Organic versus Conventional Food
Official organic standards for farming practices were developed throughout the 1990s with the National Organic Program being established in 2000. The rules, in general, attempt to eliminate chemical farming methods. Pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, hormones and antibiotics are banned from organic farming. In addition, genetically modified organisms, human sewage sludge and nanomaterials are not allowed. Arguments for organic food include improved sustainability of crop land and a safer food supply with less toxic chemicals used directly on food.
After more than 20 years with the organic standards, are there real benefits to the food supply? Do the standards improve nutrient content or decrease pesticide levels?
Ever since the advent of organic farming, there have been arguments about whether organic food is healthier than conventionally grown produce. When it comes to vitamin and mineral levels, studies have been mixed. Some studies have shown higher levels of specific nutrients, although a meta-analysis found only small differences for a few vitamins and minerals.
Interestingly, the biggest differences were found for phenolic compounds. Polyphenols are antioxidant compounds that often give fruits and vegetables their rich colors. In addition, these compounds have been shown to have a host of potential health benefits, from reducing heart disease (Sharifi-Rad 2020), diabetes (Bhagani 2020) and cancer (Montane 2020), to anti-inflammatory effects that may benefit pain (Hasanzadeh 2020). Polyphenols also appear to significantly support brain health and may help prevent dementia (Devi 2020). The health benefits of blueberries, which I wrote about recently, is thought to be primarily due to their high level of polyphenols.
In organic foods, levels of polyphenols were between 19% and 69% higher than conventional foods. Eating the recommended servings of organic produce would potentially give you the antioxidant benefits of consuming 1-2 additional servings of fruits or vegetables (Baranski 2014).
Organic produce also appears to have definitive advantages when it comes to exposure to toxic compounds. In general, organic produce appears to have lower levels of the heavy metal cadmium (Baranski 2014). Pesticide levels are also definitively lower in organic produce, although not non-existent. Conventional produce had detectable pesticide levels four times more often than organic produce (Baranski 2014).
In one study, children were switched from conventional to organic produce. Within five days, there were no detectable levels of two common pesticides in their urine (Lu 2006). In a study of Seattle children, only one child was raised solely on organic food. This child was the only child in the study to be completely free of detectable pesticides in their urine (Lu 2001)
Evidence suggests that pesticide residues in food can contribute to a number of health conditions. Cancer, Parkinson’s disease and hormonal problems have been linked to pesticide residue exposure through food (Johansson 2014). Reducing pesticide exposure may help reduce the incidence of these conditions.
Health and Organic Foods
Measuring levels of nutrients and toxicants in foods, in some cases may miss the mark. How organic foods support health and nutrition in direct feeding studies may be a more functional approach to evaluate organic foods. Animal feeding studies, while not always consistent, often show improved immune function and fertility when animals are fed an organic versus a conventional diet. Studies on rats, chickens and rabbits have all shown significant benefits with organic foods (Johansson 2014).
It does appear that organic foods have some benefits, including reduced exposure to pesticides and increased polyphenols. If you can’t afford organic, I still recommend eating fruits and vegetables. Pesticide levels are generally quite low on conventional produce and eating vegetables likely offsets some of the harm from the really small amount of pesticide that is present. In general, focusing on eating healthy overall is probably the best approach, although when possible, I do recommend organic.