Is organic food really healthier and worth the price?
It’s a great question, considering the trend for organic foods is only on the rise, despite the higher prices compared to conventionally-grown produce!
According to the Australian Organic Market Report 2019, our nation’s organic industry was worth $2.6 billion in 2018, with Australia having the largest organic certified area of land globally.
Why Eat Organic Food?
Nutritionally and environmentally, the foods we choose to eat today create consequences tomorrow.
You can understand the trend for organic foods as consumers are wanting to not only enjoy great tasting food, but likely also seeking to remedy or prevent ill-health, reduce the impact on the environment, improve animal welfare, and/or support local small farmers. When you take all of these into consideration, then purchasing organic foods may be worth the extra price.
Some human studies have observed that an organic diet may lower the risk of childhood allergies, cardiovascular disease and adult overweight/obesity.
Additionally, many insecticides are toxic to the nervous system of insects – and at least 100 different pesticides are known to cause adverse neurological effects in human adults.
The advantages of organic foods include:
Higher nutrient content
- Compared to conventionally-grown foods, organic fruits and veggies are more nutritious with a higher content of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
- Organic animal products such as meat and milk are higher in anti-inflammatory omega-3s.
- Less water in organic food so you get more food.
- Epidemiological studies have found higher amounts of some compounds in organic crops which could be linked to lowering some chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative diseases and certain cancers.
- The use of synthetic chemicals as preservatives, colourings, antioxidants etc are prohibited in the processing of organic foods. These may have a profound effect on your body, especially when you think that you might be eating upwards of 50 different additives daily if you live off processed, packaged foods.
Lower Pathogenic contamination
- As organically farmed animals are fed greater proportions of hay, grass and silage, there is reduced opportunity for contaminated feed to lead to contaminated milk.
Free from Growth Hormones/Antibiotics
- The use of antibiotics, anti-microbials, hormones and other growth promotants are prohibited in organic livestock production, which may otherwise end up in your body.
Lower levels of Nitrates and Cadmium
- Soluble chemical fertilisers have resulted in high nitrate concentrations in many conventionally farmed foods, especially in fruits and vegetables. Leafy vegetables can have the highest concentrations. Nitrates are known to be detrimental to health, whilst cadmium is a known carcinogen.
Absence of Chemical Residues
- Conventionally grown produce may carry a cocktail of synthetic poisons in the form of pesticide and other chemical residues which your body may not be able to detoxify. Chemical residues may interfere with the hormone, nervous and immune systems.
Positive effect on your Microbiome
- It has been hypothesised that an organic diet my promote a more diverse and healthier microbiome due to the intake of probiotic substances from fresh produce.
- Dietary fibre in organic food may also improve the gut microbiome and gut health.
- The absence of toxic pesticides etc which otherwise may upset the balance of the microbiome.
What Sets Organic Farming Apart?
Organic farming differs to conventional growing methods in the following ways:
- For growers, the emphasis is on the creation of soils with heightened biological action to optimise the nutritional value of food, without the use of artificial fertilisers.
- Natural methods are used to deter insects and the like, rather than toxic insecticides.
- Old-fashioned techniques such as crop-rotation, hand-weeding, tillage and mulches are utilised to combat weeds rather than man-made herbicides.
- Organically-reared animals eat food that’s free of antibiotics, growth hormones, drugs, chemicals and pesticides. They also do not eat any animal by-products.
- It’s common in organic farming for animals to be allowed to get exercise and fresh air, and live a more natural existence.
- Organic farmers also don’t use chemicals or pesticides on land where animals roam, so they don’t ingest chemicals — and by extension, you don’t either.
Whilst organic produce may cost more, if you want your organic shopping dollar to go further, the Environmental Working Group have produced a simple guide to help you which I have summarised below.
Fruit and veggies in the “Dirty” category are the ones with the highest levels of pesticide residues, so you might want to choose organic varieties or grow your own:
The “Clean” list shows those fruits and veggies with the lowest residue levels. Interestingly, over a third of these are fruits with thick skins.
- Sweet Corn
- Sweet Peas (Frozen)
- Honeydew Melon
Not all Organic Foods are Healthy
However, not all foods labelled as ‘organic’ are healthy. If it comes in a packet, the chances are it has been processed to some degree; a certified organic label on a packaged or processed food doesn’t necessarily equate to a food that is good for you.
An organic muffin is still a muffin and may still have unhealthy amounts of vegetable oils, sugar and refined flour, albeit organic ingredients.
So, whilst organic foods certainly appear to be a healthier option, it has to be acknowledged that consumers who prefer organic food have healthier dietary patterns overall, which may contribute to a decreased risk of several chronic diseases.
Author: Beverley Dorgan, BHSc Nutritional Medicine, ANTA.
Beverley Dorgan is a Brisbane Clinical nutritionist with a special interest in how the foods we consume can impact on our mental health from anxiety and depression to OCD and behavioural or learning issues.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call Vision Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3088 5422.
- Australian Organic Market Report 2019
- Dept of Agriculture and Water Resources. National Standard for Organic and Bio?Dynamic Produce Edition 3.7 September 2016
- Environmental Working Group https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/
- Hurtado-Barroso S, Tresserra-Rimbau A, Vallverdú-Queralt A, Lamuela-Raventós RM. Organic food and the impact on human health. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2019;59(4):704-714. doi:10.1080/10408398.2017.1394815
- Mie A, Andersen HR, Gunnarsson S, et al. Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture: a comprehensive review. Environ Health. 2017;16(1):111. Published 2017 Oct 27. doi:10.1186/s12940-017-0315-4