Within the last couple of decades, anything that is labelled with the term "organic" has become something of a must-have, be they foodstuff, household appliances, or even clothes.
Organic food products, in particular, are very popular among those wishing to lead a healthier lifestyle and wanting to help make the world a better place at the same time. In 2014, consumers in the United States spent US$39.1 billion on organic produce. In the United Kingdom, a survey from YouGov found that three in ten Brits prefer to eat organic.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a batch of produce can only be called organic if it is "certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest, including synthetic fertilisers and pesticides." The definition for organic meat is slightly different, whereby regulations require animals to be raised "in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviours, fed 100 per cent organic feed, and not administered antibiotics or hormones."
The shift towards consuming organic food has turned into so much more than just a trend; it is a movement that is slowly altering the landscape of the global agricultural industry and the perspective of consumers. It is in itself a wide-ranging topic that requires more than just a single article to discuss.
But why has organic food produce become so sought-after? There are various reasons why an individual would choose organic, including taste, health benefits, avoiding pesticides, and to preserve the environment. They are, however, more expensive than their common non-organic equivalent. Strict standards are the main cause of their premium price point, as organic farmers and food producers have to put in more effort to produce them.
Some would quickly deduce that organic food are better as they are sold at almost twice the price as non-organic food. Adding their benefits into the equation makes it an ever more solid case to consider, while many studies have also supported consumers' decision to go organic.
However, there is an equal amount of research and professional voices that dictate otherwise. This creates confusion amongst the general public in terms of what they should do when faced with an option between organic and non-organic. To help you make the best decision, we have gathered three of the most widespread myths about organic food and dug deep into each and one of them:
Organic farming = no pesticides
It might be surprising to discover that organic farmers actually still use pesticides and fungicides to a certain degree. Over 20 chemicals are approved for use in organic farming by the US Organic Standards. In a 2011 survey, the USDA found that 30 per cent of 571 organic samples contain pesticide residues. The keyword here is "residues"; findings from a study in 2014 showed that levels of pesticide residues in organic produce are 48 per cent lower than non-organic ones. However, the higher levels of pesticide residues found in non-organic produce are still well below safety limits. Essentially, we may be exposed to fewer pesticide residues by choosing organic, yet no significant health benefits would be caused by doing so.
Organic food are more nutritious
There have been mixed results in studies that compare the nutritional components of organic and non-organic, although evidence may suggest that organic food holds the upper hand in the nutrition department. The variables in this case are its handling and production. Crops that are grown organically are found to have higher levels of antioxidants and other micronutrients such as zinc, vitamin C, and iron. They contain lower levels of nitrate as well. Meanwhile, organic meat and dairy may have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, iron, vitamin E, and several carotenoids. However, the average results from 55 studies have shown that no differences can be found in the levels of nutrients between organic and non-organic. More studies are required to further justify the nutritious benefits of non-organic food.
Organic food provide more health benefits
Again, it seems that not enough evidence is able to prove that organic food are more beneficial to our well-being. Some studies have pinpointed an organic diet can help protect cells from damage due to a higher intake of antioxidants as well as benefit growth, reproduction, and the immune system. Several observational studies have also indicated that consumption of organic food could lead to lower risk of allergies and eczema in children and infants. Having said that, these studies were not without their limitations. Furthermore, another observational study of 623,080 women found no difference in cancer risk between those who eat organic and those who do not. To conclude, there might be a handful of health benefits by going organic but their significance requires further evidence to suggest so.
A quick search online will reveal more arguments debating the positives of organic food. That is not to suggest that your current organic diet is not without its merits. Going organic does have its health benefits, provide you with slightly more nutrients, and limit your exposure to pesticide residues. The overall impact, though, is still touch and go.
Photo: Artur Rutkowski