When you are trying to follow a healthy way of eating, you may notice that many foods are labelled as organic. You may be wondering if there are health benefits to foods that are organic or if it is just a waste of money.
What is organic food?
Before diving into the health benefits (or not) of organic foods I want to make sure that you understand what organic means when it comes to different foods.
In most countries the word organic has strict standards and can only be used if these standards have been met.
In Canada produce can only be labelled organic if it has been grown without the use of most pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. Organic animal products are from animals that are raised without the use of consistent drugs, antibiotics or synthetic hormones. Processed organic foods cannot contain artificial sweeteners, colourings or flavouring. These standards are similar in the United States and the EU.
When is organic healthier?
Organic food generally has less pesticide and herbicide residue, although it can still be contaminated by airborne pesticides and herbicides. There hasn’t been enough studies to determine the risks of long term exposure to these chemicals. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes a list every year of the produce that contains the highest levels of pesticides. Check it out here (link)
Studies originally showed that organic produce does not have higher levels of nutrients than conventional produce, but more recent studies that looked at antioxidants found that organic produce had higher nutrient levels. This is likely dependant on the quality of the soil in either case.
If you find a small local source of organic produce you may find that the produce is fresher than conventional produce shipped across the country. Fresher means it will be tastier and might hold more nutrients.
Organic meat and dairy should be free of hormones and antibiotics. These are believed to be safe, but we don’t know enough about the long term effects of continued exposure to meat raised this way. If you can find grass fed meat this is an even better alternative. Grass fed beef is higher in omega 3 fatty acids and other nutrients. But organic does not mean grass fed, just that the feed is organic.
When is organic not healthier?
Many processed foods have organic labels which for many implies that the food is healthier. Like I mentioned earlier processed organic foods cannot contain artificial sweeteners, colourings or flavours so that does imply they are healthier than non organic counterparts. However organic processed foods can still contain refined grains and sugar. An organic cookie is still a cookie and should be treated as a cookie.
Does organic taste better?
Produce grown conventionally is grown quickly and uniformly by adding nitrogen rich fertilizer to the soil. This can result is bland tasting produce. Organic food will change in taste depending on the nutrients in the soil. This means the taste will vary, but can be more delicious. It can also be grown more slowly allowing the flavours to intensify. If eating organic gets you to eat more vegetables because you actually like the taste then this is where taste becomes important.
Although it is an individual preference, most people feel that grass fed beef tastes better than grain fed, but organic beef is not necessarily grass fed so you might not notice any difference in taste.
What are other advantages to eating organic foods?
Aside from the health reasons for eating organic many people eat organic for reasons other than health. Here are just a few reasons.
- Conventionally grown produce is usually grown using synthetic fertilizers and with pesticides. These are contaminating our water supply.
Crops are rotated in organic farming which helps to maintain the soil’s natural fertility.
- Biodiversity is being compromised by big agriculture businesses. Many old varieties of plants are becoming scarce or extinct in favour of fast growing commercial varieties.
- Organic farming uses less water, and produces less pollution than conventional farming.
What are some of the disadvantages to eating organic?
- The cost of organic foods is much higher than conventional
- Organic food can still be exposed to pesticides, especially if the organic farm is located near a conventional farm
- Organically bred animals are generally not treated much better than conventionally bred animals.
Should you eat organic?
There are some definite advantages to eating organic, but it is not for everyone. Organic food is more expensive and not always readily available. I don’t buy all organic foods, but choose based on price, quality, availability and where it fits on the Dirty Dozen list. This is a choice that is up to you. If you haven’t been eating organic, you might want to add one or two that are easy to get in your area, especially if you have started to include more fruits and vegetables in your diet.
Menopausal women – adding organic foods is one way to start eating healthier by reducing your exposure to pesticides, herbicides and hormones in meat. You can take another step and eat healthier breakfasts like these hormone balancing breakfasts.