Is organic food actually healthier — is it worth the expense? When you hear the word organic, what do you think of? You may associate it with healthy living, the wellness industry, and food that’s gentler on the environment. Or, you may say it’s too expensive, unnecessary, and unaccessible for certain populations. At any rate, it’s helpful to understand if buying organic food is worth it. After all, there are many factors to consider.
As you navigate this growing section of many grocery stores, 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 and the research-based health benefits. We’ll end with budget-friendly tips to help you save while shopping.
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; meaning, the use and interaction with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is prohibited
- Animals must eat only organically grown feed (without animal byproducts) and 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 maintenance of both soil and water quality 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), but 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 raised for meat, eggs, and dairy products must be raised in living conditions that mimic their natural behaviors. For example, the ability to graze on pasture and eat organic feed and forage. They aren’t given antibiotics, growth hormones, or any animal by-products. Furthermore, organic farmers rotate crops and utilize composted animal manures to improve soil nutrient density. More on the importance of soil quality (and its impact on the environment), here.
Is Organic Food Actually More Nutritious?
For a long time, this theory has been debated. Scientific opinions vary. Some agree that organic growing practices lead to improved nutritional composition of the foods or better health outcomes. Others disagree. However, 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 — but this is 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 large companies like Danone are increasing funding for soil health, regenerative agriculture, and organic foods.
What the research says
A study published in 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. The study, by an international team led by Britain’s Newcastle University, analyzed an unprecedented 343 peer-reviewed research papers documenting 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 and conventional produce and grains and found higher levels of vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus in the organic crops.
More clinical studies are needed, but we do know that observational studies show this: an increased intake of organic foods may be associated with 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 and 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 may reduce pollution, conserve water, reduce soil erosion, increase soil fertility, and use less energy. Farming without synthetic pesticides is also better for nearby birds and animals, as well as people who live close to farms.
Organically raised animals are not given antibiotics, growth hormones, or fed animal byproducts. Feeding livestock animal byproducts increases the risk of mad cow disease (BSE) and the use of antibiotics can create antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. Organically-raised animals tend to be given more space to move around and access to the outdoors, which help to keep them healthy. 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.
Organic food is free of GMOs. Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) or genetically engineered (GE) foods are plants whose DNA has been altered in ways that cannot occur in nature or in traditional crossbreeding, most commonly in order to be resistant to pesticides or produce an insecticide.
How does growing organic food impact our soil?
According to the Rodale Institute, soil that contains organic matter is able to hold more air and water and produce higher yields, in comparison to soil that is low in organic matter. Healthy soil provides a consistent release of nutrients to plants, containing a more abundant and diverse microbial and fungal populations. Best of all, healthy soil can help combat climate change.
Like humans, soil has its own microbiome. This helps protect against disease-causing pathogens. 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% of the biodiversity found in soil. Having a microbiome with more biodiversity leads to more efficiency in cycling nutrients (in plants) and absorbing nutrients (in humans). However, when food is not grown organically, due to synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, the health of our soil may may be directly tied to deficiencies in the human microbiome.
Do I always need to choose organic?
Buying organic, when possible, is an optimal choice — both for your health and for the health of the planet. Most importantly, it doesn’t have to be nearly as expensive and elitist as some people believe. 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. Buying them frozen (organic) will almost always be cheaper, unless the produce is in season. Organic foods, in season, are almost always more economical. 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 Erol Ahmed.