Is organic worth it?
In today’s nutrition lexicon, ‘organic’ has become synonymous with ‘healthy’. Many food companies are guilty of using the term to mislead consumers into believing that foods have many more health benefits than what is actually found on their nutrition label. Promotors of organic fare argue that conventionally grown food is laced with dangerous chemicals that are toxic to the body and are a less nutritious choice than their organic counterparts. But for many, the hefty price tag of organic food limits their accessibility, which may result in the underconsumption of fruits and vegetables. So, where is the truth in this confusion? Is organic really worth the price tag, and more importantly, if you can’t afford organic, are there any risks associated with eating conventionally grown fruits and vegetables?
What makes a product ‘Organic’?
Organic foods are produced without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics, or GMOs (genetically modified organisms), and animals raised organically are provided with organic feed that does not include antibiotics, growth hormones, or insecticides (1). In North America, organic foods must meet strict standards set out by governmental institutions and can be recognized by the following logos:
Canada: (Source: Canadian Food Inspection Agency)
United States: (Source: USDA Organic)
Organic farmers rely on methods such as crop rotation, plant compost, and composted manure to enrich the soil (1). However, many conventional farmers also use such farming practices, making a direct comparison between conventional and organic farming challenging (1).
What are the risks of pesticide exposure?
To be effective, pesticides need to be biologically active (toxic) to the fungus/insect/herb that threatens the livelihood of the plant (2). Consequently, there is a concern that the widespread use of pesticides in the food industry could have an unintended negative impact on human and environmental health.
The hazard that humans face when exposed to pesticides is dependent upon the toxicity of the pesticide and the frequency of exposure (2). Individuals at greatest risk of harm from pesticides are those whose occupation frequently exposes them to active chemicals (i.e. individuals whose job it is to spray chemicals directly on plants). A significant body of evidence exists linking occupational pesticide exposure with detrimental health effects of the immune, nervous, endocrine, and reproductive systems, as well as showing an increased risk of cancer, diabetes, and asthma (3,4).
But these negative health outcomes have only been documented in cases of prolonged exposure to pesticides. Determining the negative health impact of low-grade pesticide exposure (i.e. through the consumption of conventionally grown fruits and vegetables) is infinitely more difficult. Finding the answers to this query requires significantly more rigorous research both on the individual active ingredients used in pesticides, as well as the cumulative effect of low-grade pesticide exposure over time.
Is organic food safer and healthier than conventionally grown food?
A 2012 systematic review that included 17 human studies (13 806 participants) and 223 studies that looked at the nutrient and pesticide content of food attempted to answer this question (5). Results from human trials were unable to link organic food to a lower risk of allergenic symptoms (e.g. wheezing, eczema, etc.), and while one study did find lower pesticide residues among children eating a predominantly organic versus conventional diet, the impact of such findings do not appear clinically significant as the majority of trials (6/7) failed to note any difference in human levels of carotenoids, polyphenols, vitamins C or E, LDL cholesterol, antioxidant activity, DNA protection, immune system protection, or semen quality between individuals consuming organic compared to a conventional diet (5).
When evaluating the nutrient content of organic versus conventional food, only two nutrients were found at significantly higher levels in organic produce compared to conventional: phosphorus and phenols (a powerful antioxidant found in plants; 5). Again, given that these nutrients are also found in non-organic produce, the clinical significance of this finding is unknown. Similarly, the clinical significance of higher omega 3 in organic milk and chicken, and vaccenic acid (considered a healthy fat) in organic milk, remains unknown (5).
Unsurprisingly, pesticide residues were much lower in organic produce (7%) than conventional (38%), although the risk of bacterial contamination between the two was similar (5).
While there are clear benefits of buying organic from an environmental standpoint (greater biodiversity, soil integrity, sustainability and a lower demand on non-renewable energy sources; 6) the health and safety benefits of organic vs. conventional food are either over-stated or unknown. As such, the decision to buy organic is ultimately a personal one but should not impede the consumption of fruits and vegetables, which have robust and well-established benefits to human health.
1. Dietitians of Canada. 2014. Are organic foods better for my health? Available from: https://www.dietitians.ca/getattachment/f6250d30-6ca4-4a40-978e-458eaac4be77/FactSheet—Are-organic-foods-better.pdf.aspx
2. Ag Communications and Marketing, The Pennsylvania State University. 2009. Pesticide Safety Fact Sheet: Potential Health Effects of Pesticides. Available from: https://extension.psu.edu/potential-health-effects-of-pesticides
3. Kim KH, Kabir E, Jahan SA. Exposure to pesticides and the associated human health effects. Sci Total Environ. 2017 Jan 1;575:525-535. Abstract available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27614863
4. Blair A, Ritz B, Wesseling C, Freeman LB. Pesticides and human health. Occup Environ Med. 2015 Feb;72(2):81-2. Abstract available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25540410
5. Smith-Spangler C, Brandeau ML, Hunter GE, Bavinger JC, Pearson M, Eschbach PJ, et al. Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives?: a systematic review. Ann Intern Med. 2012 Sep 4;157(5):348-66. Abstract available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22944875
6. FAO Inter-departmental Working Group on Organic Agriculture. n.d. Organic Agriculture. Available from: http://www.fao.org/organicag/oa-faq/oa-faq6/en/