Organic vs conventionally-grown produce, dairy, and meat is a hot topic. It’s one that we have been keeping on the back burner for many years as research on the health benefits vs harms of these two types of food has been scarce. When we dietitians were in school, which for some of us was less than 6 years ago, we were told there was no difference between organic and conventionally-grown crops. Now that more research has emerged, we’re here to share our findings on whether you should buy organic or not.
What is the difference between organic and conventionally-grown/raised produce, meat & dairy?
The term “organic,” when it comes to food production is used to describe a food or farming practice involving production without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial agents.
The goals of organic farming are to:
- Improve soil and water quality
- Cut pollution
- Provide safe, healthy places for farm animals (livestock) to live
- Enable natural farm animals’ behavior
- Promote a self-sustaining cycle of resources on a farm
Materials or practices not allowed in organic farming include:
- Use of artificial fertilizers
- Sewage sludge as fertilizer
- Most synthetic pesticides for pest control (certain approved pesticides may be used when necessary though)
- Use of irradiation to preserve food or remove disease or pests
- Use of genetic technology to change the genetic makeup/DNA of crops
- Antibiotics or growth hormones on farm animals
Organic farming may include use of:
- Plant waste left on fields (green manure) and farm animal manure or compost to improve soil
- Plant rotation to maintain soil quality and to stop cycles of pests or disease
- Cover crops that prevent erosion of soil when sections of land aren’t in use
- Mulch to control weeds
- Insects or insect traps to control bugs
- Certain natural pesticides and a few synthetic pesticides approved for organic farming. These are used rarely and only as a last resort in coordination with a USDA organic certifying agent
Organic animal farming practices include:
- Healthy living conditions and access to the outdoors
- Pasture feeding for at least 30% of the animals’ nutritional needs during grazing season
- Organic food for animals and no animal byproducts fed to animals
- Vaccinations against disease
Is it more nutritious to buy organic?
Possibly. The few studies that we do have show that people who regularly buy organic food tend to choose more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and less meat. They also tend to be more physically active and less likely to smoke. These people have healthier dietary and lifestyle patterns than people who tend to choose conventionally-grown foods. Each of these choices is associated with a lower risk of many chronic diseases including obesity, but the reason for fewer diseases may simply be due to their overall healthier lifestyle and diet choices.
In simpler terms: people who choose organic tend to be more health-conscious and tend to lead healthier lives. Someone who makes a priority to buy organic is probably not binge drinking, eating ice cream sundaes regularly, or going to McDonald’s. That makes sense.
If there was a study to compare people living equal lifestyles and choosing the exact same foods – just organic vs non-organic – we would actually be able to see more accurate results. This study would be extremely difficult to run, so for now we just have to go with what information we do have.
What we do know, is that some data shows benefits of organic food compared to regularly grown food. Some of those potential benefits include:
- Greater nutritional value. Studies have shown small to moderate increases in some organic produce nutrients. Organic produce may have more antioxidants, which help to prevent and fight cancer.
- Higher Omega-3 fatty acid content. Organically raised farm animals usually have higher amounts of omega 3 fatty acids in their meat, milk, and eggs (1). Omega-3’s are healthy fats that improve many aspects of health and lower inflammation in the body.
- Less toxic metal content. A toxic metal found naturally in soils is called cadmium. Studies have shown lower cadmium levels in organic grains, but not in organic fruits and veggies.
- Less pesticide residue. Organic produce has less pesticide residue than conventionally grown produce. (There is a certain amount of pesticide residue that is allowed to remain on conventionally-grown foods, but it is very small.) Organic produce may still have some pesticide residue due to the allowed pesticides for organic farming or from airborne pesticides from neighboring conventional farms.
What are the health effects of organic vs conventionally-grown food according to current research?
Bear with us as we summarize a handful of studies on different topics related to organic foods and/or pesticide use.
One study showed that mothers consuming organic dairy products had significantly more conjugated linoleic acids (CLA) in their breast milk. CLA are fatty acids have anti-cancer, anti-heart disease, and anti-diabetes effects. They can also improve the immune system and body fat composition.
Another study looked at 2700 mothers and infants in the Netherlands. They found that consuming only organic dairy products during pregnancy and infancy was associated with a 36% reduction in the risk of eczema at age 2.
This study showed that pregnant women who ate mainly organically grown vegetables had a significantly reduced risk of pre-eclampsia.
When it comes to the incidence of cancer, this study looked at over 600,000 individuals in the UK over 9 years and had them fill out a food frequency questionnaire. (Basically, they checked off and reported how often they consumed organic foods over 9 years.) They found that consumption of organic food did not reduce the incidence of overall cancer, but it did significantly reduce the risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
A study on chickens found that those fed organic feed experienced less weight gain throughout the life span, had enhanced immune reactivity, and greater catch-up growth after an immune challenge than chickens fed conventionally-grown feed.
Are pesticides linked to autism? A review of multiple studies pointed out that we have seen a 600% increase in the incidence of autism in California between the years 1990-2001. They did point out that a third of the increase could be explained by changing diagnostic criteria and diagnosing children at a younger age. That still leaves a 400% increase unexplained. It pointed out a study on mothers living in the California Central Valley. This study found that children born to mothers who had been exposed to agriculturally applied organochlorine insecticides within 500 meters of the home between gestational days 26-81 (while the neural tube is closing) were 7.6 times more likely to be diagnosed with autism.
The same review concluded that certain pesticides may be capable of inducing core features of autism, but we do not know the timing, dosing or mechanisms for such.
This study found that there is some significant evidence to suggest a link between pesticides and the development of ADHD.
Could pesticides be linked to cognitive diseases such as Alzheimer’s? This study pointed out that there is an overall indication that exposure to neurotoxic pesticides does affect cognitive function, which can lead to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Other studies have shown that pesticides have been found to disrupt the functioning of the human body’s endocrine (hormone) system. One common pesticide called glyphosate has a chemical structure that can disrupt the production of estrogens in the body (1).
Many studies have also linked pesticide exposure through living or working environments to different types of cancer (1).
So, should I buy organic, yes or no?
After reading through our summary of a few of the studies out there, what do you think? Unfortunately, we can’t just give you a straight “yes” or “no” answer to this question. We recognize price as a major barrier to purchasing 100% organic. Plus, there is still very little research on the long-term health effects of organic vs conventionally-grown food products.
However, we do recognize that it appears to be especially important for pregnant and nursing women to consume organic food as often as possible. It also appears that infants and children may be most at-risk for health issues related to pesticide exposure, so we recommend they eat organic food as much as possible.
As for the rest of you, we recommend purchasing organic whenever possible. There is no harm in purchasing organic (besides to your bank account), but there are many potential harms to purchasing conventionally-grown foods. As you buy organic food, you “vote” with your food dollars on which foods you prefer. As the demand for organic food increases, we’ll see more farmers transition to organic farming. We hope to see this trend increase as it improves the environment and appears to be better for our overall health.