It’s the quandary facing many health-conscious people in our modern world: to buy organic, or not to buy organic. Is it healthier for us? Better for the environment? More flavoursome? Working as a Dietitian, I often get asked by clients whether they should be eating organic food. But the answer isn’t really a simple yes or no…
What does ‘organic’ mean?
‘Organic’ commonly refers to produce (such as fruit, vegetables and grains) that has been grown without the use of synthetic chemicals such as pesticides or artificial fertilisers. Organic meat usually means the animals are free range and not fed any growth-affecting drugs. But organic doesn’t necessarily equate to completely chemical free crops, as they may be grown on land that was previously used for non-organic farming or might have been cross-contaminated from nearby non-organic crops that are being sprayed. Organic meat and produce is often more expensive because the farming generally operates on a smaller scale, is more labour intensive and produces smaller yields.
What’s so good about organic food?
The real benefit of organic farming is environmental. Without the use of harsh pesticides and fertilisers, the soil is at less risk of being damaged or nutritionally depleted than in conventional methods, making the land go further and it more ecologically sustainable.
But the main reason people buy organic? There’s a perception that organic food is healthier. And while organic produce does contain lower levels of pesticide residues (which I might add are also monitored in non-organic foods to ensure consumer health and safety), scientific opinion is divided on whether this impacts nutrient levels in the food. Up until recently, most studies have concluded that there is insufficient evidence to show that organic food has higher levels of nutrients (see here and here) but one new meta-analysis has found higher levels of some antioxidants in organic food (see here). Is this it then? Conclusive evidence that organic food is more nutritious? Not quite. There are many things that impact a foods nutritional quality, other than the use of pesticides: length of time from paddock to plate, storage of the produce during its travel, exposure to light and heat, etc, etc.
How can we ensure the food we buy IS actually organic?
Due to the increasing demand, we are not only seeing local organic fruit and veg, but also imported organic produce and even packaged foods labelled as using organic ingredients.
But the standards that govern organic practices are voluntary and the word ‘organic’ is not regulated in Australia (theoretically meaning anyone can whack it on a label). Domestically marketed organic products are commonly certified by seven organisations classified by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF). So make sure you are buying certified organic!
Pros of buying organic:
- Lower pesticide residues & chemical use
- More environmentally friendly and sustainable
- Humane treatment of animals in meat farming
Cons of buying organic:
- More expensive
- No significant difference in most nutrient levels (perhaps with the exception of some antioxidants)
- No strict regulation of organic labelling so you may be thinking you’re buying organic but you actually aren’t
Ultimately it comes down to personal choice. If you can afford to buy organic produce, then certainly, go ahead. There are obvious environmental benefits. But stick with fresh local produce and avoid commercial packaged foods that claim to be organic- the processing really defeats the purpose in my book. However, I would not be telling my clients that they all must buy organic because it is not financially viable for everyone to do so and I’d rather they were regularly consuming adequate amounts of fruit, veg, grains and meat, than small amounts of organic food.
My takeaway tip
If it’s your health you’re worried about, try instead to buy fresh, local produce to reduce the distance your food is travelling (and support local farmers) and ensure it is of high nutritional quality.