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Organically Grown Food: Is It Really a Better Choice?
Contrary to popular belief, organically grown produce may not be much more nutritious than conventionally grown produce. However, there are other reasons why you might choose organic foods.
What the Research Says
Do organically grown fruits and vegetables actually have higher levels of vitamins and minerals than conventionally grown produce? In 2012, researchers looked at over 200 studies and drew conclusions based on their findings to determine whether organic foods are indeed any safer or healthier than their conventionally-grown alternatives. This particular review was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in September 2012.
After looking carefully at these studies, researchers determined that organic foods are not significantly more nutritious. There was only one nutrient that was significantly higher in the organically grown foods—phosphorus. However, the researchers note that this really isn't significant, since very few people are deficient in phosphorus and it can be found in many food sources.
Nutrition Not the Main Issue
For some, higher nutritional value is not the main concern. You may have heard that choosing organically grown foods will reduce your exposure to pesticides. Research has shown that while organically grown produce had a 30% lower risk of pesticide contamination, even organic foods are not 100% pesticide-free. According to the US Department of Agriculture, organic produce does carry fewer pesticide residues, but the residues found on most products, organic and conventionally grown, do not exceed safe levels.
Some consumers are concerned about the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in conventionally farmed meats. When it comes to animal products, conventional farming practices are more likely to employ antibiotics, growth hormones, and medications to keep animals healthy and promote growth. Organic farming practices emphasize the importance of preventative measures to prevent disease. While studies have shown that organic meat does contain lower levels of antibiotic resistant bacteria, researchers point out that safe cooking and food storage practices are the best way to guard against all bacteria.
Organic Farming and the Environment
So if the nutritional difference is insignificant, are there other good reasons to go organic? Some say that organic farming practices are better for the environment. Organic farming practices aim to reduce pollution and conserve natural resources, like soil and water. For example, organic farmers may use mulch or manure to fend off weeds, rather than chemical weedkillers. Chemical weedkillers can leave residues on crops, which some people hope to avoid by buying organic.
Proponents of organic farming practices say that practices like crop rotations, use of cover crops, organic fertilizers and other soil-building practices improve the soil and make it more stable. This can help to control erosion and help the soil to retain more nutrients. Organic fertilizers (such as compost or animal manure) are also advocated as a way to cut down on pesticide residues in groundwater.
Are There Any Disadvantages to Organic Food?
There is little evidence to suggest that organic foods are significantly better for your health. But are there any disadvantages to buying and eating organic? Organic foods are likely to be more expensive, in part because organic farming practices are more costly. Organic foods may also look different than what you are used to. Produce may be smaller and have imperfections. But if you are convinced of the importance of organic farming practices for the environment, these barriers will likely not stand in your way.
Whether you choose organic or conventionally grown foods, there are steps you can take to keep your food safe and your diet healthy:
- Read all food labels. "Organic" is not synonymous with "healthy." Organic foods may still be high in fat, sugar, and calories.
- Buy fruits and vegetables in season. Not only will this mean fresher produce, but you can also support local farmers by shopping at farmers' markets.
- Wash all fruits and vegetables before eating. Washing removes dirt and bacteria from the outside and is a better choice than peeling, which can remove some of the healthy fiber and nutrients you need.
Researchers also pointed out that since most of us do not eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables each day, it is important to focus on having healthier diets overall.
Agricultural Marketing Service—US Department of Agriculture
Organic Consumers Association
Dietitians of Canada
Brandt M. Little evidence of health benefits from organic foods, Stanford study finds. Standford School of Medicine website. Available at: https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2012/09/little-evidence-of-health-benefits-from-organic-foods-study-finds.html. Accessed June 29, 2016.
Smith-Spangler C, Brandeau ML, Hunter GE, et al. Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives?: a systematic review. Ann Intern Med. 2012;157(5):348-366.
What are the environmental benefits of organic agriculture? Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations website. Available at: http://www.fao.org/organicag/oa-faq/oa-faq6/en. Accessed June 29, 2016.
- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD
- Update Date: 06/29/2016