Aggressive marketing campaigns have many of us convinced that eating organic is healthier than conventional fare – to the point where sales of organic food in USA increased by over 7-fold between 1997 and 2010. With organic food costing around twice as much as conventional food, we must ask – is there truly a health benefit to eating organic?
First of all, let’s talk about what is meant by ‘organic’. Organic certification requirements vary worldwide (a potential limitation in itself), but in general, organic foods are produced without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, without irradiation or chemical food additives, and without the routine use of growth hormones or antibiotics. Organic animals are fed organically produced food and are raised in an outdoor environment where they are free to move around. Also, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not used in organic food production.
The question as to whether eating organic is healthier was addressed in a systematic review published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. From 240 identified studies, the following key findings were noted:
1. The differences in terms of nutrients in organic compared to standard fare are minimal. There is a slightly higher level of phosphorous in organic food, but this is not thought to make a difference in overall health, as phosphorous deficiency is only seen in states of near-total starvation. There are also higher levels of beneficial fatty acids in organic milk and chicken, and a couple of other small nutrient differences of questionable significance.
2. There was no difference in allergic symptoms or outcomes (eczema, wheezing, etc).
3. There was a 30% higher risk for pesticide contamination in conventional produce compared to organic, but the differences in risk for exceeding maximum allowed limits were small. Two studies showed lower urine pesticide levels in children who ate organically.
4. Overall, E coli contamination risk was no different in organic produce, but the results of individual studies was conflicting and the authors noted that more research needs to be done in this area.
5. In chicken and pork, the risk of exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria was higher in conventional meat compared to organic meat. However, it’s not clear if this is of
importance to human health, because it is inappropriate use of antibiotics in humans (not in the meat we eat) that is the major cause of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans.
6. There are no long term studies on the effect of eating organically on human health.
The authors conclude that eating organically does not seem to have a great health benefit… But who really knows? Long term studies on human health would need to be done to know this answer for sure. I agree that there is not convincing evidence at this time to say that eating organically has big health benefits – but this possibility has not been ruled out. The definition of ‘organic’ is variable worldwide, and the first step to understanding the benefits of organic food would be to at least standardize how we define it.
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