Is Organic Food Really the Best Choice

  • Updated November 26, 2021
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Organic products have become the latest trend among the growing health conscious American consumers who are looking to pick quality foods that are less processed and “natural”. Over 84% of American consumers bought certified organic food in the year 2018, and the growth is steadily increasing by 3.8% every year. The term organic is now associated with being healthier and natural. However, are we really consuming healthier and “natural” products by choosing organic or is this just another marketing scheme by large cooperation aiming to profit from consumers looking to become healthier.

Although prices vary, consumers often pay twice or even three times as much for organic rather than conventional product. Despite that, the sales of organic products rose to record $43 billion in 2016 and that number is estimated to have grown almost 11% annually since. Among its rising popularity, the term and use of the label “organic” is still vague and frequently mislabeled (often purposely) in products we see every day. What constitutes a product that is “organic” or “natural”? And how are we really benefiting from consuming organic products? Confusion over these terms, their benefits and all the various labeling in food packing today has made it harder for shoppers to identify and purchase products that they actually want.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines organic food as, “produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality. The products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth homes. Plant based organic products are produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers with synthetic ingredients, sewage and ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled “organic”, a government approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure farmer is following all rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards” (Baranski, 2017).

The most commonly purchase organic products are grains, dairy, meats, vegetables and fruits. However, the term “organic” is also labeled in many processed foods such as cereal and sodas. Organic certifications often require that an item lack antibiotic, genetically modified or synthetic pesticides and artificial coloring. This includes preservatives, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and artificial sweeteners. Livestock and dairy products that are labeled organic are also supposed to be fed the same pesticide and synthetic free ingredients and given access to humane environments that includes fresh air, freedom of movement and sunlight. So what really is the difference between organic and natural food products?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US is responsible for supervising food safety and production. However, the FDA does not officially regulate the use of the label “natural” on products and instead officially states in an ambiguous manner that they do not object against these labels as long as the product does not contain any “added preservatives, artificial or synthetic substances” and is “minimally processed”. This means that without a specific definition of the term “natural”, foods containing genetically enhanced and modified ingredients can be labeled natural.

A good example of this is products produced with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is generated using synthetic materials but can be labeled “natural” because sometimes the synthesized material is not incorporated in the final product itself. When a consumer is purchasing a “100% natural” food product as opposed to an “organic” one, it might mean that the food doesn’t have any artificial ingredients but it doesn’t mean that the product is hormone free, antibiotic free or sustainable to the environment. In this regard, there is a difference between organic and natural. Foods with organic seals are more strictly regulated by organizations such as the USDA and must contain at least 95% organic content.

There is a huge perception among consumers that organic foods are always better and therefore healthier and nutritious compared to conventional non-organic foods. There have been many studies and research done on this topic, however, much of the evidence from these studies are lacking in validity and methodology. Crops grown organically have generally found to contain greater levels of antioxidants and nutrients such as zinc, iron and vitamin C when compared to non-organic crops (Holzman, 2012). One specific study found that berries grown organically contain over 50% higher amounts of vitamin C and antioxidants – which is comparable to eating almost 2 extra portions of fruits and veggies daily (Mie et al, 2017).

Organic plants also have been found to have lower levels of nitrate levels. Higher levels of nitrate have been linked to increase risk of cancer – although, studies in past have shown that this might have been overstated. Meat and dairy products like egg, milk and chicken are supposed to contain higher levels of omega 3 fatty acids and lower levels of saturated fats which increase the risk of high cholesterol. A study done in Italy found that organic dairy contained significantly higher levels of alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E), beta-carotene in products like milk and cheese when compared to its non-organic counterparts. There has also been evidence that organic feeding in livestock is beneficial in the overall health of the animal, these benefits range from better weight gain to improved reproductive performances.

Besides the nutritional benefits, organic foods are grown and raised in a manner that is generally more sustainable for the environment. Organic farming involves less use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers that are harmful for nearby animals and birds. The lack of pesticides enhances biodiversity and results in reduced pollution, increase in soil fertility and reduction in soil erosion and damage. Organic livestock also means that the meat and dairy consumers eat are raised in a more humane manner with better living conditions, better organic feed and without unnecessary hormones or antibiotics. USDA certification requires farmers to provide livestock easier access to the outdoors, adequate space requirements for poultry and maintain humane slaughter standards.

Despite studies done to show that organic food can be healthier, there still remains a high amount of uncertainty about the validity or actual impact of the evidence found on these studies. Two cross-sectional studies done in Europe among breastmilk of women who consumed both organic and conventional food products, found no difference in the amount of total healthy fatty acids in breast milk from mothers who consumed more than 90% of organic meat and dairy versus those who did not consume any. Recently, the sustainability of organic farming and its benefits has also come into question.

Scientists has raised concerns that organic farming leads to far lower yields when compared to conventional farming and as a result requires far more land and resources to meet demand. Researchers in Chalmers University of Technology published a study in December 2018, showing that organic peas grown in farms in Sweden have a bigger negative climate impact when compared to conventionally grown peas. Organic peas were reported to result in almost 50 percent higher emission rates. The study concluded that total greenhouse gas impact of organic farming is significantly higher than conventional farming due to the extra land required for it.

A survey done by Soil Association, a major organic food accreditation body in Europe asked consumers why they buy organic food and almost 90% of responders said it was to avoid pesticides. However, contrary to what most consumers believe, organic food doesn’t always mean “pesticide free” or even free of chemicals. Organic farms spray crops with pesticides all the time, in fact there are over 20 chemicals used in growing and processing crops that are approved by the USDA organic standards. The actual volumes of usage of these pesticides are also not regulated in order for a farm to obtain organic certification. However, generally the pesticides used in conventional farming are synthetic or created by humans and therefore considered more harmful.

Organic farming pesticides are derived from natural occurring sources and considered “safer” for consumption and the environment. Despite this, many natural occurring pesticides still have potential to be of serious health risk. For example, rotenone a widely used organic pesticide in US for decades was found to be highly dangerous because it damaged the mitochondria – the powerhouse of all cells. Studies found that rotenone was linked to higher causes of Parkinson’s disease and genetic defects in lab rats.

Organic products have provided health conscious consumers a better avenue to seek food that is healthier and safer for consumption. The environmentally sustainable method of agriculture involved in organic farming also avoids the use of synthetic pesticides and artificial fertilizers that benefits biodiversity and animal welfare. However, there are still many issues and questions to consider with organic food, such as its land usage and greenhouse emissions effects when compared to conventional farming. Studies comparing the nutritional composition of organic and non-organic foods are also limited in number and lack proper quality research and methodology.

There have been many opposing studies showing a strong lack of evidence to conclude that organic foods are more nutritious than regular foods. It is important to understand that nutrition and composition of food, meat and dairy products can be affected by many factors such as soil quality, weather conditions, animal genetics, breed, the time of year and type of farm. Further regulated unbiased studies must be done in order to figure out if organic food products are really worth the two to three times the prices of conventional non-organic products.

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Is Organic Food Really the Best Choice. (2021, Nov 26). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/is-organic-food-really-the-best-choice/

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