The subject of eating organic vs. non-organic gets a lot of air time, as a result many of us are left confused about the real answer and whether it's better for us or the environment. No one would blame you for being unsure of whether to make the change or not, it divides opinion enormously and there have been several large studies that appear to have contradicted each other over the years.
Sales of organic produce have risen for the third consecutive year and the debate seems to be more heated than ever. With more and more scare stories about the dangers of chemicals in our food, people want to know: what exactly are we eating, is organic worth the money and what should we be absolutely avoiding at all costs?
What is organic?
It depends on what country you’re in, but generally organic farming and produce is ‘without the use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides, or other artificial chemicals’. This could be for either crops or animals; organic meat, fish and dairy comes from animals that are fed an exclusively organic diet and you can also buy water that comes from organic land.
However, to us organic eating is part of a bigger issue that isn't just about a label - instead consideration should be given to a variety of other factors which we have outlined below.
Benefits of eating organic
One of the main reasons people are choosing organic is for it's widely reported nutritional benefits. Many studies have concluded that organic crops are higher in levels of antioxidants, including a recent review by Newcastle University, which reported a huge 60% difference. This is thought to be partly due to the pesticide free crops developing antioxidants as a natural defence against pests. Though these also happen to be good for us, this is why organic food can sometimes be less sweet, as tart flavours tend to deter pests.
This same study also showed nitrogen, nitrate and nitrite levels to be lower in organic crops, likely down to the non-use of nitrogen fertilisers which have been linked to increased risk of a number of health concerns. Seeing as there are thousands of different types of chemicals and pesticides used all over the world, organic food is generally lower in many other chemicals, which of course benefits us.
A separate study also carried out by Newcastle University recently found that organic milk and meat contains ‘around 50% more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally produced products’. This is significant because with the Western diet lacking in these fats in favour of omega-6 fatty acids, incidences of inflammation are increasing. Omega-3's are also linked with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. It is believed that clover, rich in the diets of grass-fed, organically reared animals, contributes to this omega-3 boost. In fact, whether your meat is organic or not, grass-fed meat contains less fat and many more nutrients than grain-fed, including higher levels of carotenes (precursors to vitamin A), vitamin E and antioxidant enzymes.
It is worth noting that not all studies have come to the same conclusions, with many reporting insufficient evidence or no differences. There could be various reasons for this, not least the natural environment, soil quality or in the case of animals, breed and genetics. Be aware also that organic milk may be lower in iodine and selenium, thought to be mainly due to different grazing habits of the animals.
I’m on a Budget - what should I prioritise?
You may already be aware of the Dirty Dozen list, but if you’re not, it outlines the produce that showed one or more pesticides in higher concentrations than other produce. This is likely to be due to thickness of the skin (think avocadoes where you discard the thick skin, or apples/blueberries, which you eat). It changes slightly every year so keep an eye out.
Here’s the list for 2016:
- Sweet bell peppers
- Cherry tomatoes
- Other additions : kale/collard greens, chilli peppers
A number of foods are also being monitored by the government for pesticide levels over the next two years including beans with pods, cashew nuts, bread and non-dairy milk.
A well as adhering to this where possible (and washing everything else properly), the most essential organic purchase you should probably be making is your dairy products. Organically reared animals cannot be given growth hormones and farmers are not allowed to routinely administer antibiotics. Such excessive and often unnecessary use may well be having an impact on our health. The Soil Association claims that ‘farm animals now account for almost two-thirds of all antibiotics used in the EU’. This could in part be due to the increased food consumption and demand for meat and animal products worldwide.
Organic vs Quality of Life for Animals
When it comes to meat, it’s sometimes more important to think about the lifestyle of the animal. The food may be organic, but is it healthy?
No animal will be happy indoors, in crowded, unhealthy living spaces and this will undoubtedly impact on it's overall health. Crowded living environments can be a hotbed for disease, so you can see how this links to the antibiotic problem in conventional breeding. In addition, to meet demand, dairy cows can undergo intensive milking which can be stressful for them.
The same principles of animal welfare apply to fish, where much of the most common fish (salmon, tuna, cod etc) is intensively farmed, in often appalling standards regardless of whether it’s organic or not.
It is often difficult to know what quality of life the meat we buy had, but in general look out for the Soil Association Organic logo and always get Free Range. Go for un-farmed, wild fish where possible and shop around for your meat – buying from a butcher you trust means you can ask questions and get real answers about what you’re buying.
Is organic actually better for the environment?
Aside from the health benefits, many people argue that it is increasingly difficult to feed the world without using pesticides, especially developing countries. Perhaps it is unrealistic to think of organic as a long-term solution for everything we eat? Consider the time of year you are eating your organic blueberries and how far they have had to travel to get to your basket. A better solution is to make an effort to eat more local, seasonal produce - farmer's markets are a very good way of supporting local organic farmers and often the quality is higher and the food is fresher.
To go organic is really a question of personal values and ultimately if you can afford it. Wherever possible, buy the dairy and the dirty dozen organic, go local/seasonal where you can, and source your meat and fish from trustworthy local butchers and fishmongers.
Whatever you do though, remember to always wash your produce properly to get rid of any nasty pesticide residues that might be lingering. To limit chemicals in your diet, eat fewer refined foods and take time to read food labels. The method of cooking your food can also affect nutrients so do it properly, steaming vegetables rather than boiling, grilling meat rather than frying. And finally, eating less meat in favour of more sustainable plant-based foods could help you and the world around you – we aren’t saying go vegan, just be more mindful of the bigger impacts.
- Newcastle University Study
- Newcastle University Study
- Organic Research Centre
- Daley, C. a, Abbott, A., Doyle, P. S., Nader, G. a, & Larson, S. (2010). A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Nutrition Journal, 9, 10. https://doi.org/10.1186/1475-2891-9-10
- Alan D Dangour et al, Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review. Am J Clin NutrSeptember 2009, 90 no. 3 680-685
- Dominika Średnicka-Tober et al., Higher PUFA andn-3 PUFA, conjugated linoleic acid, α-tocopherol and iron, but lower iodine and selenium concentrations in organic milk: a systematic literature review and meta- and redundancy analyses. British Journal of Nutrition, March 2016, Volume 115, Issue 6, pp.1043-1060
- Dominika Średnicka-Tober et al., Composition differences between organic and conventional meat: a systematic literature review and meta-analysis. March 2016, British Journal of Nutrition,Volume 115, Issue 6, 994-1011
- NHS Report - Is antibiotic farming use threatening human health?