We all want to buy the food that is best for us, but is organic food actually better for us? Is it worth the extra cost? In this post we’ll take a look at what the term “organic” means, how this impacts us, and strategies for shopping organic.
What Does Organic Mean?
What the organic label means is slightly different for animal products versus produce and other food products.
Organic animal products, such as meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy, comes from animals that have not been treated with antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic produce and packaged food (such as cereal or tomato sauce) is grown and produced without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or ionizing radiation. Organic foods are also generally free of fortifying agents such as preservatives, artificial sweeteners, colors, or flavors, and MSG. In addition, the farmers who produce organic food are focused on using renewable resources and conserving soil and water for future generations.
So all the above sounds good. Does that mean organic better for you?
Organic farming practices are certainly better for the environment, but whether or not organic food is better for you is an issue of ongoing debate and research. To get a better understanding of the complexity involved, let’s take a snapshot look at how conventional farming practices such as pesticides, antibiotics, and growth hormones affect food and whether the nutritional composition of organic foods is different from conventional.
What Does Organic Mean for Me?
When it comes to organic vs non-organic, there are several high-level concepts to consider: pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones, and nutrition.
In conventional farming, farmers treat their crops with synthetic pesticides to prevent disease and make them more resilient. Unfortunately, this usually means that some of the pesticide contaminants stay on the crops. Pesticides are toxic to human health, but the amount of pesticides found on foods is very small–the EPA regulates how much pesticide residue is allowed on any food. However, the more pesticides you are exposed to, the greater your risk of harm from them. Those at greatest risk are the workers who grow and handle the food.
Children and unborn babies may also be more sensitive to certain pesticides.
The amount of pesticides found in fruit and veggies varies depending on the type. For example, certain produce, including peaches, nectarines, and grapes, tend to contain a lot of pesticide residue, while others, such as avocados and pineapples, contain hardly any. In general, fruits and veggies with thick shells contain less pesticide residue because it’s harder for the pesticides to permeate through the skin. To find out what produce is most contaminated refer to the dirty dozen list. You should also look at the “clean 15” list of the least contaminated fruits and veggies.
As for animal products such as meat and dairy, carrying the organic label means that the animal has never been treated with antibiotics or growth hormones and has been fed a diet that adheres to strict organic standards. Antibiotics are a hot topic these days, as the overuse of antibiotics has caused more people and animals to develop antibiotic resistance. Most experts agree that minimizing the use of antibiotics in the food system is vital to our current and future health.
Some conventional dairy cows are treated with growth hormones to stimulate milk production. While the growth hormone itself is unlikely to survive pasteurization or human digestion, the milk from hormone-treated cows contains higher levels of Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF-I) than the milk from non-treated cows. IGF-I is found to some extent in all animal products, and some studies have linked it to cancer. However, other studies, along with the American Cancer Society, say the evidence is inconclusive.
What about the nutritional makeup of organic versus nonorganic food? Results here are mixed. A widely cited 2012 study by Stanford University looked at more than 200 studies and concluded there was little health benefit to eating organic food. But then in 2014, another major study out of Europe, looked at over 300 studies and concluded that organic fruits and vegetables contain higher concentrations of antioxidants than their conventional counterparts.
Research also shows that grass-fed organic cows produce milk with more omega-3 fatty acids, a healthy anti-inflammatory fat. In contrast, conventional dairy cows fed a mainly corn-based diet produce milk with higher levels of omega-6 fatty acids, a pro-inflammatory fat. Both conventional and organic farms raise grass-fed cows, so only purchasing milk labelled as grass-fed assures a healthy balance of fatty acids in your milk. But while more omega-3’s is a great thing, ounce for ounce, you get much more omega-3 from eating fatty fish such as wild salmon than you do from a glass of milk.
We know that organic farming practices are better for the environment and the workers handling the food. Whether choosing organic food over conventional will affect your health significantly is unclear, but it’s a hot topic and therefore likely that new research will continue to come out in this area.
In the meantime, if you can afford to buy mostly organic, do it. It’s better for the environment, it’s better for the workers handling and growing the food, and it may be better for you. Choosing organic will also help drive up demand, eventually bringing down costs and increasing farming standards for all foods.
But, if you are on a stricter food budget, just choose strategically. Some produce is more likely to be contaminated with pesticides than others and some meat is more likely to come from cows treated with artificial growth hormones and antibiotics.
One thing that experts do seem to agree on: when it comes to fruits and vegetables, more is better–so when faced with the choice of eating conventional produce or eating no produce, eat the produce. The benefits of adding any fruits and vegetables to our diet still outweighs the risk of not eating them.
Money is Tight, but I’m Willing to Invest in Organic Where I can… What Should I Focus On?
To help you sort through all this information, here is some helpful advice on deciding what organic foods are worth spending your hard-earned dollars on.
Also, pregnant women and young children may be better off choosing organic when possible, since we still don’t know the amount of risk posed by exposure to factors such as pesticides and IGF-I.
Produce: Buy organic for the produce on the dirty dozen list; non-organic is okay for the others, especially those on the clean 15 list.
Regardless of whether you choose organic produce or not, be sure to wash your fruits and veggies thoroughly with water. This step alone can help remove pesticide residue, along with any dirt or bacteria.
Breads, cereals, and other packaged food: Conventional is probably fine, but if you feel passionately about advocating organic farming practices, choose organic when you can. Also read labels carefully to minimize added ingredients such as preservatives and food colorings that are often found in conventional foods. Likewise, just because a packaged food is organic doesn’t mean it’s healthier. For example, organic cookies are usually just as high in sugar and fat than non-organic cookies.
Dairy: Choose organic dairy products if your budget allows, especially for children and pregnant women. Organic milk reduces the worry about the unknown effects added growth hormones, but otherwise it’s known health advantages are minimal. Any grass-fed milk offers a more favorable omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, but make sure the milk is pasteurized to kill harmful bacteria.
Meat, Poultry & Eggs: If you support organic farming practices, choose organic meat, poultry, and eggs if your budget allows. Grass-fed beef may offer some nutritional advantages, but otherwise research does not yet show a significant nutritional difference between organic versus conventional. (Note: both conventional and organic eggs can be high in omega-3’s; it depends on the diet of the hen.) Buying from a local farmer is also a good way to know what is in your food and where it’s coming from.