Big Organic - Is it Really Healthier?
Updated: Dec 12, 2022
When I was a child, the local supermarket chain, Stop and Shop, did not sell any 'organic' labeled food. There was no such thing. On a fundamental level, all food is organic, even Twinkies! However, today, the USDA Organic label codifies a group of standards that need to be met to be labeled 'organic.' In the '70s and '80s, there were a smattering of small alternative natural health food stores. They sold 'natural' products that today would be labeled 'organic.' Back then, most people discarded the idea of 'natural' foods and relegated these stores to counter-culture and the hippies. The 'Organic' label in the United States got its start in 1990. A group of small farmers decided to push back from the big agricultural framing practices such as mono-cropping, high pesticide/herbicide use and antibiotic riddled livestock. They lobbied the government to create certifying agencies regulating and defining 'organic' in a unified way. It took many years to work out the kinks and come to a grand definition and certification. The National Organic Standards Board oversees the USDA's organic label, which has numerous requirements producers must meet, including those that address soil quality, animal-raising practices, pest and weed control, GMO use, and limiting the use of additives and antibiotics for animals. Organic foods are now a multi-billion dollar business. But are they healthier? Is it worth the extra money to buy organic?
Organic foods have become ubiquitous and synonymous with luxury. These foods cost anywhere between 10% to 200% more than conventional foods. Is the extra price justified? There are many reasons to buy organic. The lobbyists and marketers of big Organic allege a multitude of benefits, including:
Better for the environment
Safer for the farmer
All of these supposed benefits are controversial and some are simply untrue. The current scientific consensus shows no measurable health benefit to eating organic produce. A few of the significant drawbacks from the epidemiological research regarding the health benefits of organic foods can be found in the differing lifestyle choices between an organic and conventional food consumer. Most people who eat exclusively organic tend to focus more on health-related activities, smoke less, have higher incomes, and are generally more concerned about wellness. These variables are hard to tease out tend to skew the resultant data. Furthermore, there is a big difference in farming practices between a small organic and industrial organic farm. The former tend to use little or no pesticides, whereas the latter may utilize copious amounts of natural pesticides. Plus, small farmers tend to have better soil and a greater focus on ecology. Farming is complicated and there are also significant variations from one conventional farm to another, just as there are with organic farms. Yet, the few studies that have teased out many of these variables show no discernable difference in health or nutritional content.
After analyzing 240 studies about the nutritional value of organic food, the authors of a 2012 review study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine concluded that they "[lack] strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods." Conversely, a meta-analysis in 2014 published in The British Journal on Nutrition concluded: "organic crops, on average, have higher concentrations of antioxidants, lower concentrations of Cd and a lower incidence of pesticide residues than the non-organic comparators." What's not clear, however, is whether these differences have any actual health impact on humans. Plus, as per usual in nutritional research, there are a few sharp criticisms of the study.
Interesting: A Danish study in 2018 concluded: "evidence showing that adverse health effects of chronic pesticide residue exposure...is very unlikely...The HI (Hazard Index) for pesticides for a Danish adult was on level with that of alcohol for a person consuming the equivalent of 1 glass of wine every seventh year."
There is one compelling argument for purchasing organic versus conventional food and that is for farmworkers' welfare and health. Synthetic pesticide exposure causes farmworkers to suffer more chemical-related injuries and illnesses than any other part of the workforce. Over 900 approved synthetic pesticides and herbicides are available to the conventional farmer, whereas about 25 approved for organic use (remember, just because these are 'natural' does not mean they are safer!). The application, delivery and residue within the farm expose the average worker to much higher levels of potentially toxic chemicals than the minute amounts of residue found on produce by the time it gets to the supermarket. If you are concerned about the farmworkers' welfare and health, it may be a good idea to buy organic.
Facts & Misconceptions
Conventional farms have higher yields.
Organic farms use synthetic and organic pesticides and herbicides but much less than most conventional farms.
Natural pesticides can be just as toxic and harmful as synthetic ones.
Organic farming is more profitable for the farmer.
Organic food has not been shown to be safer or more nutritious.
Trace amounts of pesticides in food are not dangerous to human health.
Organic farms use more land and water.
The fears regarding GMO foods are unfounded in science. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that GMOs do not pose health risks to humans.
Beyond organic farms and the like, use fewer pesticides (if any) and practice more humane animal husbandry.
Fear-based messaging from organic lobbying groups drive low-income people to consume fewer fruits and vegetables.
Organic is not necessarily better for the animals.
The majority of conventional produce in the supermarket is pesticide-free.
Organic doesn't mean pesticide-free - many synthetic and natural pesticides/herbicides are approved for organic use.
Several synthetic chemicals are approved for use in organic farming.
The EPA sets pesticide limits at least 100 times lower than the lowest dose, which in longitudinal studies caused any sign of harm, however minimal.
Fruits and vegetables contain high levels of natural toxins, which result in about 16,000 times more than the 0.09 milligrams of synthetic pesticides we get from food every day.
The 'organic' label no longer impresses me. I used to think it was safer, healthier and better for the environment. It turns out not to be so simple. These days, I don't go out of my way to buy organic food. However, when I purchase animal products, I look for the 'Aminal Welfare Approved' or 'Certified Humane' labels to ensure a certain level of humane animal husbandry practices. Plus, I primarily purchase 'PasturedRaised' eggs because I like the Pollyanna idea of chickens running free and eating bugs and such. These decisions are not based on health but instead on ethics. Thankfully I am fortunate enough to be able to pay the higher prices for these foods. I sleep a little better at night, knowing my family doesn't turn a blind eye toward animal cruelty.
IDEA: If you are worried about pesticides, you should wash your fruits and vegetables in tap water to significantly reduce residue.
As a consumer, it is sometimes difficult to wade your way through all of the conflicting information and propaganda surrounding our food choices. Ultimately it is best to make informed decisions you can live with. Depending on your values and the heft of your wallet, this may lead you to buy a sampling of both types of foods. Organic foods are not bad or unhealthy and neither are conventional foods. One thing is clear if you want to be healthier, eat lots of fruits and vegetables and a little less meat... don't be overly concerned if the food was produced organically or conventionally.
National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, National Pesticide Use Database. Available from http://www.ncfap.org (Viewed 19 Nov, 2009).
Gold, L., Slone, T., Stern, B., Manley, N., & Ames, B. (1992). Rodent carcinogens: setting priorities Science, 258 (5080), 261-265 DOI: 10.1126/science.1411524
Rotenone: Resource Guide for Organic and Disease Management. Cornell University. Available at www.nysaes.cornell.edu/pp/resourceguide/mfs/11rotenone.php (Viewed 19 Nov, 2009).
Caboni, P., Sherer, T., Zhang, N., Taylor, G., Na, H., Greenamyre, J., & Casida, J. (2004). Rotenone, Deguelin, Their Metabolites, and the Rat Model of Parkinson's Disease Chemical Research in Toxicology, 17 (11), 1540-1548 DOI: 10.1021/tx049867r
EFSA 2009. Pesticides used in organic farming: some pass and some fail safety authorization. European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Available from: www.ecpa.eu (Viewed 19 Nov, 2009).
Reasoned opinion of EFSA prepared by the Pesticides Unit (PRAPeR) on the 2007 Annual Report on Pesticide Residues. EFSA Scientific Report (2009) 305, 1-106
Consumer Reports 1998. Organic produce. Consumer Reports 63(1), 12-18.
FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (2000). Pesticide Program: Residue Monitoring 1999. Available at http://vm.cfsan.fda.gov (Viewed 19 Nov, 2009)
Bahlai, C., Xue, Y., McCreary, C., Schaafsma, A., & Hallett, R. (2010). Choosing Organic Pesticides over Synthetic Pesticides May Not Effectively Mitigate Environmental Risk in Soybeans PLoS ONE, 5 (6) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0011250
Mukherjee A, Speh D, Dyck E, & Diez-Gonzalez F (2004). Preharvest evaluation of coliforms, Escherichia coli, Salmonella, and Escherichia coli O157:H7 in organic and conventional produce grown by Minnesota farmers. Journal of food protection, 67 (5), 894-900 PMID: 15151224
Dangour, A., Lock, K., Hayter, A., Aikenhead, A., Allen, E., & Uauy, R. (2010). Nutrition-related health effects of organic foods: a systematic review American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 92 (1), 203-210 DOI: 10.3945/ajcn.2010.29269
EFSA 2009. Study finds no additional nutritional benefit in "organic" food. European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Available from: www.ecpa.eu (Viewed Jul 2011)
Rosen, J. (2010). A Review of the Nutrition Claims Made by Proponents of Organic Food Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 9 (3), 270-277 DOI: 10.1111/j.1541-4337.2010.00108.x
Fillion, L., & Arazi, S. (2002). Does organic food taste better? A claim substantiation approach Nutrition & Food Science, 32 (4), 153-157 DOI: 10.1108/00346650210436262
Qaim, M. The Economic Effects of Genetically Modified Orphan Commodities: Projections for Sweetpotato in Kenya. Agricultural Economist Center for Development Research (ZEF), No. 13-1999. PDF
Mader, P. (2002). Soil Fertility and Biodiversity in Organic Farming Science, 296 (5573), 1694-1697 DOI: 10.1126/science.1071148
Fedoroff, N. (1999). Plants and population: Is there time? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 96 (11), 5903-5907 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.96.11.5903
Basker, D. (2009). Comparison of taste quality between organically and conventionally grown fruits and vegetables American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, 7 (03) DOI: 10.1017/S0889189300004641