Is eating organic food better for you? Depending who you ask, the answer might seem pretty obvious. It’s got to be, right? Marnie examines this question through her no-nonsense dietitian lens.
Marnie Nitschke is an Accredited Practicing Dietitian and Cockatoo Grove Ambassador.
5 min read.
Firstly – what does organic mean, when it comes to food?
Organic food production is based on a system of environmentaly sustainable and regenerative farming that maintains and replenishes soil fertility and biodiversity, minimises erosion and protects water supplies, wildlife zones and habitats.
- Organic produce is grown and processed without synthetic pesticides, fertilisers, irradiation or genetically modified organisms. Nearly all the 900 products approved for conventional farming by Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (the overarching authority for agricultural and veterinary chemicals) are not allowed in organic production. Some naturally occurring pesticides are permitted for use, such as pyrethrins, light oils, copper and other biological substances.
- It is possible some organic food products contain synthetic chemical residues (due to contamination of soil from adjacent farms or water supplies), however the Maximum Residue Limits for organic products are one tenth or less than conventional products, and their presence is uncommon in certified organic products.
- In a surprising twist, products produced and sold within Australia can use the word ‘organic’ on their packaging with as little as 2% organic ingredients, and no certification process is mandatory.
- Despite this, many businesses choose to be certified by an organic certification body (there are a number of private entities authorised by the Australian government to do so). Certified products can claim to be ‘100% organic’ (self-explanatory). If products are labelled 'organic, they must contain at least 95% organic content (and the remainder to be allowable content). Under these certifications, a product with a claim ‘made with organic ingredients’ needs to contain at least 70% organic content.
- Clearly, looking for one of these certification symbols is the best way to ensure the product you are buying is actually organic, in a meaningful sense.
Next up, the big question everyone wants to know – is organic produce actually healthier than non-organic produce?
Firstly, let’s talk frankly about pesticide residues.
On the whole, conventional fruit and veggies do contain more pesticide residues than their organic counterparts – and this makes sense, considering conventional produce is permitted to contain 10 times or more pesticide residues than it’s organic equivalents and the different farming practices involved. But let’s be straight up here: residual pesticide levels in Australian samples still fall well within scientifically established safe limits.
How do we know what pesticide residue levels are safe? These levels are determined and set out in the Australian Food Standards Code. Their regulation is enforced by state and territory food surveillance programs, and through the FSANZ Australian Total Diet Study (ATDS).
In short, no-one should feel worried about the safety of eating conventionally-farmed produce here in Australia. Cutting back on your fruit and veg for fear of pesticides would be very misguided.
What about the nutritional content of organic vs. conventionally farmed foods?
Now it gets a bit murky. Scientific opinion is divided on whether there are significant nutritional differences between organic and non-organic produce, with a number of literature reviews finding no significant differences. In truth, the micro and macronutrient content of produce will naturally vary from crop to crop, depending on growing conditions like temperature, water availability, soil quality and of course - season.
We do know that soil diversity (the variety of life that exists within the soil, including bacteria, fungi, earthworms and termites) is significantly higher in organic farming environments. And it follows that the quality of soil could have a flow on effect to the quality of food produced.
Interestingly, one meta-analysis based on 343 peer reviewed publications has concluded that organic crops, on average, have higher concentrations of antioxidants (eg. phenolic acids, flavonols and anthocyanins) and lower concentrations of undesirable heavy metals like cadmium. Antioxidants are well recognized for their potential to reduce chronic inflammation and help us fight cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases. Many antioxidants also act as natural protection for plants against being eaten pests, so it makes sense that organic crops would need to produce more. Clever, hey?
What about the price of organic food?
Let’s just acknowledge that always buying the organic option is not accessible to everyone. Organic fresh produce and packaged foods are not available in some locations or stores, and as most of us will have noticed, it can be significantly more expensive. For some people struggling to put food on the table, organic vs conventional produce just isn’t relevant.
For those of us who have considered buying organic, but have been put off by the price, it’s time you took a closer look! Let’s bust the myth that buying organic is always more expensive, by comparing a few common supermarket staples this week:
Pleasantly surprised? I was! And while these figures are just a small sample, they do point out that the organic options can be very competitive – sometimes even cheaper – than conventional. Buying organic in bulk (eg. flour, oats, pasta), in season and at the market or discount supermarket will also bring down the bottom line.
Organic food and the bigger picture
This is where buying organic, if you have the option available to you, has a clear benefit. Some of the potential advantages to the environment of organic farming systems include:
- Improved soil health and diversity
- Better water retention in soils, requiring less water
- Less damage to the environment by using physical weed control, and animal and green manure
- No synthetic pesticide run-off into our precious waterways
- Traditional farming methods such as crop rotation, requiring less fertilizers
- Safer and more secure work environment for organic farmers
So what’s the TLDR here?
Where I would land here is to say that some organically farmed foods may offer a nutritional benefit to their organic counterparts. However, to assert that choosing organic over conventional fruit and veg will translate to better health outcomes is a big stretch.
An organic chocolate brownie or potato chip isn’t healthier than a regular one! But the process by which it is produced is likely to be healthier for our environment.
Once more – for the people in the back:
Plants foods are nutritionally dense, excellent for our gut health and well-evidenced to help us live longer, healthier lives – whether they are organic or conventionally farmed. Most of us should be eating more of them. Fear-mongering and talking down of non-organic food is misguided, elitist and really not cool (yes, I’m talking to you – Dirty Dozen).
Next time you’re shopping, be curious.
Look closer and you may be surprised at how comparable some organic items are in price. If you have the means to choose them, sleep tight knowing that your dollars are supporting farmers committed to regenerative and sustainable use of natural resources. And that’s got to be a big win for our precious environment.