The availability of organic foods has increased over the past few years, and now organic foods are more accessible than ever. With all of the fuss over them, are they really worth the hype? As a dietitian I’m often asked this question. Let’s take a closer look…
Firstly, what is organic food?
Organic food is any food, plant or animal, that has been grown and processed without the use of any synthetic pesticides or herbicides, antibiotics or growth hormones. Instead, these foods are grown with natural pesticides/herbicides, organic compost/feed and manure.
Is it superior?
Let’s look at the two most common factors when it comes to assessing the health ‘superiority’ of an organic food- nutritional quality and human safety.
When it comes to nutritional quality, studies show that there is no significant difference between conventional and organic foods. The most important factor when it comes to comparing the nutritional quality of a specific food is how fresh it is, as we know that nutritional quality degrades significantly over time (see more about this here). So, while an organic vs conventional orange may have very similar nutritional contents, an orange picked a day ago vs an orange picked two weeks ago will have much higher levels of vitamins, minerals and other beneficial nutrients.
Is it safer?
When it comes to the safety of consuming foods farmed with non-organic methods, as Aussies we have it pretty good here in Australia. Meaning that, the products used on farms in Australia, and outside Australia for imported produce, are monitored according to strict limits for chemical residue set by the governing body for food regulation, FSANZ (Food Standards Australia New Zealand). These limits are set according to the amount of chemicals humans can be safely exposed to without it having any toxic or detrimental effect to our health, and are set to be much lower than the amounts shown to have any toxicological effects.
Currently, no studies looking into the difference between consuming organic and conventional produce indicate any harmful effects of consuming conventional produce. There is some evidence to show that farmers exposed to synthetic chemicals through their work have an increased risk of particular diseases and other negative health impacts, however their exposure to such products is significantly higher than non-farm workers.
So should we just forget organic and stick to conventional?
When it’s available and if you can afford the extra cost, there can certainly be some benefits to choosing organic foods, which come down to their social and environmental impacts. Organic produce often spoils faster, which means that to stay fresh it will normally only be distributed to local sellers nearby. The benefit of this is that buying organic produce is almost always supporting local growers.
However, don’t assume that to buy local you have to buy organic- since organic certification is a long and expensive process, many smaller organic farms opt not to become certified, meaning you may be buying organic produce when you buy local, without even knowing it. Environmentally, organic produce can also be a better option. Without the use of synthetic chemicals, organic farms can have a much smaller effect on carbon emissions and reduce the detrimental impacts of water pollution.
In a nutshell
Benefits and disadvantages of choosing organic…
Benefits: Supporting local, eating seasonally (more on this here), more environmentally friendly
Disadvantages: More expensive, often spoils faster, less easily available
As always it comes down to choice.