Whether or not to choose organic is actually pretty darn complicated (well at least for most of us….myself included!). We pay quite the premium to purchase organic, which can stretch the household food budget. So the question arises – are the health and environmental benefits worth the extra coin?
Firstly, what does “organic” actually mean?
The use of the word “organic” is not regulated in Australia. However, organic food and products are commonly certified by 1 of 6 private certifiers and will display their logo. This is the best way to ensure you are truly purchasing organic. Each certifier has their own set of standards, which are based on the National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Produce Edition 3.4 July 2009 (National Standard). This standard was established for organic products destined to be exported.
A specific standard for domestically produced and sold organic food and products does not exist. Although the Organic Federation of Australia (OFA) continues to push for the introduction of a National Organic Seal and for the Australian Standards for Organic and Biodynamic Produce (AS6000) to replace the National Standard.
As such, the best way to ensure organic integrity is to become familiar with and look for one or more of the following logos:
The display of these logos stipulates that the food or products contains:
- no pesticides
- no chemical fertilizers
- no hormones or antibiotics
- and uses no genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
What is the difference between “certified organic” and “contains organic ingredients”?
Certified organic means 95% of the ingredients or more are organic. The remainder still have to meet stringent sustainability requirements. These foods or products can wear the Certified Organic logo on the front of the packaging.
If a food or product complies with the standards and has 70 – 94% certified organic ingredients, it can use the terms ‘contains’ or ‘made with’ organic ingredients and display the Certified Organic logo on the back.
The dirty dozen +plus and the clean 15
“The Dirty Dozen” is something I’ve noticed frequenting the blogs and book pages of many health bloggers or wellness coaches. What exactly are they? “The Dirty Dozen” is a list of fruits and vegetables created by the non-profit organisation the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The list includes those fruits and vegetables believed to carry the highest pesticide load, thus making them the most important to buy organic versions (or grow them organically yourself). The current list consists of the following:
- Sweet bell peppers (capsicums)
- Cherry tomatoes
- Snap peas
- Plus hot peppers and kale/collard greens
At the other end of the spectrum, is “The Clean 15.” This includes those vegetables with the least amount of pesticide contamination and therefore are considered the best to purchase and consume conventionally.
- Peas (frozen)
- Sweet potatoes
Are organic foods better for your health?
There is conflicting evidence regarding whether organic foods are more nutritious or not. So many things influence the nutritional profile of foods including growing conditions, soil, time of year, time in storage, transport, handling, cooking methods, etc. Some studies have produced sound evidence for greater concentrations of vitamin C and phosphorus in organic foods, but there is still no direct evidence translating this into meaningful health benefits.
While the jury’s still out on that one, the science is fairly strong in demonstrating a considerably lower residue of pesticides and other synthetic chemicals in organic foods when compared to conventional crops. Minimising your chemical load may have generous health benefits for yourself and future generations. Indeed it is challenging for scientists to truly understand the connection between chronic, low-grade pesticide exposure and health. It would be unethical to expose people to potentially harmful pesticides in a randomised controlled trial (RCT; the highest level of scientific experimentation). Yet lower level studies have demonstrated adverse neurological and cognitive outcomes. At the same time, pesticides are supposedly monitored in conventional foods to ensure safety levels are complied with.
Several studies have suggested that antioxidant levels are higher in organic foods. Plants naturally produce antioxidants to defend themselves against pests and diseases. Therefore, the theory goes that when pesticides are applied, plants may lose their need to produce antioxidants and thus their antioxidant levels decline. Antioxidants play a pivotal role in human health and disease, including lowering the risk of cancer.
In an extensive analysis including 343 studies, which investigated the nutrient content of organic versus conventional foods, Benbrook and colleagues from Washington State University uncovered the following:
- Organic crops contained approximately 17% more antioxidants than conventionally grown crops.
- Some of the organic crops had as much as 60% higher concentrations of antioxidants.
- Flavanones, which are associated with a lower risk of stroke, were 69% higher in organic food crops.
- Pesticide residues were 10 – 100 times lower in organic food crops compared to conventionally grown crops.
Antioxidants play an essential role in the immune system and protecting our body’s physiological functions from damage that could potentially lead to diseases, including CVD, neurodegenerative diseases and certain cancers. This, combined with the notable reduction in pesticide exposure, could be enough to choose organic…
So should you choose organic?
Organic foods are quite pricey compared to conventional produce. Whether the health benefits are significantly greater than consuming conventional foods remains to be scientifically substantiated. If you can afford organic, than go for it! By purchasing organic you are supporting a network of farmers dedicated to supplying this amazing produce in a sustainable manner and with consumer demand the industry can only grow.
If purchasing organic is outside your price range, than that’s okay too! The focus really should be on your overall diet – consuming more real foods, vegetables and fruits and less of the processed stuff – whether it’s organic, not organic or partially organic.
There may be specific times in your life when choosing organic is more appealing, such as during pregnancy or lactation, during illness or when your health just isn’t feeling sprightly. Reducing your exposure to synthetic chemicals can only ease the load on your liver and body systems.
Organic food is as nature intended and more often than not, nature gets it right!
Environmental Working Group’s “Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides” (http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/)
Barański, M 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. Brit J Nutr 2014; 112: 794–811.
Forman, J & Silverstein, J. Organic foods: health and environmental advantages and disadvantages. Pediatrics 2012; 130: e1406–e1415.