does this make a difference by the time it is bought from a store and taken home? Let’s take vitamin C for example. This highly unstable vitamin starts to deplete as soon as it is picked or plucked. By the time it has gone to the store and finally reached your home the vitamin C content would have already been partially depleted. It depletes further while it sits at home waiting to be used. If you are concerned about the nutrient content of your fruit and vegetables, it would be best to buy them in a frozen form. Freezing is usually done within an hour of picking and can put a halt to the depletion of nutrients. This may be a better option than choosing organic if your aim is to get as many nutrients as possible.
Research also suggests that animal products such as organic milk and meat contain higher levels of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids (10). This may result from the animal’s diet, as organic farms encourage livestock to graze or forage for food rather than feeding them concentrated pellets and supplements.
Is Organic the Future?
As organic foods only contain pesticides of natural origin, the Soil Association estimates that synthetic pesticide levels would drop by 98% if all of the farms in the UK switched to organic methods (11). Organic farmers have proven that is it possible to minimise environmental disruption and deliver healthy synthetic pesticide-free foods. Therefore, it’s fair to assume that the practices they routinely use, such as selecting hardy varieties and rotating crops, could be taken up more widely in future.
In terms of the food you eat right now, to avoid synthetic pesticides altogether then organic is the only way to go. As well as avoiding the intake of pesticides found in some foods, you’ll also be supporting more sustainable agricultural practices and a healthy ecosystem.
Why Do We Pay More for Organic Food?
Organic food is sold and produced in smaller quantities than standard food, though demand is relatively high. This alone would drive the prices up, but there are many other factors to consider. Organic foods are more labour intensive, as farmers cannot rely on chemical panaceas. Therefore, they must be handled and packaged separately from conventional produce. As the volume of organic produce is lower, many transportation solutions are less efficient, as are the marketing costs.
The good news is that organic food is slowly getting cheaper (12). This is partly in response to ever-increasing demand which fuels higher rates of production. Lower costs are also linked to the use of more innovative farming practices and suppliers finding cheaper ways to distribute and market their stock.
Does Organic Food Keep Well?
The question of shelf life length is a difficult one to answer correctly for any fresh produce, organic or conventional. This is because so many factors are at play within the industry. There are many issues which could affect the rate at which a product spoils. These include where it is produced, how it’s handled, the way it’s transported and how it’s treated on arrival. However, it’s often thought that organic food doesn’t last as long in the fridge or fruit basket because of how it is produced in particular.
Without preservatives or waxes that are sometimes added, it is more liable to spoil due to a build-up of bacteria and oxidation. Whilst standard products are treated with a range of chemicals to prolong their freshness, organic farmers have to rely on natural pesticides which are rarely as strong.
Coupled with the higher price bracket, this tendency to spoil faster could put you off organic products. But as the supply chain can also play a part, it’s worth shopping around. Organic farm shops are a good place to start as they focus on locally grown seasonal produce. Therefore, unlike standard produce coming from abroad, your organic veg could go from harvesting to your fridge within days.
To Summerise the Main Asked Questions in the Organic versus Non-Organic Debate
Is organic more healthy?
When looking at pesticides and hormones that non-organic produce may retain, it could be a healthier choice to choose organic. However, this does depend on the food type itself, and evidence around this is still limited.
Is organic more nutritious?
Again, evidence is lacking about organic foods being more nutritious. It is very hard to determine if this is true as plant-based produce is affected by many environmental factors. If you want to have a more nutritious foods, focus on having a balanced intake and variety of foods. Most people in the UK don’t meet the minimum guide of 5 fruit and veg a day (13). So focusing on meeting this as a minimum (or more) is the best way to get your nutrients.
Why should I choose organic?
In addition to the above, a valid reason to splurge and choose organic is to help protect the environment. This is at least one proven benefit of organic produce. You may also wish to buy organic to help out smaller farms and farms that follow more traditional farming techniques. These often include less genetically modified farming practices. Furthermore, you may just prefer the taste. Although there is not enough evidence to support this, it comes down to personal preference.
The Final Word
The organic versus non-organic debate is still ongoing and will be for a long time. The answer, unfortunately, is never simple, but there are many factors to take into account. Whether you prefer to err on the side of caution and avoid foods possibly affected by pesticides, or if you want to help out the environment, the choice is up to you.