The range of organic foods is increasingly abundant. But are these foods the best and healthy option?
"Organic" is the term you find on many foods, whole or processed. From apples to chickens and chips, you can find the organic label. But what does it mean if a food is "organic"?
Organic foods are grown without pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. The organic label indicates that prohibited substances were not used on the soil and on the plants where the vegetables were grown.
Organic labels on meat mean that animals did not receive antibiotics or hormones, had living conditions that allowed them to manifest their natural behaviors, such as pasture, and the feed they received were organic.
The label of organic on foods with several ingredients, means that all the respective ingredients are organic in nature and that no preservatives, dyes or artificial flavors have been used.
By definition, organic farming aims to support animals and the environment. But, the definition of organic does not tell you if organic foods are necessarily safer, healthier or sustainable.
1. Organic food safety against non-organic foods
An obvious concern when choosing organic foods is whether they are safe. Given the obvious difference between agricultural practices and the substances used, organic products have fewer pesticide residues and synthetic fertilizers.
Every year a list of the most contaminated pesticide products is made. Last year, the most susceptible foods to be contaminated were strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery and potatoes.
Thicker shell products are less likely to be contaminated. Products that are least likely to be contaminated are avocado, pork, pineapple, frozen garlic, onion, papaya, eggplant, asparagus, kiwi, cabbage, cauliflower, melons, broccoli, mushrooms.
On the other hand, the lack of pesticides and other substances in organic products can increase the risk of contaminated with bacteria. A study found that organic products from Polish farms were at higher risk of contamination with E.coli. The risk of bacterial contamination of organic products is an early scientific branch that needs to be deepened.
When it comes to meat and dairy, the use of antibiotics in animals raises concerns because of antibiotic resistance. For example, the risk of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is higher in conventionally raised chickens and pigs than if they were organically raised. It is more difficult to treat infections in humans and animals when bacteria are resistant to antibiotics.
2. Are organic products healthier?
Does the lack of pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and other substances mean that organic products are healthier? NOT! In fact, there is no evidence that organic products are nutritious!
A recent review found that there are no major differences between organic and conventional products. Organic products have higher phenolic content, and lower cadmium levels and higher levels of omega-3s in meat and dairy products. But as for minerals, there are no differences. Overall, studies to date indicate that there are no differences, or the differences are very small, providing nutrients from organic and conventional products.
When it comes to nutrient content, it is best to consider other practices, not organic or inorganic ones. For example, the cooking method, such as freezing or boiling, can change the nutritional profile of foods.
3. Sustainability of organ foods
Sustainability is the most complex factor to consider; a diet can be sustainable in relation to its impact on the environment or on the potential to follow it for long periods of time.
When we talk about the impact on the environment, the answer is clear: organic is almost always more sustainable than conventional. Taking care of soil, animals and plants is ideal.
Unfortunately, conventional systems, ie intensive agriculture, aim at lower costs and higher efficiency, and the environment suffers. For example, many birds raised for food are practically man-made and cannot reproduce sexually.
The second meaning of the term sustainability is more complex, and depends on each individual. Cost, accessibility and taste are just a few factors to consider when buying organic or conventional.
Organic foods are always more expensive. And for many they are difficult to obtain. As a rule, organic products have the same taste as conventional ones; but there are many situations when the appearance and taste of conventional products can be changed. Organic meats may taste different because animals have a different diet than conventional ones.
Finally, it is up to you to decide if you deserve to spend more money on organic products. You have no great reason to avoid conventional products if you do not find organic options. Eating conventionally grown fruits and vegetables is better than not eating at all because you can't find organic varieties.