Is Eating Organic Really Better For You?
(Is It Really Worth It?)
To dietitians, self-proclaimed nutritionists, hippies, stay at home mothers with wealthy husbands and multinational corporations that want to sell you the lowest-quality food for the highest-possible markup - this topic is of high-interest and often highly controversial.
We think we have the correct answer.
To the surprise of myself and humans everywhere, a fairly recent study at Stanford University firmly concluded that there were "no differences between organic and non-organic foods" and there was not convincing reason to opt for organic foods over their often disrespected non-organic counterparts.
While this is a very general statement, met with scorn from all parties offended, it's worth examining because it contrasts the notion that "organic is ALWAYS better" - another general statement that most of us have come to accept.
Define Organic -
What Does 'Organic' Mean?
Organic foods are foods that have been grown through specific farming/agricultural methods.
Organic farming means that no synthetic pesticides or chemical based fertilizers used through the agricultural process.
From a regulation point of view, organic food production is heavily regulated in most developed countries.
In order for a food product to be deemed as organic, in the USA, it must meet the following criteria:
- Produced without any genetic engineering. (GMO's)
- Produced in alignment with the national list of allowed substances.
- Produced without any of the national list of prohibited substances.
- Must be overseen by the USDA National Organic Program.
In order for farmers to classify (or 'certify') their food as organic, these criteria must be met.
As you would expect, these standards also relate to the labeling of organic foods.
For example - in order for a food product to claim it is "100% Organic", EVERY ingredient must be certified organic.
However, for food products that wish to use ingredient(s) that are not certified organic, they can do so but must change the labeling to just “Organic”.
This can be quite misleading under these standards, the manufacturer is allowed to include up to 5% of its ingredients from non-organic sources.
It is incorrect to assume that a product labeled 'organic' is 100% organic.
In fact, if the label is a missing "100%" from it - it most certainly isn't fully organic.
It's probably closer to 90% organic.
While this isn't entirely misleading, other familiar 'organic' classifications are.
The label “Made with Organic…” can only be used on food products that contain up to 70% of organic ingredients.
The label "All-Natural..." can only be used when there are absolutely no organic ingredients whatsoever.
The label "Made with All-Natural..." is completely meaningless.
As you can see, the term 'organic' can be pretty loose.
The FDA and USDA leaves room for corporations to use it as a marketing ploy.
I don't actually have a problem with that - I have a bigger issue with 95% of American being completely ignorant about 95% of the stuff they put inside their mouth and swallow.
You don't have to be one of them though.
You can read here if you want further clarification on varying degrees of 'organic'.
3 Main Reasons to Eat Organic?
There are 3 generally accepted reasons to opt for organic food -
- Organic foods are more nutritious for you.
- Organic foods are safer for you.
- Organic foods taste better.
Most people accept these as fact, I did.
Well, until I spoke to our in-house dietitian and read his research.
We'll take a look at all three.
Is Organic Food Truly More Nutritious?
One of primary reasons that people (myself included) believe that organic food is superior to non-organic food is because it is "healthier" or more nutritious.
"Healthier", meaning - organic foods have high-quality and higher-quantities of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients.
Our dietitian and recent research that I reviewed told me I was wrong -
I can’t recall how many times I have had clients use the argument, “but it was organic chocolate”, “but it was organic ice cream”, "I only eat vegetables 2 times a week - but they are organic".
Organic or not, food still contains the ~exact same amount of macronutrients and does not possess any superior health properties that makes it exempt or better than their 'regular' versions.
Interestingly enough, in a study published last year in the Annals of Internal Medicine, a meta-analysis on the nutrient profiles of organic and non-organic foods, showed that there is no significant difference in the nutrient profiles between the two. The researchers went on to state “consumers may choose to buy organic... because they believe them to be nutritious than other food… the balance of current scientific evidence does not support this view”.
Furthermore, in a systematic review including 50 years worth of research, scientists concluded that “there is no good evidence that consumption of organic food is more beneficial to health in relation to nutrient content”.
Although there are a small handful of studies that have shown slightly higher levels of certain micronutrients (beta-carotene, ascorbic acid) in some organic fruits and vegetables, as a whole, there appears to be no significant benefits to organic over non-organic.
The "more healthy" reason was one of the primary reasons I opted for organic food and told others to do the same (2008-2009, personal trainer era) - I assumed I was ALWAYS eating a nutritionally superior food.
Is Organic Food Safer?
The second or tied-for-first reason to opt for organic foods over non-organic foods is because organic foods are supposedly "safer".
"Safer", meaning - they have less pesticides, herbicides and cancer-causing chemicals on and potentially inside of them.
This is a fact.
A 2012 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that 38% of the non-organic produced had detectable amounts of pesticides on them. Of the organic produce - only 7% had detectable pesticide residue on them.
But despite the alarming levels of detectable pesticide residue, the researchers noted that there does not appear to be an immediate safety concern with using non-organic produce.
It is believed that ingesting pesticide residue can cause significant adverse health effects, however there is no evidence to demonstrate this from the use of non-organic produce.
As questionable as that sounds - you and I are living proof of this.
We have both consumed hundreds of pounds of non-organic foods in our lifetime and yet we are still healthy, fit and most importantly - alive.
Still, it's worth pointing out the irony that eating fruits and vegetables - foods that are often associated with health and vitality - have been potentially hazardous to our health.
On paper, non-organic vegetarians may have a greater risk of getting cancer than people that avoid fruits and vegetables altogether. But maybe not.
Although organic foods are not thought to be more nutritious - they are undoubtedly safer for you to consume because they are much less likely to be harboring carcinogens and other hazardous chemicals.
As a sidenote, a lot of people think they can simply "wash away" any harmful chemicals that are present on their non-organic produce.
While this can be true - it doesn't address the chemicals that have already made it into the foods.
This is more of an issue with uncooked berries and green vegetables that do not have skin as protection.
You always want to wash your vegetables (unless it is triple pre-washed), but don't assume that cleaning it will turn it into organic produce.
Does Organic Food Really Taste Better?
Most people, even if they don't buy organic foods, believe that organic foods taste better.
From the research that our in-house Australian-based dietitian did - he says otherwise.
In a 2009 literature review, researchers reported that there are “no consistent or significant differences (in taste, smell or appearance) between organic and conventional produce”.
In my personal opinion, formed well before I start eating organic[ally] as possible - organic food does taste better and I can tell the difference.
That is my personal opinion and I think people are crazy if they can't tell the difference.
Certain foods with skins such as bananas or oranges taste the same - but the vast majority of organic foods taste significantly better than their counterparts.
They always taste bolder and fresher.
I don't think it's placebo effect.
The Gray Area
Even if we could reach a consensus agreement: Eating Organic Is/Isn't Really Better For You - gray areas exist because not all meat, fish and produce are the same.
Furthermore, farming conditions can vary significantly too.
Some regions produce very high-quality non-organic foods with low levels of pesticides. Some are just the opposite.
In general, foods that are protected by 'skins' such as bananas, pineapples, cucumbers or squash have no significant advantage when certified organic.
In contrast, foods without skins, especially berries or leafy-green vegetables, are definitely worth buying as organic.
You can check out our "Best Food to Eat" list, we discuss which foods at best as organic, as well as which foods have the greatest/least contamination risk.
Our Personal Opinions
Courtney (Australian Dietitian)
In my opinion, organic farming is a great concept as it reduces the need for chemicals, pesticides and genetic engineering.
However, unfortunately, these farming methods come at a higher cost which is always passed onto the consumer.
Organic fruits and vegetables are extremely expensive compared to non-organic produce. In some cases they are more than triple the price of non-organic.
Nutritionally speaking, we know there is no health benefit or reasons to suggest the use of organic produce and this is supported by the generations of humans who have survived without eating organic produce.
Verdict: Skip Organic.
* organic foods tend to be very expensive in Australia.
Chris (Good Looking Loser)
As a certified sports nutritionist (I'm not active anymore), I have to admit I learned something from the organic debate.
As a former protein and complex-carbohydrate powered meathead, I didn't eat fruits and vegetables in my early 20's, so I was a bit late to the 'organic' party.
Since I used to train and draw up diets for wealthy people in Beverly Hills - I simply told them to eat organic foods since they could easily afford it.
But I was under the impression that organic foods almost always had more vitamins, minerals and antioxidants than their less privileged siblings.
And Certainly not always.
Still, what Stanford (and a lot of people) miss is the reason that we should be eating organic foods in the first place - they don't have cancer-causing-substances-you-can't-even-pronouce chemicals on or inside of them.
Our favorite no-bullshit doctor, Jonny Bowden, argues this passionately.
The Stanford study, overly simplistic conclusion and off-topic post-commentary focuses too much on what organic foods are not - rather than what THEY ARE.
THEY ARE much safer than non-organic foods.
This is especially important in this day and age, when the word 'organic' is often just an advertisement. And Where we are constantly surrounded by invisible things that are supposedly destroying our minds and deforming our testicles - surviving only by consuming plants and animals are bathed in chemicals that are used make hydrogen bombs and jet fuel.
If you are supposedly eating fruits and vegetables for 'health' reasons - it should be a no-brainer opt for organic foods.
They also taste better, in my opinion.
Whether you should/shouldn't eat organic comes mainly down to your financial situation and what you can afford.
Eating organic foods is not cheap and despite what the hippies will tell you - it shouldn't be your first priority if it causes you to go broke.
I, personally, only eat organic produce but that's because I don't buy that many solid food fruits or vegetables.
Maybe 2 or 3 servings a week.
Maybe 4 or 5 if some of the girls I live with in LA leave them in the fridge without a note telling me not to.
I use this absolutely amazing chocolate greens supplement that gives me nutrition of multiple servings of produce in significantly less time and for a less expensive price.
I think most supplements are garbage - but I think this is the ONE SUPPLEMENT that EVERYONE NEEDS.
If you wanted to know - the vast majority of this supplement is organic.
Verdict: Supplement your fruit and vegetable nutrition with a greens and/or reds formula to save time and money; eat select organic foods a few times a week and don't eat non-organic produce that doesn't have a skin.
Do you eat organic?
Tell us why you do or don't.