The demand for organic food has risen over the past few years and more organic items are being sold and purchased in the supermarkets. This begs the question, should we all be eating organic produce and more to the point, are we putting ourselves at a health risk if we choose not to go organic?
What is organic food? Well, the Department for Agriculture and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) puts forward the following definition:
“Organic food is the product of a farming system which avoids the use of man-made fertilisers, pesticides; growth regulators and livestock feed additives. Irradiation and the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or products produced from or by GMOs are generally prohibited by organic legislation.”
So, by associating organic food with lower pesticide use, fewer additives and zero genetic modification, are we saying it’s healthier and we should eat it wherever possible?
Whilst some people put a lot of thought into the consumption of mostly or all organic foods and are avid organic-eaters, there is still a heavy majority who don’t. So which is right?
Ultimately, this is a personal decision and one which is neither right nor wrong. But it is interesting to try and delve a little deeper into the studies and think it through more carefully. I should probably preface this by saying that there is a lot of controversy and existing myths about the nature of organic food and farming and even whether the food we believe to be organic is actually so. However that’s a huge debate in itself so let’s assume that all food products are, exactly what they say they are, and that there is in fact reduced pesticide/fertiliser/additive use across the organic ‘board’.
I think the most important point within this debate is that there is simply not enough literature to confirm that we should be eating purely organic or that it improves our health. The conclusions often drawn from studies that claim otherwise are based on weak research methods and samples, showing correlation rather than causation. Like many studies, the groups studied (i.e. those eating only organic food) are health-seeking individuals and so of course conclusions can be drawn which state that organic and health are linked. But what we should also know is that these people are active, they eat mindfully, varied and balanced, they probably don’t smoke or have other habits that could be classed as ‘unhealthy’ and so you can see how these misleading conclusions can be reached. The British Nutrition Foundation backs up the statement that organic food has no more health benefits than conventional food.
As I said before, there is no right or wrong here. Both lifestyles are perfectly acceptable and both can be incredibly healthy. There are many more environmental factors which play a part in health therefore health status goes above and beyond the this debate. As a general loose guide, and to help you decide where you stand, I’ve outlined some other considerations which might affect your decision.
Cost – organic food is definitely pricier so maybe you make a decision based on how feasible it is to consume purely organic food every day.
Ethics – environmental, animal or otherwise – there is a lot of misinformation surrounding ethical considerations, so if it is something that bothers you, take the time to read up on how producing and eating organic food might affect the environment and/or livestock. Just be clued up on your sources and check that conclusions drawn come from reliable and accurate information.
Research – be sure of the quality and reliability of studies – there seems to be no overriding conclusive evidence for established links between the consumption of organic food and improved health status.
Your own ‘feeling’ – for example, if you believe it makes you healthier then it will have a positive impact on you and could improve your general wellbeing.
You might decide you are somewhere in the middle here. That you are neither wholly for nor against organic food. There might be certain items you like to buy organic because you personally feel they are a healthier option for you or you prefer the way they taste etc. If this is the case, I thought it could be handy to know which foods are more likely to be pesticide-full and which, pesticide-free. This is data recently revealed by the Environmental Working Group which we can probably take to be accurate and meaningful, so I have included their conclusive ‘Clean Fifteen’ and ‘Dirty Dozen’ below.
EWG’s Clean Fifteen list of produce least likely to contain pesticide residues included avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbages, onions, frozen sweet peas, papayas, asparagus, mangoes, aubergines, honeydews, kiwis, cantaloupes, cauliflower and broccoli. Relatively few pesticides were detected on these foods, and tests found low total concentrations of pesticide residues.
- Avocados and sweet corn were the cleanest. Less than 1 percent of samples showed any detectable pesticides.
- More than 80 percent of pineapples, papayas, asparagus, onions and cabbages had no pesticide residues.
- No single fruit sample from the Clean Fifteen tested positive for more than four pesticides.
- Multiple pesticide residues are extremely rare on Clean Fifteen vegetables. Only 5 percent of Clean Fifteen vegetable samples had two or more pesticides.
For the Dirty Dozen, EWG singled out produce with the highest loads of pesticide residues. This year the list includes, in descending order, strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes and sweet bell peppers.
Each of these foods tested positive for a number of different pesticide residues and contained higher concentrations of pesticides than other produce.
- More than 98 percent of samples of strawberries, spinach, peaches, nectarines, cherries and apples tested positive for residue of at least one pesticide.
- A single sample of strawberries showed 20 different pesticides.
- Spinach samples had, on average, 1.8 times as much pesticide residue by weight than any other crop.
So, while eating organic food might have a slight impact on health in some way, albeit small, the research is not particularly extensive or positive in backing this up. Whatever your decision then, it probably won’t make you more or less healthy. Instead of focussing on organic or non-organic, we should spend more time considering the actual food source, how heavily processed it is, the micronutrient content and of course, the palatability and satiety (because we should enjoy what we eat). By considering the nutritional content of chosen foods and eating them in the amounts that is right for us, we are far more likely to be healthy and happy individuals.
I hope this has shed some light on this ongoing debate and helped you to find your own stance.