Do you buy organic food?

The main reasons people buy organic produce are because they believe it’s better for their health and it contains more nutrients. So is this really true? And if so, will eating organic food lead to better health outcomes?
I’m going to take a look at the evidence but first let’s look at a few important points about organic farming.

Organic farming facts:

The UK’s organic food market is currently (in 2022) worth £3bn and in the last 5 years sales have grown by over 30%.
In order for organic food to be grown, processed and labelled as organic in The U.K, farmers require certification by The Soil Association.1,2
Farmers must adhere to strict working standards to ensure that their farm sustains the health of:

  • Soils
  • Ecosystems
  • Animals
  • People

Certain antibiotics are banned on livestock and farmers will only use antibiotics as a last resort.

Do farmers use pesticides?*

Yes, but fewer of them. They also need to be naturally-derived and not synthetic. Weedkillers are not permitted under The Soil Association’s organic standards. Instead, farmers often encourage certain insects to eat the “pests” that can damage and eat their crops.

* Pesticide recap: Pesticides are chemicals that kill insects, weeds (herbicides) and fungal diseases (fungicides) that have the ability to damage crops.

Given the use of fewer pesticides, does organic food contain more nutrients?

Let’s take a look at plant foods first:
There is evidence that shows organic plant foods may have a significantly higher number of polyphenolic compounds (beneficial plant chemicals) and may also have a higher antioxidant activity 3,4.
For specific vitamins and minerals it’s a mixed bag.

Protein, fibre and vitamin E has been found to be lower in organic versus conventional crops 3.

For calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, zinc and copper no difference has been found between organic and non-organic plant foods. 4,6

Vitamin C levels are inconclusive – some evidence points towards there being higher levels in organic produce 5 while other research shows Vitamin C levels are not superior in organic plant foods 4,6.

Looking at this evidence as a whole, antioxidant content in organic plant produce has been consistently higher, while evidence on higher levels of vitamin C was inconsistent.

What about animal produce?

Organic milk has consistently shown to have higher omega-3 levels – the fat type that can exert anti-inflammatory effects on the body. This is thought to be due to the higher amounts of grazing in organic cattle 7.

Iodine and selenium levels were found to be higher in conventional milk, however organic milk still contained levels that were nutritionally relevant.

For other fat types such as saturated fats (we want to consume less of these) and mono unsaturated fat (a more preferable fat type) – no differences were found between organic and non-organic milk 7.

Organic meat has consistently been found to contain higher levels of omega-3 as well as the other essential fatty acid type, omega-6. However this difference was not thought to be big enough to have a significant effect on overall health.

Saturated fat levels seem to be similar in both organic and non-organic meat.

The strength of the evidence for organic versus non-organic meat was weak and therefore it can’t be concluded that we should all be only consuming organic meat.

So how does these nutrient values translate to health outcomes in humans?

One of the biggest questions people might have is will consuming an organic diet reduce their risk of cancer?

A large prospective study of over 600,000 women and a second prospective study of over 68,000 adults found that organic food consumption was associated with up to a 25% decrease risk in non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. 8,9

No other association between cancer risk and organic foods has been found.

In infants with eczema…
A prospective study of over 2700 infants over a 2 year study duration, foundthat organic only dairy products resulted in significantly lower odds of eczema (33%). While organic food consumption as a whole was not associated with lower risk of eczema 10.

In summary:

With the evidence that we have, which for the most part is weak and inconclusive, we can not conclude that organic food is superior to nonorganic food, both from a nutrient and health outcome perspective.

However, we do have lots of evidence on the health benefits of a diet rich in plant foods:

  • Vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Wholegrains
  • Legumes
  • Nuts & seeds
  • Herbs

Given that only 8% of children and 27% of adults eat 5 portions of fruit and veg (combined) each day (11) , it is much more important to try and increase your intake (and variety if possible) rather than buying the organic version.

References:

1. Satistica “Value of organic market sales in the United Kingdom from 2008
to 2021” [Accessed October 2022 via: https://www.statista.com/statistics/300093/organic-market-value-in-the-united-kingdom-uk/]
2. The Soil Association “The Soil Association Certification’s Organic Market Report 2022” [Accessed October 2022 via: soilassociation.org]
3. Baranski 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’, The British Journal of Nutrition, 112(5), pp.794-811.
4. Smith-Spangler & Brandeau. (2012). ‘Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?’, Annals of Internal Medicine, 157(5), pp.348-366.
5. Brandt et al. (2011). ‘Agroecosystem Management and Nutritional Quality of Plant Foods: The Case of Organic Fruits and Vegetables’, Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences, 30(1-2), pp.177-197.
6. Danger et al. (2009). ‘Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review’, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 90(3), pp.680-685.
7. Srednicka-Tober 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’, The British Journal of Nutrition, 115(6), pp.1043-1060.
8. Bradbury et al. (2014). ‘Organic food consumption and the incidence of cancer in a large prospective study of women in the United Kingdom’, British Journal of Cancer, 110(9), pp.2321-2326
9. Baudry et al. (2018). ‘Association of Frequency of Organic Food Consumption With Cancer Risk’, JAMA Internal Medicine, 178(2), pp.1597-1606.
10. Kummelling et al. (2008). ‘Consumption of organic foods and risk of atopic disease during the first 2 years of life in the Netherlands’, British Journal of Nutrition, 99(3), pp.598-605.
11. The British Dietetic Association “Are we achieving 5-a-day?” [Accessed 17 October 2022 via: https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/are-we-achieving-5-aday.html]

About Lucy Epps

I am a BANT Registered Nutritionist® and Nutritional Therapist(CNHC).

I create personalised, achievable nutrition plans; whether you have a long term health condition or are healthy and seeking advice on how nutrition and lifestyle can support you preventatively.