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Organic food: is it worth the extra cost?

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Why buy organic?

Organic food is often more expensive than non-organic. My clients often ask me, are the benefits of organic produce truly worth the investment?

Well, my answer to this question is pretty simple: yes! In this month’s blog, I hope to show you why, with the support of some recent scientific research. And since financially it isn’t always possible to buy everything organic, I’ll suggest which organic foods are most worth buying.

What is organic food?

Organic food means –

  1. crops, fruit and vegetables raised with no harmful pesticides, no synthetic herbicides and no artificial fertilisers.
  2. meat and dairy produced in healthy conditions and without routine antibiotics, hormones, or genetically modified feeds

What’s so good about organic crops, fruit and vegetables?

Organic farmers use crop rotation and animal manures for their soils, and they never use GMO seeds or sewage sludge as fertiliser. This care for the soil means that crops grown on it generally have better nutritional content. A scientific review of 343 publications in 2014 showed that organic produce contains up to 60% more antioxidants, the molecules (such as Vitamin C) which protect our cells from damage and support the immune system.

Organic produce is not sprayed with pesticides designed to kill insects (insecticide), weeds (herbicide), and mould (fungicide). This is safer for humans. A 2015 experiment on herbicides concluded that ingesting them even at ‘safe’ levels may induce antibiotic resistance in humans. The toxic heavy metal cadmium was found in 2013 to be on average 48% lower in organic crops than non-organic crops, which are exposed to greater cadmium via sewage sludge application.

The important thing about heavy metals and pesticides is that they can be harboured in the body. A longitudinal study of 23 primary school aged children found that markers for pesticide in their urine became undetectable after five days on an organic diet, but reappeared again once they returned to conventional eating.

What’s so good about organic meat and dairy?

Two large surveys of scientific literature were published on organic animal products this year. Organic milk was found to contain over 50% more beneficial omega 3 fatty acids, and higher levels of iron and vitamin E than non-organic. Similarly, organic meat was found to have 47% more omega-3’s than non-organic. A normal diet is often low in omega 3 fats, which are important for brain health, reducing inflammation and supporting immunity.

Similar to organically grown plants, organic animal products are safer to eat than conventionally raised ones, because they are not treated with the same types of chemical. Antibiotics are routinely given to non-organic animals, but only in emergency to organic animals. Antibiotics in non-organic meat are known to cause antibiotic resistance in humans who consume it. Hormones cannot to be administered to organic animals at all. Organic animals eat GMO-free and organic food, and are given access to pasture and space, which improves their health.

Given the power of synthetic hormones to affect human hormones, and of antibiotics to affect our gut health, it seems sensible to avoid eating animal products that have been contaminated with these substances. Animal welfare is of course another top reason why people buy organic. Free range is not the same as organic, but usually organic will include free range!

What’s so good about organic farming generally?

Organic farming is good for consumers, but it also protects people who are vulnerable to pesticides in other ways: farmers’ neighbours, and farm workers. Clinical reports in 2012 and 2013 cited research that chronic exposure to pesticides has been associated with breathing problems, memory disorders, skin conditions, depression, Parkinson disease, miscarriages, birth defects, diabetes and cancer – among many illnesses.

Organic food is made so as to benefit the land on which it is raised. This means that nearby rivers are cleaner, local wildlife is healthier, and soil is more fertile. In contrast, non-organic farming has been shown to leach harmful chemicals such as phosphates into the water and soil surrounding farmland. Specific pesticides, such as neonicotinoids, damage bees; bird populations suffer from pesticides, and wildflowers near to non-organic farms have been found to have pesticide residues. In the case of neonicotinoids, only 5% of the sprayed pesticide is absorbed up by the crop. All the rest goes into the soil, groundwater, nearby plants such as wildflowers and hedges, and the air. Leaching and runoff into nearby waters, which inevitably occurs from farmland, is therefore much more toxic to the environment when it comes from non-organic farms.

Which foods are most worth buying organic?

  1. Animal products.

If I had to choose one type of food to eat organic, I would choose animal products. I prefer to avoid the hormones, antibiotics and bad feed that are given to conventionally reared animals. I also support humane treatment of animals and environmentally aware farming practices. Also, animals (and humans) tend to put their toxins into fat. Eating reasonable amounts of meat, and indeed any animal fats, is extremely helpful for most people, but much less so if they are polluted in the ways mentioned.

  1. Fruit and vegetables which have high pesticide residues.

According to the Environmental Working Group in the US, these are the top 12 things to buy organic, in order of priority:

Strawberries, Apples, Nectarines, Peaches, Celery, Grapes, Cherries, Spinach, Tomatoes, Red and green peppers, Cherry tomatoes, Cucumbers

Conversely, the following 15 fruits and vegetables tend to have fewer pesticide residues and therefore aren’t quite so important to eat organically:

Avocados, Sweet Corn, Pineapples, Cabbage, Frozen peas, Onions, Asparagus, Mangos, Papayas, Kiwi, Eggplant, Honeydew Melon, Grapefruit, Cantaloupe, Cauliflower

And lastly, I should say, it’s always worth washing all organic vegetables and fruit in water – and for non-organic, try cider vinegar diluted in water at a 1:9 ratio.

So…

You’ve read some of the main reasons you may want to consider buying organic as much as is possible.   I would love to see a world where all food was produced organically – but for now, I hope the guidelines for prioritising will help you make decisions. Further reading is listed below if you’re interested, or be in touch to discuss your food, nutrition and health.

Emma Maitland-Carew, Nutritional Therapist in Oxford and Bloxham, Oxfordshire

Further reading

https://www.soilassociation.org/

http://www.pesticidescampaign.co.uk/

https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/faq.php

References

Baranski, M. & et al, 2014. Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses. British Journal of Nutrition, 112, pp.794–811.

Botías, C. et al., 2015. Neonicotinoid Residues in Wildflowers, a Potential Route of Chronic Exposure for Bees. Environmental Science & Technology, 49(21), pp.12731–12740.

European Food Information Council, 2013. Organic food and farming: scientific facts and consumer perceptions. EUFIC.

Forman, J. et al., 2012. Organic Foods: Health and Environmental Advantages and Disadvantages. Pediatrics, 130(5), pp.e1406–e1415.

Goulson, D., 2014. Ecology: Pesticides linked to bird declines. Nature, 511(7509), pp.295–296.

Kurenbach, B. et al., 2015. Sublethal Exposure to Commercial Formulations of the Herbicides Dicamba, 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic Acid, and Glyphosate Cause Changes in Antibiotic Susceptibility in Escherichia coli and Salmonella enterica serovar Typhimurium. mBio, 6(2), pp.9-15.

Lu, C.S. et al., 2006. Organic diets significantly lower children’s dietary exposure to organophosphorus pesticides. Environmental Health Perspectives, 114(2), pp.260–263.

Mostafalou, S. & Abdollahi, M., 2013. Pesticides and human chronic diseases: Evidences, mechanisms, and perspectives. Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, 268(2), pp.157–177.

Średnicka-Tober, D., Barański, M., Seal, C., et al., 2016. Composition differences between organic and conventional meat: a systematic literature review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Nutrition, 115(6), pp.994–1011.

Średnicka-Tober, D., Barański, M., Seal, C.J., et al., 2016. Higher PUFA and n-3 PUFA, conjugated linoleic acid, α-tocopherol and iron, but lower iodine and selenium concentrations in organic milk: a systematic literature review and meta- and redundancy analyses. British Journal of Nutrition, 115(6), pp.1043–1060.

 

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