Is Organic Food Healthier?: All the Factors Analyzed

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Organic food has become incredibly popular in the past five years, and as consumer demand continues to grow, most major supermarkets have begun offering organic options for fruits, vegetables, bread and dairy products.

The question that comes to many of our minds when standing in the produce aisle trying to decide between a conventionally grown apple or an organic apple is this: Does it really matter? Especially when organic items tend to be more expensive than their conventionally grown peers, is organic food really worth it?

We sifted through the research and have gathered answers into three parts: the good, the bad and the unclear.

The Good

We’ll start with some positive news. Multiple studies have proven that organic growing methods are better for soil quality and for the farmers growing our crops, too. An article in the Washington Post summarized the key benefits of organic farming methods based on a 23-year USDA comparison study as:

  • Having more-fertile soil
  • Using less fertilizer and much less herbicide
  • Using less energy
  • Locking away more carbon in the soil
  • Being more profitable for farmers

Soil quality may be the furthest thing from your mind when you’re shopping for strawberries or onions, but smarter farming systems ensure that the soil remains rich, fertile and sustainable without harsh pesticides or disruptive farming methods.

Better soil quality, however, doesn’t necessarily translate into better health benefits for you.

The Bad

I’d wager that when most of us fork out a few bucks extra for organic blueberries or celery, we’re not doing it because we care about energy use or farmer profits — although those may be much-appreciated fringe benefits.

The reason many people are happy to pay a bit more for organic products is that we’ve been led to believe that organic food is somehow healthier — more nutrient dense, less contaminated with pesticides and just better for you in general.

The problem is that science hasn’t ever demonstrated a hard link between organic food and greater health benefits. A review published in 2012 went through 17 studies of human beings and 223 studies of nutrient and contaminant levels in food, and in general found no meaningful difference between organically grown or conventionally grown, nor any clear link between organic food and higher nutrient levels.

This in itself isn’t problematic — I think organic food is worth it for the environmental benefits alone — but it may be misleading to those who choose organic items due to their perceived health benefits.

It is worth noting that another Washington Post article reported studies showing that conventional produce tested higher for pesticide residue (73 percent vs. just 23 percent of organic), although they also add that “… lifetime risk of adverse health effects due to low-level exposure to pesticide residue through consumption of produce is ‘far below even minimal health concerns, even over a lifetime,'” according to Carl Winter, a toxicologist at the University of California at Davis.

The Unclear

We’ve already tackled produce farming methodologies and nutrition and pesticide content — what else is there to discuss when comparing organic products vs. conventional?

Well, many believe that organic animal or dairy farms abide by more stringent animal welfare standards than conventional operations.

Organic livestock farms are regulated by the National Organic Program (NOP), and they do specify rules about the animals’ treatment, as explained by website The Balance:

“The USDA mandates specific living conditions for organic livestock, including access to pasture, access to shade and indoor shelter, an exercise area, and living conditions must be appropriate for livestock based on stage of life, the climate, and the environment.

“Health and care for organic livestock is addressed by NOP and includes issues such as feeding, living conditions, types of medications allowed and other basic care practices.

“Most significant of all the NOP health care rules is that a producer may not withhold treatment from an organic animal simply to keep that animal organic.”

This last part is important because it means that farmers must treat an animal with conventional medicine, including antibiotics, if their health depends on it. But, as in conventional farming, that animal will be removed from production until the antibiotic has left their system.

The thing is, none of the NOP’s rules really address many of the issues that have animal rights groups concerned about animal welfare. Male chicks are still routinely destroyed, calves are still removed from their mothers directly after birth, and access to the outdoors is at the farmer’s discretion and subject to handfuls of dependencies.

In short, if you’re looking for happy meat or dairy, organic products may get you a bit closer, yet many of the same worrying practices remain.

The Bottom Line

Are you more confused about organics now than when you began reading? Well, that’s normal — this is an intensely complex issue and tough to break down into black and white. If we had to recommend a bottom-line plan of action, it would be to buy organic where availability and cost allow, reduce (or eliminate completely, in my case) meat and dairy consumption, and try shopping at alternate retailers whenever possible.

Farmers markets, local farms, co-ops and backyard gardens are fantastic ways to truly know what’s in the food you eat — either because you can ask the grower directly or grow it yourself and know for sure. Doing so often takes some of the mystery out of food shopping, allows you to eat more seasonally, and helps you get around all of that fine print and industry talk and get real answers from the people who know best.

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Madeleine Somerville

Madeleine Somerville is the author of All You Need Is Less: An Eco-Friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity. She is a writer, wannabe hippie and lover of soft cheeses. She lives in Edmonton, Canada, with her daughter. You can also find Madeleine at her blog, Sweet Madeleine.