The organic food industry has reached incredible heights and is predicted to reach $320.5 billion by 2025, according to some estimates (1). Organic food is far from a trend. It has become a golden standard, and it is not going anywhere.
Organic products are supposedly more natural, healthier, and have a smaller impact on our environment, making them a more ethical choice. When people learn about all these benefits, paying more for organic seems reasonable.
But are organic foods really a better choice? Are they more nutritious, safer, and better for the environment than conventionally grown foods, like organic proponents say?
Many studies have examined these questions, evaluated the health benefits, environmental impacts, and compared the agricultural production methods. The results are mixed.
What Are Organic Foods Anyway?
There is no global consensus on what organic food is, and it depends on the regional standards. In the US, these standards are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Products that meet the criteria receive the USDA certified organic label meaning that food contains at least 95% organic ingredients.
In general, organic production uses no synthetic pesticides, artificial fertilizers, ionizing radiation, or GMO-ingredients. Instead, organic farmers use traditional methods to grow produce like crop rotation and organic fertilizers like manure and compost. They also include organic pesticides when necessary and, in some rare instances, a few synthetic ones approved by the USDA.
Animals on organic farms receive organically grown feed and are typically free to roam outside. These animals receive no antibiotics or growth hormones, and should be safe from pesticide exposure.
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Is Organic Food Healthier?
One of the biggest appeals of organic foods is that they are supposed to be healthier and grown without pesticides. However, current evidence doesn’t reflect that.
“There has been a number of studies examining the macro- and micronutrient content, but whether organically or conventionally grown, the foods are really similar for vitamins, minerals, and carbohydrates,” says Kathy McManus, a registered dietitian and a director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
A 2014 systematic literature review found that organic foods contained higher antioxidant levels, lower cadmium levels, and lower incidence of pesticide residues than conventionally grown food (3). It seems that antioxidants in plants play a defensive role, and they could have beneficial health effects by minimizing oxidative stress in our cells (4).
Another common belief is that organic produce has better nutrient content. And while some studies found a slight increase of certain minerals, vitamin C, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids in organic food, other studies found no such link (5,6,7).
In fact, 2009, 2012, and 2017 meta-reviews found no significant nutritional differences and no visible health benefits of organic over conventionally grown food (7,8,9,10).
A new systematic review of organic vs. conventional foods shows promise as more observational studies demonstrate the health effects of organic food consumption (11). However, the authors conclude that current evidence doesn’t allow definite statements on the health benefits of organic foods.
Studies show that pesticide residues in organic produce are far lower than in conventional foods (12). However, even those higher pesticide levels were far below what the Environmental Protection Agency has marked as unsafe. Scientists are still inconclusive whether these could add up over the years, but it is much more likely that they simply run through your body.
One thing is certain - we should all try to eat more whole foods, fruits and vegetables, instead of highly processed ingredients. You can search for locally grown meats and seasonal produce at farmers' markets near you, organic or not. That way, you can buy fresher ingredients at a fair price.
Is Organic Farming Better for the Environment?
Another reason why people choose organic is that it is marketed as a better solution for our environment. By using fewer pesticides, being more sustainable, and using more natural methods, people believe that organic farming is clearly a better choice for our planet. After all, we are in a climate change crisis, and everybody should try and minimize their impact on the environment.
A 2017 meta-analysis looked at the impact of conventional and organic farming on the environment (13). The results showed that organic farms use less energy than regular ones, but have similar gas emissions. Additionally, organic farms use a lot more land to produce the same amount of food, but they spray less pesticides. The results conclude that no production method is better. They both have certain advantages and disadvantages, and a possible hybrid production may even produce the best results (14).
According to the analyses performed by the Environmental Working Group, unsafe levels of some pesticides have been found in tap water in some areas that could lead to negative health outcomes (15). These results from the Environmental Working Group have raised a lot of questions about pesticide residue in agriculture and the impact it can have on our environment.
Organic farming also focuses on improving soil fertility, which results in the improvement of soil erosion, according to the Organic Trade Association. However, the use of certain organic pesticides has been linked to negative environmental impacts in some studies (20).
The biggest problem with organic farming is that it is less efficient than conventional agriculture. There is only so much space we can use for growing crops, and we are pretty much using most of it. Agriculture is a significant factor in driving climate change, which is why having more efficient farming methods and using less land is the outcome we should look for. Organic farming isn’t the solution to feed the world because of poor land utilization (15).
However, one thing where organic clearly wins is animal farming. A more ethical approach where livestock is provided with certain levels of comfort and freedom to roam around is a huge plus over conventional farms. That is why many customers decide to buy organic dairy products and meats.
Are Organic Foods More Natural?
People mainly buy organic food to avoid synthetic pesticides and artificial chemicals. However, that doesn't mean organic food production doesn't use any pesticides. In fact, the list of organic pesticides approved for use is quite long. And it even includes a few synthetic substances (17).
Naturally occurring pesticides are not necessarily safer than artificial ones. Certain organic pesticides like copper sulfate are even more toxic than commonly used synthetic pesticides (18).
An interesting Danish study showed that usual exposure to pesticides in our diet carries the same health risks as drinking a glass of wine once every three months (19). Even though pesticides are scary, these results are looking promising.
As long as farmers are following pesticide use guidelines, and you are washing your produce before eating, there seems to be no significant risk for your health. Remember, it's concentration that makes something toxic, not if it originated in nature or the lab.
Eating organic foods could be healthier, but it depends on what you eat. Current scientific evidence shows little to no nutritional difference between organically and conventionally grown produce and farm animals. If your goal is to eat healthily, focus on eating lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and animal products made with lean protein. Buying from local farms is always the best option.
Again, it depends on what you eat. If you are comparing organic produce and non-organic burgers, then yes, eating organic is better. But if your diet consists of healthy ingredients, it doesn't matter if you are buying organic or regular food.
Some of the benefits of organic foods include less pesticide residues, ethical animal farming practices, and in some rare cases, a higher nutritional value of certain products. USDA organic certification ensures that strict procedures are being followed, which is important for many consumers.
What you eat is more important than how it is produced. So, buy locally grown produce from your farmers' market or grocery store. Look for responsibly raised meats and purchase eggs and dairy products from farmers where animals are treated well. This is where organic comes in handy since organic farmers do not use growth hormones and antibiotics. But, considering everything, going organic will only bring you health benefits if you commit to a healthy diet.
The Bottom Line – Is Organic Worth the Hype?
Organic foods are a part of our everyday diets. Buying organic has become the norm for many people, and parents often don't want to feed their children anything other than organic. And for a good reason, too.
Most proponents of organic foods believe it is a healthier, safer, and environmental-friendly way of farming. People's primary concern is pesticide use, and with organic, they get products that have less residue pesticides.
However, when you look at big organic factory farms, and the way they spray pesticides, you would never think they are organic. An organic supporter and a best-selling book author Michael Pollan once described these farms:
"They're organic by the letter, not organic in spirit. If most organic consumers went to those places, they would feel they were getting ripped off."
This doesn't mean that organic food is bad. But if you are really looking for a healthier and eco-friendly solution, buy from local farms. The meat, fruits, and vegetables you get from these places are always fresh, with potentially less pesticides, you can get to know the farmers and where the food is coming from, and the carbon dioxide emissions are much lower since there is no transportation needed.