Is Organic Food Healthier? An RD Explains
Some people think "organically" and only assume that they are "healthier". Others have heard that the benefits of eating organic are overstated and turning their eyes to higher prices. Is organic really good for you? Is organic healthier?
I understand – there are so many choices we need to make in the supermarket, so many complicated labels to read, and so many things that weigh on our bank accounts. To make things a little easier, I share some information about whether organic foods are really better for your health, and my advice on whether and when to put them in your shopping cart.
What does bio really mean?
First, let's make sure we're all on one side, which means organic. Foods that are USDA-certified come from farms and processing plants that meet stringent criteria and are tested for compliance.
Of these criteria, most people are better acquainted with the "No." No synthetic pesticides (such as chemical herbicides and insecticides) or chemical fertilizers. No antibiotics or growth hormones. No genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
However, there are also standards that organic farmers adhere to in terms of positive practices, such as building soil health and some animal welfare requirements. The overriding goal of organic farming is to work with natural ecosystems to produce nutrient-rich foods while conserving natural resources, rather than extracting what we need from the earth in a way that consumes those resources.
Are organic foods healthier than traditional foods?
This question is difficult to definitively answer because there are so many variables.
With regard to pesticide exposure, we know that the vast majority of conventional fruits and vegetables are contaminated with pesticide residues. We also know that many of these pesticides, such as glyphosate (Roundup), atrazine and chlorpyrifos, are associated with serious health concerns such as increased cancer risk and neurological disorders. The problem is that people are exposed to so many different chemicals every day in very low doses and it is difficult to measure the exact effect of exposure to low-dose pesticides over a longer period of time.
What if organic foods are more nutritious or not? In a literature review published in 2012, it was widely reported that while organic foods are less exposed to pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, scientific literature has so far had no higher nutrient levels (except for phosphorus). However, a meta-analysis carried out in 2014 showed that organic foods have a significantly higher content of antioxidants such as polyphenols. A 2016 meta-analysis showed that organic milk has a much healthier fatty acid composition compared to conventional milk.
Even more convincing? While all of these studies focused on food composition, a French study of nearly 70,000 participants found that more frequent consumption of organic foods was associated with a decreased risk of cancer.
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My advice for organic food.
Although the evidence is inconclusive on how eating organic foods could improve your health, the research on avoiding pesticide residues and adding more antioxidants and healthy fats is solid enough to choose organic.
If you can not always make that choice for budgetary reasons, try using the Dirty Dozen list to find out where to compromise on production. When it comes to meat, try to focus even more on organic products because nothing good can be done with hormones and antibiotics in your food. Another note: If you're pregnant and / or feeding children, bio is even more important as it has been proven that many pesticides affect the development of the baby's brain and endocrine system.
If you are quite aware of how I live, there are many, many other reasons to buy organic food. Although you can not directly harm low-dose pesticide exposures, agricultural workers are exposed to them in dangerous doses. Organic farming also prevents pollution of waters (through chemical pesticides and fertilizers), protects pollinators (such as bees!) And forms a healthy soil that is key to binding carbon to mitigate climate change.