Does organic mean healthy?
Today, an array of organic products line the shelves of supermarkets which can only be a positive thing for the environment and animals around us but what about the health benefits of organic products? Are there any? In the following piece I am going to take a look at the potential health benefits of organic produce as we know that:
- Organic food contains more antioxidants
- Organic food can be lower in fat
- Organic foods are usually fresher
- Organic food has fewer pesticides.
As well as examining these things, though, I'll also take a look at the flip side and explain why organic food still isn't necessarily healthier for us.
What exactly is organic food?
The term 'organic' indicates how food is grown and processed, be it fruit, vegetables, meat or otherwise.
Organic food is produced without pesticides, artificial fertilisers or any other chemicals. Natural pesticides and fertilisers like manure and compost are used in their place, whilst weeds are managed through crop rotation, hand weeding and other natural methods. Animals are not given any growth hormones and, amongst other requirements, must have sufficient access to the outside.
In the UK, any product labelled as organic must have at least 95% organic ingredients, plus it has to be certified by a relevant organic control body. Look out for the Soil Association Organic Logo when buying an organic product to ensure this is the case.
Is organic food better for our health?
Organic food contains more antioxidants
Researchers at Newcastle University recently found that there were more antioxidants in organically-grown crops than in regular produce.1 It is thought that some of the chemicals used to produce non-organic produce may deplete the antioxidant staus of our soil, and ultimately the food we end up eating. Antioxidants have a number of health benefits, including supporting good immune function, digestive health and skin. Therefore, getting an extra quota of antioxidants can only be a good thing!
Organic food can be lower in fat
According to this study by Newcastle University, organic dairy products were also found to be lower in saturated fats. This makes sense when you think that animals used for organic farming are allowed to roam more freely than other animals, so are therefore more likely to have a healthy body composition.
Organic foods are usually fresher
In order to make organic food, producers do not make use of artificial preservatives that are usually needed to extend the shelf life of food. As a result of this, organic food must get to supermarkets quicker than other fruit and vegetables so it can be fresher. This ties in nicely with the research around the antioxidant status of these foods because, as food is left longer, some of the vital nutrients risk oxidising and becoming less readily available.
Organic food has fewer pesticides
As would be expected, research has found that organic fruit and vegetables contain fewer pesticides when compared to regular fruit and vegetables.2 That being said, the risk of non-organic products having a negative impact on our health is still up for debate, as the amount of pesticides being used rarely exceeded EU safety limits.
Organic food can still be unhealthy
It is important to remember that even organic food can be unhealthy, so we still need to make informed choices when doing our weekly shop. With organic products growing in popularity, supermarkets and food producers have begun to see an area of opportunity. This means that there is now a whole array of organic products on offer and, whilst I'm all for more choice when it comes to food, it isn't always healthy choices that are available.
Processed foods, including ready meals, meat and even sauces like ketchup, now come in organic varieties. This is in addition to drinks like wine which can also be organic. These products are still generally quite unhealthy, especially if consumed in excess, so we can see how organic foods aren't always a healthy choice.
Organic food isn't necessarily more nutritious
Studies have shown that organic food doesn't actually offer any additional nutritional benefits when compared to food that is produced using traditional and non-organic methods.3 This is something that was recently backed up by tests conducted for the BBC programme, Trust Me I'm A Doctor.4
Here, researchers found that the vitamin C content of fresh food was negatively affected by storage, rather than by how it was produced. Freshly picked carrots, for example, had noticeably higher vitamin C content than carrots that had been stored for 4 days. The BBC team also found that the vitamin C levels declined during storage in both organic and non-organic products.
In addition, tests found that frozen carrots had the most vitamin C when compared to fresh and stored varieties. This is because the carrots were frozen soon after harvesting and so vitamin C levels didn't have the time to decline. Therefore, we look set to gain the most from organic produce that is able to reach us quickly.
So, if your sole motivation for eating organic is to eat more healthily, researchers concluded this may not always be necessary.
Is it really better to eat organic?
In my opinion, when it comes to fruit and vegetables, they all contain essential nutrients regardless of how they are produced so don't feel you have to rely on organic, at least not initially. Eating more fruit and vegetables is a good starting point for anyone, and if you can begin to add more organic options over time, then this is an added bonus.
So, rather than switching all your kitchen staples to organic immediately, I'd recommend taking small steps by purchasing just a few organic products each week and then gradually adding more as the weeks go by. Remember, eating organic has a number of environmental and animal welfare benefits, so it is a nice eating habit to try out, especially in time for Organic September.
Another option is to grow your own produce! Start with something simple like herbs and then work your way up. The good thing about herbs is that they can be grown on a kitchen windowsill and don't require a lot of space or an outdoor garden to thrive in.
Whether you choose to eat organic or not, hopefully this piece has given you some more information about the pros and cons so that you can make a more informed decision. If you feel you still need a little more information on the topic, though, click here for some extra advice!