Is Organic Food Healthier?

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Organic food is a popular choice these days.

Organic food might have seemed like a passing fad, but sales reached more than $30.0 billion last year, up from $1.0 billion just 20 years ago. There’s no stopping this bandwagon—and you can pay up to 30% more for a food that is labeled organic because of its supposed health benefits. So, what’s the difference really between organic and non-organic foods? What are the benefits of organic food?

What Does “Organic” Really Mean?

You’ll see the label “organic” on anything from a head of lettuce to a box of crackers. So what does the food need to be classified as organic?

According to the Organic Foods Production Act, for food to be considered organic, it must meet these requirements:

• Ninety-five percent of the ingredients must be organically produced

• The remaining five percent of the ingredients are calculated by the product’s total weight, not including water, air, or salt

• The processor must be a certified organic handler

• The water used must meet all the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act

• If more than 50% of the ingredients are organic, it can use the label “contains organic ingredients”

• It cannot be packaged in containers made with synthetic fungicides, preservatives, or fumigants

• It cannot contain any sulfites, nitrites, or nitrates.

• The crops must grow on land that is free of prohibited substances (no toxic or synthetic pesticides or fertilizers)

Are There Benefits of Organic Food?

According to a report published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, there’s actually no health or safety difference between organic and non-organic foods. We know there are lots of studies out there with conflicting information; one day, the benefits of organic food are numerous, the next day, they’re nil. But the Stanford University Medical Center in California, which produced this report, actually analyzed 237 studies that compared the nutrients and contaminant levels in organic and non-organic food—and they found absolutely no difference in the number of vitamins in organic food compared to conventionally grown food, nor any difference in the fat and protein content.

They did, however, find some weak evidence that organic food had a higher level of phosphorus; that organic produce actually contained more phenols, which is a phytochemical that’s believed to have some health benefits; and that organic chicken and milk might contain more omega-3 fatty acids than non-organic food.

Perhaps most important is that there was no difference in bacterial contamination. Both groups had an equal likelihood of being affected with a bacteria, like salmonella, which can cause a foodborne illness.

The Benefits of Organic Food

It’s important to mention some more benefits of organic food. You may have heard about GMOs, or genetically modified organisms. Some food manufacturers will genetically modify food and there’s a large movement against GMO foods. They cite studies that show that animals that eat GMO foods have a greater likelihood of developing tumors and that they do not act like animals either when on a GMO diet (they are less lively and energetic).

Other researchers claim that going on a GMO diet can ward off allergies, intolerances, illnesses, and even boost fertility. The research is not conclusive yet, but it is promising. It’s important to consider the effect that GMO foods might have on your body and your life.

Do We Ditch the Organic Food?

Well, the choice is yours. If you’re paying more for these so-called benefits of organic food, then maybe you want to evaluate if the price is worth it. But perhaps you think it tastes better, or maybe you want to make sure that the food you eat is free of synthetic pesticides, or you think organic farming is better for the environment.

But if you’re eating organic food solely hoping you’ll be reaping the benefits of organic food, since they’re not conclusive yet, you should focus on what researchers do know: choose healthy, nutrient-rich food, and eat a diet filled with fruits and vegetables—organic or not.

Sources:

“Organic food production acts backgrounder,” Organic Trade Association, http://www.ota.com/pp/legislation/backgrounder.html, January 25, 2013.

McLendon, R., “Is organic farming worth the cost?” mature mother network, October 8, 2010; http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/translating-uncle-sam/stories/is-organic-food-worth-the-cost-0.

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