Is organic food really safer and more nutritious?

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Step into your grocery store and you’ll see shelves dedicated to organic produce. Organic foods are gaining popularity in an era where health, food security, and sustainability of the environment are at crisis point. The amount of US agriculture space dedicated to organic crops has doubled since 1997, and in 2005 organic produce turnover in South Africa was estimated at R200 to R400 million.

But, is organic food truly superior, or is it merely hype? And in particular, is organic food more nutritious and safer than non-organic food?

What is organic food?

Organic farming involves growing fresh produce without synthetic pesticides, chemicals and genetic engineering, and raising livestock without growth hormones and antibiotics. According to the International Foundation for Organic Agriculture (IFOA), it is a farming method that prides itself in strengthening the health of soils and our ecosystems.

In 2008, two out of three US consumers bought organic products, and more than one in four bought organic food at least once weekly. Closer to home, in a local study on Gauteng consumers’ purchasing behaviour, one in three respondents reported buying organic food at some point during the month. The majority of consumers who purchased organic food perceived it to be healthier.

Organic food in SA

South African organic produce includes various cereals, vegetables (mostly asparagus and potatoes), herbs, spices, fruits (largely bananas, pears and mangos), avocados, nuts and rooibos tea. Organic wine and olive oil are also produced, and organic dairy farming is increasing all over the country. In South Africa, according to estimates by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries there are currently 250 organic farms in the country, which account for only 0.05 % of the country’s total farming area.

Despite growing popularity, to date South Africa does not as yet have an official certification system for organic farming and organic farming is not held to strict standards by law. This lack of regulation makes the SA consumer vulnerable to misleading claims by bogus organic fresh produce suppliers. SA consumers have demonstrated their concerns, as it has been found that less than half of consumers purchasing organic food believe that the products are really organic.

Is it more nutritious?

The primary argument for going organic is that organic food is healthier, containing more and higher levels of nutrients than non-organic foods. This is supported by the above mentioned Gauteng-based study where the majority of SA consumers purchase organic food because they perceive organic food to be healthier. Interestingly, while it may be argued that organic food is healthier because of fewer pesticides or has less of an impact on the environment (though this too is highly questioned), at this point, there does not appear to be convincing evidence of a substantial difference in nutritional quality of organic compared to traditional produce.

In two large reviews of the research done to date, the authors concluded in both cases that there is little evidence of nutrition-related health benefits from the consumption of organically produced food. There are no disease-promoting benefits deriving from eating an organic diet. On the flip side, there are also no detrimental or negative health effects from an organic diet.

Fresh produce like fruit and vegetables is the most commonly purchased organic food. While there have been small differences in nutrient levels demonstrated by some studies, this may simply relate to differences in the way the produce is grown. It is likely that the nutrient content of fresh produce is affected by a variety of factors such as the geographic location of the farm, local soil characteristics, climatic conditions which vary seasonally, the maturity of the produce when picked, and how the produce is stored.

Reserved for the elite market

Research has also shown that milk from organically raised cows has the same protein, vitamin, antioxidant and fat content compared to conventionally raised cows. In those studies that have shown that organic milk has higher concentrations of antioxidants and polyunsaturated fatty acids, this is not necessarily associated with the organically raised cow but related to what the cow eats, which differs depending on the time of year and the type of soil the grass is grown in.

Organic food is traditionally reserved for the elite market, fetching premium prices compared to non-organic food. In the US, organic food prices are as much as 40% higher than non-organic foods. This is because higher production costs, increased labour to produce the food, as well as a lower demand for organic products. In fact, some researchers argue that the high cost of organically produced fruits and vegetables may just lead to consumers to eating less of these supposed super healthy, nutrient-rich foods. This is occurring despite well-established evidence documenting the health benefits of eating a minimum of five portions of a variety of fruits and vegetables on a daily basis.

Is organic food safer?

Is organic food safer to consume since no pesticides are used during the farming process?  It appears that diets with more organic produce may expose consumers to fewer pesticides. Interestingly, South Africa is one of the largest users of pesticides in Africa (Hanford, 2014). Not only is the exposure of produce to pesticides of concern, but also the occupational exposure of farm workers. Alarmingly, evidence of pesticide exposure has been observed in almost nine out of 10 Venezuelan farm workers. These farm workers also showed the impact of pesticides on sperm quality, affecting male reproductive health.

The nervous system is particularly sensitive to toxins that can contribute to conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia. The most prevalent findings on the role of pesticides in health indicate various cancers. Pesticides have also been associated with hearing loss, diabetes and obesity. An exhaustive review that evaluated over 600 scientific publications concluded that no final conclusion can be made, as there are many factors that contribute to the development of disease.

In summary, while it seems that organic food is not necessarily more nutritious, it may be that the lower pesticide levels in organic foods is better for our overall health. Fortunately, international parties such as the European Union (EU), Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex), and North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have attempted to regulate pesticide use in farming by setting maximum levels of pesticides allowed. The consumer is encouraged to attempt to limit their exposure to pesticides as far as possible by for example choosing organic fresh produce (when economically feasible), washing all fresh fruit and vegetables before preparation, and growing their fresh produce in a home, school, church or community vegetable garden. – Health 24

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