Organic Foods, Pros and Cons

Much of the writing on diet and nutrition is more than just informational. It often veers into the realm of values and ethics, recommendations about what you should (or should not) do. Nowhere is this more evident than in discussions of organic food. But, while advocates can reasonably debate the pros and cons of an organic food lifestyle, it’s beneficial not to lose sight of the objective science that can support either view.

What Is Organic Food?

In one sense, the phrase ‘organic food’ is redundant. If it isn’t organic (in the sense that science uses that term: a compound based on carbon) it isn’t food. Clearly, something else is meant by ‘organic’, in this case.

The generally agreed-on definition is: food grown and marketed without man-made chemicals, such as certain types of pesticides, or ones that don’t contain artificial preservatives.

But given how pesticides and preservatives are made today – from a wide range of substances often found in raw nature – the line is a little fuzzy. Many pesticides, for example, are extracts of plants that contain chemicals that naturally fight insect invasion.

Nevertheless, it’s reasonable to regard organic food as that grown substantially without a wide range of inorganic pesticides and preservatives used in mass-scale food production.

Is It Better?

Organic food is generally more expensive, anywhere from 50-100% more in most cases. For those who place a high value on the purity and healthfulness of what they consume, it may well be worth the difference. But is organic food actually purer or healthier?

Unfortunately, there is no single correct answer that applies to all organic (or non-organic) food available on the market today.

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Some organic farms take great care to ensure that their food is grown to maximize nutrients, minimize harmful compounds and is delivered fresh. Others may use manure as fertilizer that can introduce E. Coli bacteria into the food that can only be destroyed by cooking.

Organic food producers often tout the lack of pesticides used as proof that their food is healthier than that produced by large industrial farms. And, indeed, that can be true. Thousands of reliable studies done over decades show that high levels of inorganic compounds found in some pesticides increase the risk of a variety of cancers.

But it’s also true that the USDA has set levels for allowable concentrations of pesticide residue in food sold to the public. There is no evidence that, at the concentrations allowed (and frequently measured for compliance), there are harmful health effects. All food sold, ‘inorganic’ and ‘organic’, must meet stringent criteria before it can be legally sold to the public.

Apart from potential toxin levels, are there differences in the nutrition levels of inorganic versus organic food? There, the jury is even more mixed.

A French study that analyzed 12 different foods showed that organic foods contained higher quantities of Vitamins A, B-complex, C, E and essential minerals such as zinc and calcium. Another recent study published in the Journal of Applied Nutrition had similar results. Mineral content of organic apples, pears and others had lower levels of heavy metals than those grown by non-organic methods.

Yet processed food is often fortified with vitamins that the ‘natural’ food may lack to some degree. Cereals are a case in point. Commercially produced orange juice is another.
If the level of nutrients in both types is high enough that any excess is discarded by the body, and the level of toxins low enough to cause no harm, does it matter? All foods that aren’t spoiled carry some benefit and some risk. It’s simply a matter of degree.

Trade-offs are inevitable when deciding whether the extra time and cost to buy organic are worthwhile. Those decisions can only be made by each individual, according to their own circumstances and views.

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