Wellbeing Article: Autumn Health by Amelia Freer

Is organic food
worth it?

Updated April 2020

In general, I am an advocate for organic food and farming for many reasons, ranging from sustainability to animal welfare and, of course, taste and potential nutritional benefits. But budget, availability and various other obstacles make eating a wholly organic diet nigh on impossible for almost everyone. So the most important point to make here is that it is better to eat and enjoy plenty of non-organic whole foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, proteins etc.) than to avoid them due to worries regarding their organic status.

Ultimately, it is my strongly held belief that it is the abundance of minimally processed whole foods in our diets that matters most, rather than whether they are all organic or not. You can certainly buy plenty of organic treats and sweets – but this does not automatically make them a healthier option.

However, I know that many people are increasingly choosing to buy organic, so in this article, I have tried to put together a list of products which you might decide are worth prioritising, and those which perhaps are less important, as well as (some of!) the reasons why.

Of course, there are many environmental, ethical and farming reasons why some people decide to buy organic produce – which is a whole other topic in itself – so here I am just going to focus on the nutrition and taste side of things. If you want more information on these topics, though, do take a look at the Soil Association website: http://www.soilassociation.org. For more discussion and resources on food sustainability, please do take a look at my article on the EAT-Lancet study

What is ‘organic’ anyway?

Organic farming as a term was first used in the 1940’s, to describe a holistic view of soil, crops, animals and society. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation now states that “organic agriculture is a holistic production management system which promotes and enhances agro-ecosystem health, including biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity”.

Organic production can range from the way we manage our back gardens to huge high-tech agricultural enterprises. It may also include aquaculture, forestry, health & beauty and textiles. In the UK, this is often overseen by the Soil Association, who set various organic standards.

The EU also sets out legal requirements for organic production. The principles of organic farming ensure no use of synthetic pesticides, fertilisers, GMOs, hormones or routine antibiotics. However, some natural substances are approved for use as pesticides.

Fruit & Vegetables

Many people choose to buy organic fruit and vegetables for both health reasons and for taste. I have to admit that I really notice the taste difference between the produce that arrives weekly in my Riverford veg box and that which I buy in the supermarket. It’s fresher, far less plastic-wrapped, more diverse, and so often more delicious. Carrots and cucumbers are the real standouts for me, as well as cauliflowers that don’t turn to mush on cooking, spicy and interesting salad leaves, and really juicy tomatoes. But beyond the gastronomic benefits, there may also be some (albeit moderate) nutritional ones too.

According to a 2017 paper published in The Annual Review of Public Health, organically produced fruits and vegetables were found to have a slightly different nutritional profile than conventionally farmed produce. They found lower concentrations of protein and nitrate, but higher concentrations of certain micronutrients (including iron, magnesium, phosphorous, zinc and vitamins C) and in some cases, higher concentrations of phenols and flavonoids, some of may be of importance for human health (1).

Another study looking at over 300 research papers on organic vs. non-organic crops, concluded that the organic crops had significantly more phytonutrients (plant-based bioactive compounds, which are often antioxidant), but lower levels of pesticide residue and cadmium (a toxic heavy metal) (2). Cadmium is one of three heavy metals, the others being lead and mercury, which have a ‘maximum permitted contamination’ level in food, as set by the European Commission. It accumulates in the body, and can collect in the liver and kidneys. We do not need cadmium in our diets, so the less we consume, the better.

The latest edition of the annual EU report on pesticide residues in food (both conventional and organic) found just under 96% of 80,000 food samples tested fell within legally permitted levels. In other words, the vast, vast majority. We are lucky that we have stringent food safety standards for both organic, and conventionally produced foods, here in the UK, which make them both safe to eat.

While there is some understandable concern about the effects of consuming pesticide residue in our foods, it is unclear at present whether or not there are any long-term health consequences. Peeling, washing and cooking may help to reduce any potential exposure.

It is worth saying that even organic produce is not always completely free from pesticide residue. This is because there may be cross-contamination when nearby fields are sprayed, from food handling, packaging, storing or incorrect labelling.

THE BOTTOM LINE?

By all means, buy much of your fruit and veg organically, if this is an option available to you and sits within your budget. There may be some taste and minor nutritional benefits. And of course, it supports a more holistic approach to food production.

However, do not worry if this is not a realistic option. We are lucky that our food production here in the UK is well regulated, and safe to eat regardless of whether it is organic or not. It’s better to eat plenty of fruit and veg rather than avoiding it by worrying about whether it’s organic or not. Just wash it thoroughly before eating.

If you want to prioritise a few items to buy organically, then perhaps focus on those you eat the most of, rather than those you only eat occasionally. Signing up to an organic vegbox delivery scheme is often a cost effective option, too, as it tends to work out a bit cheaper than buying the equivalent products at the supermarket.

Dairy products

The choice on whether or not we consume dairy products is very much a personal one. I have written plenty more about this topic in my article Thinking About: Dairy.

If we do choose to consume dairy products, however, many people opt for organic. From a nutritional perspective, this has a couple of potential impacts. Organic milk may contain more healthy omega-3 fats, but it often also has considerably less of the essential minerals iodine and selenium than conventionally produced milk (3).

This is likely to be more related to the production systems (i.e., breeding, feeds, milking practices) rather than due to it being organic or not. In fact, pasture-fed animals, which are not necessarily ‘organic’, produce milk that is very similar to organic (4).

It is worth pointing out, however, that oily fish and plant oils, such as rapeseed, have much more omega-3 fat than milk – which is actually relatively poor source of these important nutrients, so the overall impact on our diets is fairly small.

Dairy products are a key source of iodine in the UK diet. Iodine is necessary for healthy infant development in pregnancy and for thyroid function. Therefore, it is important to make sure that you have a variety of iodine sources in your diet (particularly if you only consume organic dairy products if you avoid dairy altogether). For more information on iodine, please do take a look at this fact sheet.

THE BOTTOM LINE?

Dairy or not, organic or not, are both a personal choices. If you feel that the organic farming methods are perhaps kinder, or the uncertainty about residual chemicals (antibiotics, pesticides etc.) possibly found in some conventional milks is worrying, or you are swayed by the beneficial fat content, then go for organic milk and dairy products.

If you are more interested in maximising your iodine intake (perhaps you are a vegetarian, for example, and therefore do not get it from alternative sources such as meat or fish), then maybe conventional dairy products are better for you.

Meat

Although there is still a lot of research to be done in this area, a study published in 2016 systematically looked at all the research on organic vs. non-organic meat (5).

It concluded that organic meat contains slightly more of the healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids and omega-3 fats, but lower levels of saturated fats than non-organic meat. These effects, however, were small, and again were likely to be due to the fact that organic animals are raised with more access to outdoor foraging and grass, rather than the more restrictive grain feeding of non-organic animals.

As for dairy, more research is needed to assess whether any potentially undesirable chemicals (i.e., antibiotics, growth hormones, toxic metals and pesticides) sometimes found in conventionally raised animals, may have any harmful impact on us. There are a lot of scare stories about, but the science hasn’t made any clear conclusions just yet.

THE BOTTOM LINE?

From a nutrition perspective, it is likely that organic (or grass-fed) meat is perhaps a little healthier – in terms of the types of fat it contains – than non-organic meat. But these effects are marginal, so overall dietary balance is far more important to consider here. It might therefore be more a case of budget, taste and of course, animal welfare.

Of course, it is hard to consider organic vs. non-organic meat without giving consideration to animal welfare standards, which in the UK are higher for organically certified farms. This is the factor that primarily sways my decision making.

My approach these days, therefore, is to buy relatively little meat. I might eat poultry once or twice a week, and red meat perhaps only twice a month. But when I do, I will try to find high-quality, organic meat if possible. For more info on this, do see my article on Buying Meat: The questions to ask

References

(1) Brantsæter, A., Ydersbond, T., Hoppin, J., Haugen, M. and Meltzer, H., 2017. Organic Food in the Diet: Exposure and Health Implications. Annual Review of Public Health, 38(1), pp.295-313.

(2) Barański, M., Średnicka-Tober, D., Volakakis, N., Seal, C., Sanderson, R., Stewart, G.B. and et al. (2014) ‘Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: A systematic literature review and meta-analyses’, British Journal of Nutrition, 112(05), pp. 794–811.

(3) Srednicka-Tober, D., Baranski, M., Seal, C., Sanderson, R., Benbrook, C., Steinshamn, H. et al. (2016) Higher PUFA and omega-3 PUFA, CLA, α-tocopherol and iron, but lower iodine and selenium concentrations in organic milk: A Systematic Literature Review and Meta- and Redundancy Analyses. British Journal of Nutrition. In press – Feb 2016.

(4) The Soil Association (2016) Organic vs Non-organic: A new evaluation of nutritional differences: Milk. Available at: http://www.soilassociation.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=511HdacUS80%3d&tabid=2300 (Accessed: 16 February 2016).

(5) Srednicka-Tober, D., Baranski, M., Sea, C., Sanderson, R., Benbrook, C., Steinshamn, H. et al. (2016) Composition differences between organic and conventional meat; a systematic literature review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Nutrition. In press – Feb 2016.