Organic Food – Is It Worth the Extra Cost?

Organic food

Why organic food?

So you’ve read the news articles or listened to your favourite social media influencer talk about organic food and have decided to research it for yourself. Congratulations! There are lots of health myths surrounding the topic of organic food, so reading up on the studies that have been done and doing your own little cost-benefit analysis is the only way forward.  Often though, research papers are difficult to digest (pun intended) and full of complicated science jargon – that’s where we come in! At Reset Your Health we have done the hard work for you and present below our take on the benefits of organic food for our health, wellbeing, and world.

Is Conventionally Grown Food Toxic?

It’s no secret that organic food is more expensive than conventionally grown food (up to 40% in some places [13]), but why is that? According to one journal, “organic farming uses an approach to growing crops and raising livestock that avoids synthetic chemicals, hormones, antibiotic agents, genetic engineering, and irradiation”, and the processes that replace these quick-fix chemicals are often more labour-intensive and expensive [13].

So why bother? One study [1] of adults eating 500g of organic/conventional produce per day indicated that in terms of toxicity, organic-eaters had 70 times lower exposure to harmful chemicals such as organophosphates! Although such studies are often small and difficult to account for other factors that might affect the health of the participants, there is a lot of evidence supporting the benefits of an organic diet in all areas of life.

According to the opinion of one set of epidemiological studies, at current levels in the EU children are exposed to an amount of organophosphate and pyrethroid insecticides from non-organic food that is enough to damage cognitive development [18]. But this is not just an EU problem – a study in New York compared the amount of organophosphate in pregnant mothers’ urine to their children’s cognitive development and also concluded that increased organophosphate exposure was linked to delayed cognitive development [2].

Organic food has been shown to have lower amounts of nitrate [18] and cadmium [3], both of which have been associated with toxicity in humans, causing problems such as gastrointestinal cancer, infant methemoglobinemia (also known as Blue Baby Syndrome due to lack of oxygen in the blood giving babies a blue appearance) [18], kidney toxicity, and demineralisation of bones [5]. However, the difference in concentration of these toxic components is often minimal, and it has not yet been directly proven that eating organically reduces your risk of these conditions. What has been shown though is that eating organic food is associated with a lower occurrence of non-Hodgkin Lymphoma [12], obesity, and cardiovascular disease [13].

Nutritional Benefits of Organic Food to Human Health

So we understand that conventionally grown food is likely to pose some health risks, but what about the claims that organic food contains more nutrients?

Firstly, fruits and veggies. 58% of studies show that leafy vegetables (e.g. spinach) contain higher amounts of vitamin C when grown organically, [18] and we all know the benefits of vitamin C – protecting against scurvy and helping our skin, blood vessels, bones and cartilage stay healthy and strong [19]. Of the many complicated meta-analyses that have been published, there is also a suggestion that organic fruit and veg contains a higher amount of phenolic compounds which are supposed to have antioxidant properties (aka they’re good for you!) [18, 3]. Furthermore, in the world of organic dairy, it has been shown that the amount of ‘good’ fats (such as omega-3 fatty acids) is higher in organic food. [18]

But is it high enough to make a difference? Currently, more research is needed to prove the nutritional benefits of organic food, and most studies conclude that there is not strong enough evidence to say whether these differences are big enough to affect human health [18].

How Can We Judge the Environmental Impact of Organic Food?

What you may have considered less is the impact of organic food on the environment. Although this is a complicated issue that has not fully reached a consensus in the scientific community yet, aiming to be more environmentally conscious is always a positive!

While it is clear that organic farms pose less risk to the surrounding natural ecosystems due to the use of fewer synthetic chemicals (e.g. pesticides) [13, 14], the methods used in replacement are often less efficient and lead to a much smaller yield for the same amount of land-usage, sometimes up to half the yield of conventional farms [17]. On the other hand, it has been shown by multiple studies that organic farms “use less energy and produce less waste” [15, 16], so there is a lot of potential for organic farming to become the new eco-friendly method of food production.

Organic Food and Antibiotic Resistance

Lastly, conventional farming methods could be posing a huge risk to society by making antibiotic resistance worse. Antibiotic resistance is when a harmful bacteria (pathogen) evolves to protect itself against the antibiotics we currently use to fight infection, meaning people who catch it cannot be treated as effectively. Antibiotic resistance is described by the WHO as “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today” [20], and is made worse by over-exposure to antibiotics.

So how can organic food make a difference? While conventionally reared animals house many resistant bacterial genes due to the over-use of antibiotics [6,7], organically reared animals are less prone to infection (and less in need of antibiotics) because their living conditions are more spacious and outdoors, making them generally healthier [8]. There are also limits to the number of times an animal can be treated with antibiotics before it is no longer classed as organic [9], meaning organic meat is less likely to help resistant bacteria develop! [11].

Subheading: Should I Go Organic?

Now it’s up to you. We (and this [18] review of all historical studies into the topic) think the benefits of organic food are clear and worth the extra cost. Just look at all the benefits to human health, and the environment, not to mention the impact on antibiotic resistance. So what are you waiting for? Switch to organic today! And if you are still concerned about the cost? The ‘Dirty Dozen’ and ‘Clean Fifteen’, explained in another of our blog posts here, show which foods are more at risk of contamination and help you to make smaller, informed switches every day.

Need some help and daily guidance on how to incorporate more organic foods into your diet? Try out our Reset Your Health plan! The 4-week programme provides seasonal and healthy recipes and shopping lists to help you live a healthier and happier life, with options for all sorts of food preferences from vegan and vegetarian to gluten-free.

References

[1] Beckman K: Exponering för resthalter av pesticider i konventionellt odlade frukter, bär och grönsaker inom EU och i tredje land jämfört med konventionellt odlade i Sverige samt ekologiskt odlade. (Exposure for pesticide residues in conventionally grown fruits, berries and vegetables from the EU and third countries, compared to conventionally grown products from Sweden and to organically grown products, in Swedish). Bachelor thesis. 2015

[2] Engel SM, Wetmur J, Chen J, Zhu C, Barr DB, Canfield RL, Wolff MS. Prenatal exposure to organophosphates, paraoxonase 1, and cognitive development in childhood. Environ Health Perspect. 2011;119(8):1182–1188

[3] Barański M, Średnicka-Tober D, Volakakis N, Seal C, Sanderson R, Stewart GB, Benbrook C, Biavati B, Markellou E, Giotis C, et al. Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses. Br J Nutr. 2014;112(05):794–811.

[4] de Meeûs C, Eduljee GH, Hutton M. Assessment and management of risks arising from exposure to cadmium in fertilisers. I. Sci Total Environ. 2002;291(1–3):167–187

[5] Akesson A, Barregard L, Bergdahl IA, Nordberg GF, Nordberg M, Skerfving S. Non-renal effects and the risk assessment of environmental cadmium exposure. Environ Health Perspect. 2014;122(5):431–438

[6] Woolhouse M, Ward M, van Bunnik B, Farrar J. Antimicrobial resistance in humans, livestock and the wider environment. Philos Tran R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2015;370(1670):20140083

[7] Silbergeld EK, Graham J, Price LB. Industrial food animal production, antimicrobial resistance, and human health. Annu Rev Public Health. 2008;29:151–169

[8] International Centre for Research in Organic Food Systems (ICROFS) Økologiens bidrag til samfundsgoder (the contribution of organic farming to public goods in Denmark, in Danish) 2015

[9] European Commission: Commission Regulation (EC) No 889/2008 of 5 September 2008 laying down detailed rules for the implementation of Council Regulation (EC) No 834/2007 on organic production and labelling of organic products with regard to organic production, labelling and control. In: Off J Eur Union 2008

[10] European Food Safety Authority SCIENTIFIC REPORT OF ECDC, EFSA AND EMA ECDC/EFSA/EMA first joint report on the integrated analysis of the consumption of antimicrobial agents and occurrence of antimicrobial resistance in bacteria from humans and food-producing animals. EFSA Journal. 2015;13(1)(4006):114

[11] Smith-Spangler C, Brandeau ML, Hunter GE, Bavinger JC, Pearson M, Eschbach PJ, Sundaram V, Liu H, Schirmer P, Stave C, et al. Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives?: a systematic review. Ann Intern Med. 2012;157(5):348–366

[12] Bradbury KE, Balkwill A, Spencer EA, Roddam AW, Reeves GK, Green J, Key TJ, Beral V, Pirie K. The million women study C: organic food consumption and the incidence of cancer in a large prospective study of women in the United Kingdom. Br J Cancer. 2014;110(9):2321–2326.

[13] Forman, J. and Silverstein, J., 2012. Organic Foods: Health and Environmental Advantages and Disadvantages. PEDIATRICS, [online] 130(5), pp.e1406-e1415. Available at: https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/130/5/e1406.long

[14] Stolze M, Piorr A, Haring AM, Dabbert S. Environmental impacts of organic farming in Europe. Organic Farming in Europe: Economics and Policy. Vol. 6. Stuttgart, Germany: University of Hohenheim; 2000. Available at: http://orgprints.org/8400/1/Organic_Farming_in_Europe_Volume06_The_Environmental_Impacts_of_Organic_Farming_in_Europe.pdf. Accessed May 15, 2011

[15] Hansen B, Alroe HJ, Kristensen ES. Approaches to assess the environmental impact of organic farming with particular regard to Denmark. Agric Ecosyst Environ. 2001;83(1–2):11–26

[16] Pimentel D, Hepperly P, Hanson J, Douds D, Seidel R. Environmental, energetic, and economic comparisons of organic and conventional farming systems. Bioscience. 2005;55(7):573–582

[17] Danish Environmental Protection Agency, The Bichel Committee. Report from the main committee. Conclusions and recommendations of the committee. Section 8.7.1. 1999. Available at: http://www2.mst.dk/common/Udgivramme/Frame.asp?http://www2.mst.dk/udgiv/Publications/1998/87-7909-445-7/html/helepubl_eng.htm.

[18] Mie A, Andersen HR, Gunnarsson S, Kahl J, Kesse-Guyot E, Rembiałkowska E, et al. Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture: A comprehensive review. Environmental Health. 2017;16(1). 

[19] Vitamins and Minerals – Vitamin C [internet]. nhs.uk. 2021 [accessed 17/09/2021]. Available from https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/vitamin-c/.

[20] Antibiotic Resistance [internet]. who.int. 2021 [accessed 17/09/2021]. Available from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/antibiotic-resistance