Is organic food actually healthier? Are the benefits of eating organic worth the expense? When you hear the word organic, what comes to mind? You may associate it with healthy living. Or the wellness industry. Or food that’s better for the environment. On the flip side, you may say it’s too expensive. Unnecessary. And unaccessible for certain populations. Regardless, knowledge is power. As you navigate this growing section of the grocery store, it’s important to know what organic means and how to get the most bang for your buck—for the sake of your wallet, your body, and the planet. To begin, we’ll define what organic food is. Then, we’ll dive into research-based health benefits of eating organic. We’ll end with budget-friendly tips for shopping organic produce.
What Does Organic Mean?
In order for organic agricultural products to carry the certified organic label, they must meet these requirements:
- Food can’t be grown with synthetic fertilizers, synthetic pesticides, or sewage sludge
- Food can’t be genetically engineered; GMOs are prohibited
- Animals must eat organically-grown feed, without animal byproducts
- Animals can’t be treated with synthetic hormones or antibiotics
- Animals must have access to the outdoors and / or pasture
- Animals can’t be cloned
- Specific soil and water quality maintenance is required
In essence, the term “organic” refers to the way agricultural products are grown and processed. The regulations vary across the globe. For example, the rules are stricter in Europe. In the U.S., organic crops must be grown must be grown without the use of synthetic herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. They also can’t contain bioengineered genes (GMOs).
What makes Livestock organic?
Organic livestock is raised in living conditions that mimic the animals’ natural behaviors. For example, the ability to graze on pasture, eat organic feed, and forage. They aren’t given anything synthetic. Nor, antibiotics, growth hormones, or any animal by-products. Furthermore, organic farmers must rotate crops. They also utilize composted animal manures to improve soil nutrient density. More on the importance of soil quality (and its impact on the environment), here.
research on organic food lacks funding
It’s important to mention that funding for organic research has historically been underwhelming. Finally, in 2020, the USDA dedicated $20 million to organic research—only a sliver of the $2.9 billion research budget. Fortunately, the research on the benefits of eating organic foods is continuing to grow. USDA funding is expected to increase to $50 million by 2023. And, companies like Danone are increasing funding for soil health, regenerative agriculture, and organic foods. These are all wins.
Is organic food actually more nutritious?
Short answer: YES. The British Journal of Nutrition found that organic crops have higher concentrations of antioxidants, lower levels of cadmium and nitrates, and fewer pesticide residues than non-organic crops. This particular study analyzed 343 peer-reviewed research papers, which documented nutritional benefits of organic grains, fruits, and vegetables. To date, it’s the most extensive analysis of its kind. Furthermore, another comparative study calculated nutrient contents of organic vs. conventional produce and grains. The results? Higher levels of vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus in the organic crops.
More clinical studies are needed. However, we know that observational studies show this: An increased intake of organic foods may be associated with health benefits. For example, reduced incidence of infertility, birth defects, pre-eclampsia, metabolic syndrome, high BMI, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In the meantime, there are a handful of other key benefits associated with organic farming. Like, improved soil health, reduced exposure to pesticide residue, and increased levels of crucial micronutrients.
Benefits of organic food
As mentioned, organic foods often have more beneficial nutrients—such as antioxidants—than their conventionally-grown counterparts. Additionally, observational studies show that people with allergies (to foods, chemicals, or preservatives) may find their symptoms lessen when they focus on eating organic. At any rate, eating organic has many benefits:
Organic produce contains fewer pesticides. Chemicals such as synthetic fungicides, herbicides, and insecticides are widely used in conventional agriculture. These residues remain on (and in) the food we eat.
Organic food is often fresher. It doesn’t contain preservatives that make it last longer. Organic produce is sometimes produced on smaller farms, closer to where it’s sold.
Organic farming tends to be better for the environment. Organic farming practices help the environment. They reduce pollution, conserve water, reduce soil erosion, increase soil fertility, and use less energy. Farming without synthetic pesticides is also better for nearby animals, as well as people who live close by.
Organically raised animals are not given antibiotics, growth hormones, or fed animal byproducts. When livestock are fed animal byproducts, their risk of mad cow disease increases. And, the use of antibiotics can create antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. Beyond organic, it’s worth noting that purchasing grass-fed and pasture-raised livestock provides additional nutritional benefits. Unfortunately, animals who eat an organic diet consume primarily organic corn and grain.
Organic meat and milk can be richer in certain nutrients. Results of a 2016 European study show that levels of certain nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids, were up to 50 percent higher in organic meat and milk than in conventionally raised versions. They’re healthier animals, as a whole. Organically-raised animals are typically given more space to move around. Plus, they have access to the outdoors.
How does growing organic food impact our soil?
Healthy soil provides a consistent release of nutrients to plants. According to the Rodale Institute, soil that contains organic matter is able to hold more air and water. Best of all, healthy soil can sequester carbon. Meaning, it can help combat climate change. Like humans, soil has its own microbiome. In fact, soil and the human gut have a very similar number of active microorganisms. That said, the diversity of the human gut microbiome is only 10 percent of the biodiversity found in soil. Having a biodiverse microbiome is key. When food is conventionally grown—due to synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers—the health of our soil plummets. In turn, this may be directly tied to deficiencies in the human microbiome.
Do I always need to choose organic?
No! When possible, of course, buy organic. It is the optimal choice—both for your health and for the health of the planet. It doesn’t have to be as expensive or elitist as some people tout. First and foremost, take a look at the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list. In the very least, budget to buy these foods organic. Frozen (organic) produce will almost always be cheaper. Choosing what’s in season is economical too. Case in point: Organic blueberries are often more expensive in the middle of winter than they are in the middle of summer (depending on where you live, of course). More tips on eating healthy on a budget, here.
Images by Unsplash.