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The Organic vs Non-Organic Debate

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Organic food is all the rage among the health conscious in today’s society.  This has fuelled the demand in the organic food industry which has been growing by double digits each year since the 1990s. People are doling out good money to buy significantly more expensive organic produce in the belief that consuming these foods would be beneficial to their health. Others claim that organic foods taste better and that growing foods organically is better for the environment.

In order to qualify as “organic”, the foods must be produced without the use of synthetic chemicals, growth hormones, antibiotics or genetically modified organisms. The foods must also be free of artificial food additives. In other words, the farming practices must only involve natural substances.

In this article, we look at some of the claims made by the proponents of organic food to see if they can be supported by evidence.

Claim 1: Organic foods are more nutritious than their non-organic counterparts


organic foods vs in-organic foodsSeveral studies have shown that organic foods may contain more nutrients, higher levels of certain types of flavonoids which have antioxidant properties and even omega-3 fatty acids. One study even found that organically grown berries and corn contained 58% more antioxidants and up to 52% more Vitamin C.  

Yet on the other end of the spectrum, there are also studies which show that there is insufficient evidence to suggest that these differences are a direct consequence of the organic or non-organic nature of the foods. This is because other factors such as the way crops are harvested, differences in quality of soil and climate conditions have been shown to have a significant impact on the nutrient content of the food.

Claim 2: Organic foods contain less toxins


Studies have shown that organic foods tend to contain less nitrates and toxic metals such as cadmium.  Over time, cadmium can accumulate in the body and potentially have harmful effects.

Remembering to wash and scrub foods before cooking them can go a long way towards removing them albeit not completely.   The toxins found in non-organic foods are well below the level that is deemed unsafe and not been found to be significant enough to pose health risks. But the real issue is whether or not these toxins, accumulated over time, might pose a significant health risk.

It is also a common misconception that organic farms use absolutely no pesticides. They do. The difference is that the pesticides used on organic farms are naturally derived which are believed to be less toxic. Some argue that because organic farming do not use synthetic insecticides and herbicides, there are more pests and weeds than crops which are grown on non-organic farms. This may mean that the organic plants themselves may produce more natural toxins which may also prove to be harmful to if you ingest too much of it.

On the balance, it is probably right to say that you are probably going to get much less pesticides with organic foods. Whether or not this would translate into real and significant differences in health risks is something which is still subject to debate.

Claim 3: Organically produced dairy products are more nutritious than non-organically produced ones


Organically produced dairy products have been shown to contain higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids (which have been found to be beneficial for the heart), vitamins, antioxidants and CLA (conjugated linoleum acid).  CLA is a fatty acid that has been found to protect the cardiovascular system.  CLA is naturally found in higher quantities in breast milk and in meat of free range or cage-free animals.
However, some studies also show that organic milk may contain less selenium and iodine than non organic milk, both of which have been found to have health benefits.

Conclusion:


The jury is still out as to whether or not organic foods are necessarily more nutritious than non-organic ones.  The USDA and FDA still maintain that regular produce is as healthy as organic food. With the exception of perhaps organic milk and tomatoes, scientific research at this stage has still not been able to conclusively prove that organic foods are better than non-organic ones.  There is also very limited information on actual health outcomes on people who consume these products because the differences might not be significant enough to have an impact on overall nutrition.

Take Home Message:  

Given that there is nothing definitive to suggest that organic foods are better than non-organic foods and that organic food is much more expensive than non organic ones, you may do well to select foods from a variety of sources.

Most importantly, wash your foods well before cooking and consuming and eat them while they are fresh. If there is one thing certain, it is that you get the most nutritional value from your foods if you eat them while they are fresh. Nutrients deteriorate over time and even if the nutrients in organic foods are higher, you may well not be benefitting fully from them if you do not consume them while they are fresh.

You also need to see if the overall picture makes sense for you.  Eating foods known to have good nutritional value like whole grains and fruit and vegetable, organic or otherwise, should be the rule of thumb because junk food, whether organic or not, is still junk food so organic potato chips or organic desserts heavily laden with sugar will still not do your body much good. Spending less on regular nutritious food so that you can save the money to buy those few organic items may not be the wisest thing to do.


Further Reading

 
The article above is meant to provide general information and does not replace a doctor's consultation.
Please see your doctor for professional advice.