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Science update: Is organic food healthier?

Organic food is served up with a health halo priced in. How do the claims stack up against conventional produce?

The organic food industry is big business. Fuelled by strong consumer demand based on health, environmental and ethical concerns, it is very much on-trend to ‘go organic’. To choose organic produce as a result of its nutritional superiority would be a great move. The problem is, there is not a lot of strong scientific evidence to say it actually offers that advantage.

Nutrient levels in foods vary for all sorts of reasons. Growing region, rainfall, time of year for harvest and storage time after harvest all drastically affect nutrient levels. We still need a lot of research work to get a clear picture of whether organic food has more nutritional value than its conventional cousin.

What the science says

A systematic review published in 2012 concluded there was a lack of strong evidence that organic foods were significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Nor could the review find any extra health benefits or protection against allergic disease or bacterial infection from eating organic.

Fast-forward to 2014, when a review discovered organic crops did have higher levels of antioxidants than conventional ones. However, most of the other nutrients tested for showed no difference. When you consider organic produce’s price premium, eating a little more conventional produce in the first place could easily make up for the antioxidant difference.

Worried about pesticides?

When consumers choose organic food, the absence of synthetic pesticides is often high on their health radar. Too much of any pesticide residue on food is harmful. Thankfully, levels are monitored and kept within very safe levels. Washing and peeling food before eating can reduce residues even more.

But surely, you might say, it’s better to choose organic and be pesticide free? Not so fast… organic food is only free from synthetic pesticides. Although certified organic, such produce can still be grown with the use of naturally occurring pesticides such as pyrethrins, light oils, copper and sulphur – and even some types of pesticide-producing bacteria. In organic foods, levels of these natural pesticides are ‘very low’ to ‘undetectable’, but in high enough doses, can be just as harmful as synthetic pesticides.

To put pesticides in context, more than 99 per cent of the pesticides eaten in a typical diet are naturally present in the food to start with, not added by farmers. And of these pesticides, half will cause cancer in rats if given in high enough doses.

But there’s no need to be alarmed, as these very low doses of natural pesticides on foods may explain some of the health benefits of fruit and veges. They can stimulate your immune system by placing a very mild level of stress on the body.

Does organic really taste better?

Consumers often cite the taste of organic foods as a key reason for buying them. Of course taste is a very personal experience and can be influenced by expectation.

The taste claims can unravel when organic food is put to the blind taste test against conventional produce of similar quality. Some people can’t tell the difference. That doesn’t mean that a freshly picked organic apple won’t taste better than a conventional one sitting sadly out in storage for weeks, but when you compare ‘apples with apples’ taste difference may be based on expectations.

Making sense of it all

In terms of health, there’s little to separate organic and conventional produce. The main difference in that instance is the price. The biggest food health issue we face is how little fruit and veges we’re eating in the first place. If we address this by eating more of these foods, any ‘organic versus conventional’ debate will need to be based on other issues.

Article sources and references

Date modified: 25 January 2022
First published: October 2018


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