Organic food has to be healthier than conventionally-produced food, right? After all, it's grown to high soil standards, free of synthetic pesticides and has the increased price tag to match. But while conventional wisdom assumes organic food is more nutritious, is there any solid scientific evidence that proves it?
We take a look at the research, but first things first...
What is organic food?
Since the early 1900s the discussion around how we produce food has intensified as the world has become more industrialised. Before then food was grown on small-scale farms or even by individual households, as it had been for generations, industrialisation saw the rise of big-scale farming and subsequently much larger crop yields.
With this has come the routine use of antibiotics, growth stimulants, artificial colours, pesticides and preservatives, and battery farming.
Organic food is produce grown to specific standards that eschews all that. Organic producers avoid the use of man-made fertilisers, growth regulators, pesticides and feed additives in livestock, and use organic agricultural methods – such as crop rotation, manures and biological pest control – to grow food, instead.
Of course, not all organic food is saintly and not all conventional food is evil. But there are important differences between the two that can help you make more informed decisions next time you go food shopping.
Why is organic food more expensive?
It can sometimes feel as though price is a barrier between making a ‘healthy’ choice and an affordable choice. But why is organic food more expensive? There are actually many reasons why. Here are just a few:
There are fewer organic food producers than conventional producers, and demand for organic is high. This reduced supply leads to heightened prices
Production costs for organic food is often higher as farmers don't use man-made fertilisers and pesticides
Ensuring your organic and conventional produce don't end up mixing requires extra costs to create an organic supply chain
Because organic food is produced in small volumes compared to conventional food, everything from marketing to packaging has a worse cost efficiency compared to high-volume conventional food production
It can also be argued that the sheer time, labour and care that goes into much organic food production is part of the price you pay at the till. After all, a small-scale organic peanut butter producer is more likely to have higher comparable costs compared to Heinz.
How is the organic food industry regulated?
The UK regulates the organic food industry by annually inspecting producers who claim to be organic. Production is regulated by the Organic Products Regulations 2009 act, which defines organic food as not containing genetically modified or irradiated material.
Other standards must be met by the producer in order to be certified as organic. These include:
Adhering to the inspection and certification system
Producers need to be registered with an approved organic control body and be available for inspection. These bodies include Organic Farmers and Growers, the Organic Food Federation, the Soil Association and Quality Welsh Food Certification Ltd.
Producers who pass these inspections will be allowed to print the logo or image of the associated body on their packaging.
Is organic food more nutritious?
A lot of the focus around organic food centres on what's not in the product, rather than what is. This is understandable, as organic food has been marketed as an alternative to food developed with man-made fertilisers, pesticides and the like. We're so used to these growth aids being part of the food cycle that it's become the norm.
But – as common sense would suggest – does dumping the chemicals used to aid growth translate to more nutritious produce? One study by researchers at Newcastle University found antioxidants were "between 19% and 69%" in organic food. This is therefore 'meaningful in terms of human nutrition, if information linking these [compounds] to the health benefits associated with increased fruit, vegetable and whole grain consumption is confirmed'.
Other researchers, however, claimed the study had been 'sexed up' and that the differences were down to 'different climate, soil types and crop varieties, and not from organic farming'.
Clearly the issue around organic food being more nutritious is a contentious one. Whereas we can directly study the health benefits of, say, apples on our bodies, it’s harder to pinpoint which beneficial parts of an apple have been improved by organic farming methods, compared to conventional ones.
Research published in the journal Environmental Health concludes that, 'organic food consumption may reduce the risk of allergic disease and of overweight and obesity'. But this wasn't specifically down to how the food was produced, instead resulting from 'residual confounding' where 'consumers of organic food tend to have healthier lifestyles overall' anyway.
What is clear, however, is that the residues of pesticides found in conventional foods are not present in organic foods. Pesticides can impact on children’s cognitive development, although studies are yet to be done on the specific effects of each different kind of pesticide. As far as dairy is concerned, the study found more omega-3 present in organic dairy products – and perhaps meat – compared to conventional foods. However, it noted this wouldn't lead to a significant improvement to overall health.
In short, there are no major studies that conclusively prove that organic food is more nutritious than conventionally-produced food, but all the signs are incredibly promising indeed. It's also worth acknowledging that some of the issues the studies face, such as the tendency for people who eat organic food to also make other healthy lifestyle choices, are encountered in most forms of nutritional research.
Is organic food better for the environment?
While the additional health benefits of eating organic food are not 100% proven, there are significant, undeniable environmental benefits to organic production.
The long-term goal of the organic food industry is to develop sustainable food systems that don't adversely impact on the environment. That's why there's a big red cross through the use of pesticides, chlorines and other chemicals.
Everything from natural wildlife to the water cycle can be affected by farming industry techniques. Biodiversity loss, soil erosion and water pollution affect not only people but our environment. So ensuring farming methods don't negatively harm the wider world is paramount.
Air pollution remains a prominent issue in farming and a United Nations study in Rome found organic agriculture, 'uses 30–50% less energy in production than comparable non-organic agriculture.' But while organic food is more energy efficient in terms of emissions, it requires an, 'indirect trade-off of energy intensive inputs with additional hours of human labour'.
Effectively, organic food requires fewer machines but more hands and feet to produce.
On the flip-side, one group of researchers found that were England and Wales to pivot to organic food systems at the expense of conventional farming practices, this would lead to a 40% reduction in crop yields. As a result, England and Wales would have to import more food – resulting in a 20% rise in carbon emissions.
The debate around the environmental impact of organic food will likely rumble on. And it is a good debate to have. After all, we all want our food to be as safe as possible both to us and the environment – but we don't want it to run out!
Perhaps of greater concern in terms of non-organic meat production? The use of antibiotics in farm animals and the subsequent antibiotic resistance in our society.
Is organic food really healthier? Conclusion
While there are no significant scientific studies that definitively prove organic food is healthier, it is a no-brainer to say that avoiding food doused in chemicals is a smart choice. Plus, the true value of buying organic is really not just about its nutritional content.
Choosing organic food is part of a mindset of caring more about where your food comes from, what you’re putting in your body and how its production has affected the environment. After all, our own health is directly linked to that of the planet and if environmentally unsustainable methods of food production are not curbed, the last thing we will be worrying about is the precise nutrient content of an organic apple versus a conventionally grown one...