Is organic healthier?
Nutritionist Kerry Torrens discusses whether organic produce is healthier, the labels to look for and which foods, if any, are worth adding to your shopping list.
When we talk about ‘organic’ food we’re referring to the agricultural practices used in the growing, processing, storage and onward sale of organic food. The standards vary internationally, but within the EU, organic producers must comply with standards set out in the EU organic regulations. This means when you buy an organic product, you can be assured there's been:
- Limited use of only naturally-derived pesticides
- No genetically modified ingredients
- No routine use of antibiotics
- No use of growth stimulants like hormones
- No artificial colours or preservatives
- And the livestock is free-range
What’s the difference between organic and non-organic produce?
Visually there may be little difference between organic and non-organic produce and, in many cases, the taste may be similar too. Although, if you source organic fruit and vegetables locally, the superior freshness often results in a notable improvement in flavour.
However, one of the main differences between organic and non-organic produce is that conventionally produced food may, depending on farming practices, have higher levels of pesticides, antibiotics and/or hormones. It could also be argued that conventionally grown food is produced under less regulated growing conditions.
Although views vary, a number of studies suggest that as well as carrying fewer pesticide residues, fresh organic produce may supply more micronutrients such as vitamin C, iron, magnesium and phosphorus, as well as more protective anthocyanins. This is a hotly debated topic and, to date, the evidence is inconclusive, partly due to the fact that organic food production is a broad and complex industry with many variables.
For most families, the major difference and stumbling block to buying organic is the price. In the UK, the organic premium is said to be as much as 89 per cent. Part of the reason for this is the higher cost of production, with farmers relying on more labour-intensive methods of weed and pest control. Organic farms also tend to be smaller with lower output and have the cost associated with certification.
Seasonality is also an important difference, with the benefit of many conventionally produced foods being available all year round.
Does this mean organic food is healthier for me?
Although organic produce has numerous benefits, it’s not necessarily healthier for you and it’s worth remembering that food is not the only source of chemical exposure. How we garden, where we live, the cleaning products we use in our home and whether we treat our pets for parasites are all potential sources for increasing our chemical burden.
Marketers also work hard to make foods sound attractive, so those organic bakes, desserts and snacks, although organic, will still be high in sugar, fat and calories.
When is buying organic food beneficial?
Organic food presents numerous benefits, for example, if you are concerned about the environment, then organic food may be the right choice for you. With the focus on improving the health of the soil and its fertility, organic practices look to the long-term. Organic farming also encourages wildlife, biodiversity and the work of natural predators to maintain ecological balance.
From a health perspective, some cite that eating organic food may reduce the risk of allergy and obesity, however, the evidence for this is largely inconclusive because of the many confounding factors, not least that organic consumers tend to have healthier lifestyles anyway. That said, there are some interesting observations suggesting organic dairy may reduce the incidence of allergic dermatitis and that organic foods generally, may help to improve skin health.
Another benefit is that organic meat and milk are said to be richer in nutrients including omega-3 fatty acids, with as much as 50 per cent more than that of conventionally reared livestock. In addition to this, any bacteria found in organically produced meat are less likely to be resistant to antibiotics.
When should I buy organic?
With higher prices for organic food, you will want to use your budget wisely. With one of the most popular organic lines being fruit and vegetables, it’s worth knowing which to invest in. The Environmental Working Group, a US-based not-for-profit organisation, produces an annual assessment of the twelve fruit and vegetables containing the highest levels of pesticides (known as 'the dirty dozen') and the fifteen with the lowest (known as 'the clean 15').
We’ve put together our own list of when to invest in organic and when to save.
When to invest
When to save
- Sweetcorn on the cob
Is it still better to eat non-organic fruits and veggies than none at all?
Non-organic foods like fruit, vegetables, whole-grains, legumes and eggs are all nutrient dense and beneficial for health and well-being. It’s far more important to eat your five-a-day, choosing whole-grains instead of refined white versions and including lean meat, fish, beans and pulses as well as nuts, seeds and dairy, than to restrict food to organically-produced only and miss out on a healthy, varied diet.
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Getting your minimum five-a-day of fruit and vegetables, whether they’re organic or not, will help to supply the vitamins and minerals you need for good health. Fruit and veg are also an excellent source of fibre, which helps support a healthy digestive system and balance blood sugar levels.
What certification should I look for when buying organic?
It’s reassuring to know that throughout the UK there are a number of control bodies who regularly inspect producers, distributors and marketers of organic products to ensure they meet organic standards. These checks are undertaken at least once a year and only the foods that meet the standards are granted an organic certificate. In the UK there are eight approved organic certification bodies, possibly, the most well-known being the Soil Association.
Whether you decide to buy organic or not, understanding the provenance of your food is the most powerful tool you have for making sound buying choices. This knowledge allows you to make informed decisions and helps to optimise the freshness, quality and nutritional value of the food in your basket.
It’s worth remembering that many small, local producers adopt organic practices but can’t afford the cost of organic certification. You can find many of these producers at local farmer’s markets. Buying locally, from one of these markets, allows you direct access to the producer and all of his/her knowledge of their product.
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This article was published on 7th September 2020.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a registered nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in personalised nutrition & nutritional therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.