On one side you’ve got the organic food crowd screaming that consuming conventional produce will kill you.
On the other side, supporters of non-organic farming methods say there’s no difference between organic and regular produce.
Both sides claim to have the science to support their argument.
Is organic food actually better for you?
There’s research out there that says organic food is hardly any different regular or conventionally raised foods. There’s also research out there showing how much better organic food is compared to regular foods. If you believe in organic, you’ll quote the studies in favor of it. If you think the whole organic thing is just a slick marketing campaign, you’ll point to studies showing how there’s little difference between the two.
Regardless of what you believe, you’re more than likely going to look at the research that confirms your bias. I feel this reporting issue is the real problem. Let’s do away with the confirmation bias as best we can!
In today’s article, I’m going to present both side’s best arguments. By the end of this post, you’ll be empowered with all the information you need to make an educated decision on whether you should go organic or conventional.
Let’s get going!
Is organic food better for you – my bias in writing this
As a clinician, I’m most concerned about guiding my patients back to health. I try to do this as quickly and efficiently as I possibly can. This is my bias in writing this post.
I am not considering the agricultural effects of organic vs conventional farming methods. I’m not considering the environmental impacts either. My focus is solely on the health outcomes involved with organic vs conventional farming methods.
I recognize the agricultural and environmental impacts of how food is grown is a HUGE issue. Some would say it is the only issue. But that discussion is well beyond the scope of this post. I’ve intentionally left those issues out of this post.
This post is focused on best practices in obtaining the most vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other health-promoting substances. Namely, whether that is best done by the consumption of organic or conventional raised foods.
Why organic food might not make a difference
Those who believe that the organic food industry is nothing more than a slick marketing campaign will inevitably point to a 2012 study done at Stanford University. The study concludes by saying:
The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. (1)
This study reviewed over 200 other studies on organic vs conventional foods. This is what is known as a meta-analysis. A meta-analysis is a study of other studies. So far as research goes, meta-analysis holds far more weight than a single study.
This study did find higher phosphorus levels in organic produce compared to conventionally raised produce. It also found higher omega-3 content in organic milk compared to the non-organic varieties. But that’s it.
All the other vitamins and minerals were not shown to exhibit much difference between organic and conventional. These findings have influenced a lot of practitioner’s opinions about organic food. Swaying them towards the side that organic might really not be as beneficial as we thought.
Wait, there’s more to organic than just vitamins and minerals
Right you are! The other benefit supporters of the organic movement claim are the reduction in herbicides and pesticides. That too was acknowledged in the Stanford study. Quoted from the conclusion of the study:
Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. (2)
That seems like a win to me. My opinion aside, a panel of scientists also suggest that limiting your intake of pesticides should be done in order to lessen the likelihood of cancer. (3)
In summary, even if organic foods don’t convey vitamin and mineral benefits, they most certainly convey other healthful benefits. Namely in the reduction of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and pesticide residues.
But before you get all high and mighty on organic, you should know that organic crops use pesticides too!
Do organic crops use pesticides?
Just because your food is organic does not mean it’s free from pesticides. Organic crops use pesticides. The distinction between organic and non-organic instead has to do with the types of pesticides used.
Conventional crops use chemical or synthetic pesticides. Organic crops use organic pesticides. Substances like rotenone-pyrethrin mixture are commonly used pesticides on organic crops. While organic pesticides are less bad than chemical pesticides, you’d be wise to exhibit caution.
The bottom line here is to wash your fruits and veggies before eating them. Both conventional and organic produce may have trace amounts of pesticides on the food’s skin. Thorough washing before consumption will prevent your ingestion of any unwanted substances – organic or not!
Now, let’s look at some of the research suggesting organic food is better. Even in the context of vitamins and mineral content!
Why organic food might be better for you
Two years after the Stanford study was published, the British Journal of Nutrition added another meta-analysis to the organic vs conventional debate. What I like about this study was that the researchers included more than just vitamin/mineral content. They also included antioxidant content!
The highlights of the British study include: (4)
- Substantially higher antioxidant levels in organic produce.
- Many of these compounds have previously been linked to a reduced risk of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases and certain cancers.
- 4x higher pesticide residues found on conventionally raised produce.
- Significantly higher levels of the toxic metal cadmium on conventionally raised crops.
- Cadmium levels in organic produce were 48-400% lower.
The dose makes the poison, doesn’t it?
This section is the crux of this post. Pay close attention!
Based on the data we have, I feel we can draw the following conclusions:
- Organic produce likely contains slightly higher levels of specific vitamins/minerals.
- Organic produce likely contains higher antioxidant levels.
- Organic produce contains less pesticide residue and toxic metals.
That’s all well and good, but the real question is:
Does consuming organic food actually convey tangible health benefits to a person?
I don’t think we know the answer to this question. And we’ll probably struggle to answer this question for some time. It’s just way too hard to isolate a small variable like that in a study.
What I do think is important is the dose. The dose of a beneficial substance or the dose of a potentially harmful substance. More specifically, the longterm effects of a dose. Even if it’s a small dose.
Gaining a 3% increase in the antioxidant content of your food may seem insignificant. Just like consuming 1% more pesticides also seems of minor importance. Please note that I chose arbitrary numbers. The 3% and 1% are not based on data – instead they’re used to illustrate a small increase.
But what happens when you extend this over the course of your lifetime?
Well, that 3% increase starts to hold a lot of weight, that’s what. It becomes a lot more influential over the longterm. Similarly, a 1% increase in a toxic substance over the course of your life becomes a lot more deadly than a one-time exposure.
Smoking 3 cigarettes once is harmless. Smoking three cigarettes a day for 50 years is not harmless. The duration makes the difference.
I suspect there to be a similar effect in the context of organic vs non-organic. Eating foods with lower vitamin/mineral content, antioxidant content, and higher pesticide load every now and then conveys little risk. But if you do that over the course of a lifetime, your risk increases.
Similarly, eating foods with a higher vitamin, mineral, and antioxidant content but lower pesticide content won’t convey any benefit if you do it once. You don’t get healthier by having one organic meal. Just like you don’t get sick by having one non-organic meal. The benefits are tangible only over a long period of time.
Taking the middle road towards going organic
I don’t think you need to immediately swap all your conventional produce for organic varieties. That’s expensive and stressful. If you have the means to make the switch, go for it! But don’t feel as though your health depends on it.
A more comfortable and middle road to take is by following the dirty dozen and the clean fifteen.
Every year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) releases a list of what is now known and the dirty dozen and the clean fifteen. The dirty dozen are the twelve foods with the highest levels of pesticides. The clean fifteen are the fifteen foods with the lowest pesticide levels.
If you’re thinking about going organic, start by purchasing the dirty dozen foods as an organic variety. The clean fifteen can be purchased as conventional produce without much worry. This way you can make the transition towards organic produce without breaking the bank.
Is organic food better for you – final thoughts
Over the course of your lifetime, I think eating foods with lower pesticide loads and higher nutrient density will be beneficial. But don’t expect to see a change in your health two weeks after going organic. The benefits accrue over a long period of time. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
If you’re dealing with a health issue like fatigue, switching from conventional to organic produce likely won’t change your energy levels. With that said, reducing stresses to your body – like pesticides – will certainly have a positive effect.
Think of eating organic food like exercise. It’s something that brings benefit when it becomes habitual. The odd workout here or there won’t change your physique. In order to glean benefits from exercise, it needs to be a regular part of your life. Same goes for eating organic.
So, get started by switching the dirty dozen foods for an organic variety! That’s a perfect first step that you can start the next time you visit the grocery store.
Now, I want to hear from you!
What do you think about the organic vs conventional debate?
How has eating organic foods altered your health?
Leave your answers in the comments section below!