The terms “organic” and “sustainable” are now prominent on the menus of fashionable restaurants and food shops in the UK, even though a few decades ago they were hardly used. 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?
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.
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.
Ultimately, there is not enough strong evidence available to prove that eating organic provides health benefits over eating regular foods and so whether you choose to buy organic or not is a personal choice.
I choose to eat some organic food but certainly not exclusively, as it’s definitely not essential for good health. Having said that, I always try to buy organic, free-range eggs and meats along with sustainably sourced fish.
It’s good to remember that a thorough rinsing of any fruit or vegetables with tap water will go a long way towards washing off any pesticide residues. It is also reassuring to know that in the UK we are subject to some of the strictest regulations for pesticides in the world.
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