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The organic food market saw its fifth year of consecutive growth in 2016. A great many people now think organic food is safer, healthier and tastier than regular food. Others say it’s better for the environment and improves animal welfare. Is it all marketing hype or is organic food worth the higher price?
WHAT IS ORGANIC FOOD?
The term organic simply refers to the process of how certain foods are produced. Organic agriculture is bound by European legal regulations that restrict the use of artificial chemicals, hormones, antibiotics or genetically modified organisms with all produce free of artificial food additives including artificial sweeteners, preservatives, colouring, flavouring.
IS EATING ORGANIC FOOD HEALTHIER?
In 2014, the most comprehensive scientific analysis to date on organic foods examined 343 studies from around the world to establish the differences between organic and conventional fruit, vegetables and cereals. It concluded that there are “statistically significant, meaningful” differences, with a range of antioxidants being as high as 69% in organic food. This research is the first study to demonstrate clear and wide-ranging differences between organic and conventional fruits, vegetables and cereals. This research even suggests the increased levels of antioxidants are equivalent to "one to two of the five portions of fruits and vegetables recommended to be consumed daily.” The supposed health benefits associated with a diet rich in plants is, at least partially, due to the wide diversity of antioxidants they provide. Newcastle University who led the research add that the antioxidants in organic foods are “linked to a reduced risk of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular diseases, neurodegenerative diseases and certain cancers."
Organic milk and dairy products may well contain higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids according to research. Recent analysis of 196 published studies found that organic-grass-fed cows produced milk with 50% more omega-3 fatty acids than that from ordinary dairy cows. Note, 50% appears to suggest a significant amount but full-fat milk is only 4% fat and semi skimmed is just 2% so 50% equates to only fraction more fatty acid in organic dairy.
A 2016 review of 67 studies found that organic meat contained higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and slightly lower levels of saturated fats than conventional meat. A higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids has been associated with many health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease.
WHY IS SCIENTIFIC OPINION DIVIDED ON ORGANIC AND NON-ORGANIC FOODS?
While there are respected studies which find organic foods to contain more nutrients, a great many others have found insufficient evidence to recommend organic over non-organic. A systematic review over 45 years concluded in 2012 that published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.
Many studies including the 2014 Newcastle University research are funded by organic farming charities. On this basis alone, they are criticised for not being wholly independent. Additionally, the inclusion of so many studies could mean poor quality work has skewed the results. The greatest criticism, however, is the suggestion of potential health benefits. The 2012 research reviewed 233 studies and found little evidence concluding any "published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods." This was also the conclusion of the UK Food Standards Agency, though their research considered just 11 studies. Incidentally, the UK Food Standards Agency publicly support “consumer choice and is neither pro nor anti organic food.”
There are some interesting, respected studies that support organic foods including observational research suggesting a lower risk of allergies and eczema in children and infants. Another study albeit on chickens and therefore not generalisable to humans found that those fed an organic diet showed reduced weight gain, and had stronger immune systems. Yet, an observational study comparing the nutrient intakes of nearly 4,000 adults consuming either organic or conventional vegetables found conflicting results. Although a slightly higher intake of certain nutrients was seen in the organic group, this was most likely due to higher overall vegetable consumption. A study of 623,080 women in 2014 found no difference in cancer risk between those who never ate organic food and those who ate it regularly.
Agricultural research is renowned for varying in results. The nutrient content of food depends on so many factors including soil quality, weather conditions and when the crops are harvested, which differs throughout the world. The composition of dairy products and meat can also be affected by differences in genetics and what diet animals are fed. Even the natural variations in the production and handling of foods make comparisons difficult. Therefore, the results of all these studies must be interpreted with caution.
IS ORGANIC FARMING BETTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT?
Organic farming is often sold as good for the environment. This is true for a single farm field as organic farming uses less energy, emits less greenhouse gasses, nitrous oxide and ammonia and causes less nitrogen leeching than a conventional field. However, the productivity of organic agriculture tends to be significantly lower than that of conventional farming,
A litre of organic milk is said to require 80% more land than conventional milk to produce, has 20% greater global warming potential, releases 60% more nutrients to water sources, and contributes 70% more to acid rain. Interestingly, organically reared cows emit twice as much methane as conventionally reared cattle – and methane is 20 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2. In fact, meat and poultry are the largest agricultural contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. The only instances where organic yields are higher than conventional farms relate to hay crops not food crops. To produce the amount of food America does today organically would require increasing its farmland by the size of almost two United Kingdoms at cost of $200 billion annually from lower productivity.
ARE THE PESTICIDES USED IN TRADITIONAL FARMING DANGEROUS?
Many people choose to buy organic food in order to avoid artificial chemicals. The Soil Association and other organic farming groups suggest conventional food is unhealthy largely on the basis non-organic farmers use pesticides. Pesticide residues are reportedly four times more likely to be found in non-organic crops. However, organic farmers also use pesticides. For example, organic farmers can treat fungal diseases on crops with copper solutions. Organic farming can actually make use of any pesticide that is “natural”.
In any case, there is considerable evidence suggesting that consuming organic foods may reduce your exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. 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 and unlikely to cause harm. As organic plants do not rely on chemical pesticides to protect themselves, they naturally produce more of their own protective compounds, namely antioxidants. This may also explain the higher levels of antioxidants in these plants.
ORGANIC FAST FOOD IS STILL FAST FOOD
A healthy, balanced diet made up of non-organic foods is far superior than any unhealthy organic diet. The most important factor in your decision making around buying food should always be the foods themselves, not whether they're organic. Just because a product is labelled “organic” does not mean that it is healthy. Many of these products are still processed foods high in calories, sugar, salt and added fats. For example, the likes of organic crisps, fizzy drinks and ice cream are all widely available, yet none produce any health benefits.
Some organic product labels will state that the ingredients are “natural”, for example, using raw cane sugar instead of plain sugar. However, sugar is still sugar and with the majority of us consuming too much sugar already, it is unwise to think it’s healthy to consume lots of organic sugar. When you choose organic junk food, you may just be opting for a slightly higher-quality version of regular junk food - organic junk food is still junk food. Although, organic regulations typically ban the use of artificial food additives in these foods so buying organic is a good way to avoid a lot of the chemicals that are often added to conventional foods.
ARE ORGANIC FOODS WORTH THE HIGHER PRICE?
Ultimately, there is not enough strong evidence available to prove that eating organic provides health benefits over eating regular foods. It is however widely accepted that an organic revolution on any great scale would cost tens of billions of pounds and increase environmental damage. So, whether to buy organic is a choice you should make based on your personal preferences and values. I choose to eat some organic food but certainly not everything, knowing it is not essential for good health.
We would all rather eat food grown without synthetic pesticides and it is reassuring that the UK is subject to EU rules and legislation considered one of the strictest regulatory frameworks for pesticides in the world. Interestingly, every year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an American non-profit environmental research organisation shares a list called the Dirty Dozen - fruit and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticide residue.
Strawberries • Spinach • Nectarines • Apples • Pears • Cherries • Grapes • Celery • Tomatoes • Peppers • Potatoes • Chilli’s
While it's tempting to write off the Dirty Dozen, please note all agricultural produce is regulated to ensure any level of pesticides is below any applicable guidelines. This is list is by no means exhaustive and should not discourage you from eating any fruit and vegetables (either conventional or organic) as this will do you more harm than good. Also, a thorough rinsing of any fruit or vegetable with tap water will go a long way toward washing any pesticide residues off your fruit and vegetables.
By contrast, the EWG’s Clean Fifteen lists produce least likely to contain pesticide residues including:
Sweet Corn • Avocado • Pineapple • Cabbage • Onion • Pea • Papaya • Asparagus • Mango • Aubergine • Melon • Kiwi • Cauliflower • Grapefruit
I am absolutely delighted to have been given the opportunity the share my nutritional knowledge and expertise far beyond the confines of my Harley Street clinic in the form my first book - Re-Nourish: The Definitive Guide to Optimum Nutrition. Ahead of its release in December 2017, here is my book preview.
Re-Nourish: The Definitive Guide to Optimum Nutrition is available to pre-order on Amazon and released December 28, 2017.
Registered with the Association for Nutrition (AFN), Rhiannon has obtained first class Bachelor (BSc) and Master’s (MSc) degrees in Nutrition & Health as well as a Diploma in Nutritional Interventions for Eating Disorders. Her qualified approach to nutrition and total dedication to her clients’ needs has seen Rhiannon work with some of the world’s most influential people.
For more information and to speak with Rhiannon, please email info@Rhitrition.com and follow her on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.