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Understanding Organic Foods – Kleio Bathrellou

Organic food is amongst the most popular topics of modern nutrition and organic products are now are a large part of the food market. But navigating the maze of organic food benefits, claims and media reports can be confusing. Seeing the organic foods in our local stores, all consumers at some point have wondered: is organic food really healthier? Is it more nutritious? Why is it so expensive? How can you and should you incorporate more organic food into your diet?

Making a commitment to healthy eating is a great start towards a healthier life. Beyond eating more fruits, vegetables, good fats, and whole grains, we should consider issues such as food safety, nutrition, and sustainability. The way foods are grown can impact both consumers’ health and the environment. This brings up the questions: What is the difference between organic foods and conventionally grown foods? Is organic always best?

What is organic food?

Organic refers to the way farmers grow and process agricultural products. Organic foods are generally grown without synthetic pesticides, fertilisers or the use of growth hormones and antibiotics. Instead, farmers rely on biological diversity in the field to naturally reduce habitat for pest organisms. Organic farmers also purposefully maintain and replenish the fertility of the soil. Irradiation and the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are prohibited by organic legislation.

Organic Vs conventional alternatives

According to studies comparing populations consuming diets of organically and conventionally produced foods and the nutrient or contaminant levels of these foods, the differences are interesting and rather unexpected. The studies, which focused on fruit, vegetables, meat, poultry, milk, eggs and grain, found no differences in the vitamin content of organic and conventional plant or animal products. Regarding other benefits the authors found higher levels of total phenols in organic produce, which are a class of chemical compounds with antioxidant properties and may have a protective effect against heart diseases and cancer. Additionally, the authors reported increased omega-3 fatty acids in organic milk and organic chicken. However, these findings need to be considered with caution as the results were very variable and only a small number of studies were conducted on fatty acids.
Furthermore, pesticide residues were less likely to be detected on organic rather than conventional produce; however, it is rather reassuring that for both organic and conventional produce, only a small percentage exceeded maximum limits.
Regarding bacteria, there was no difference in their prevalence on organic or conventional foods; however, organic pork and chicken were less likely to carry bacteria resistant to antibiotics compared to conventionally produced meat. This may be explained by the routine use of antibiotics during the breeding of animals by conventional means.
Therefore, it is safe to say that the published literature does not suggest health benefits from consuming organic rather than conventional foods; nevertheless, consumption of organic produce may reduce exposure to pesticides. Whether this is worth the extra cost is of course up to the consumers themselves!

What are the proven benefits of organic food?

Organic food is often fresher. Organic food is usually fresher and therefore tastier when eaten because it doesn’t contain preservatives that make it last longer. Organic produce is often produced on smaller farms near where it is sold.
Organic food contains fewer pesticides. Pesticides are chemicals such as fungicides, herbicides, and insecticides. These are widely used in conventional agriculture and residues remain on and in the food we eat.
Organic farming is better for the environment. Organic farming practices reduce pollution (air, water, soil), conserve water, use less energy, reduce soil erosion and increase soil fertility. In addition, organic farming is better for birds and small animals as chemical pesticides can make it harder for creatures to reproduce and can even kill them. Farming without pesticides is also safer for the people harvesting the products.
Organically raised animals are not given antibiotics, growth hormones, or fed animal by-products. The use of antibiotics in conventional meat production helps create antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. So, when someone gets sick from these strains they will be less responsive to antibiotic treatment. Not feeding animal byproducts to other animals reduces the risk of diseases like the mad cow disease. Moreover, the animals are given more space to move around and access to the outdoors, both of which help to keep them healthy. The more crowded the conditions, the more likely an animal is to get sick.

Why do pesticides matter?

Children are most vulnerable to pesticide exposure due to their less-developed immune systems and because their bodies and brains are still developing. Exposure at an early age can cause developmental delays and behavioural disorders. Furthermore, pregnant women are also vulnerable due to the added stress pesticides put on their already taxed organs. Plus pesticides can be passed from mother to child in the womb, as well as through breast milk. Some exposures can cause delayed effects on the nervous system, even years after the initial exposure. Most of us have an accumulated build-up of pesticide exposure in our bodies due to numerous years of exposure. This chemical “body burden” could lead to health issues such as headaches, nausea and added strain on weakened immune systems.

Does washing and peeling actually get rid of pesticides?

Rinsing reduces but does not eliminate pesticides. Peeling sometimes helps, but valuable nutrients are often lost with the skin. So, the best approach is to eat a varied diet, wash all produce, and buy organic when possible.

Keep in mind the fruits & veg with the highest pesticide levels:
• Apples
• Bell Peppers
• Carrots
• Celery
• Cherries
• Grapes
• Kale
• Lettuce
• Nectarines
• Peaches
• Pears
• Strawberries

Fruits & Veg with the lowest pesticide levels:
• Avocado
• Asparagus
• Broccoli
• Cabbage
• Corn (sweet)
• Eggplant
• Kiwi
• Mango
• Onion
• Pineapple
• Peas
• Sweet Potatoes
• Tomatoes
• Watermelon

Why is organic food often more expensive?

Organic certification and maintaining this status is expensive. Organic farms tend to be smaller than conventional farms, which means fixed costs and overhead must be distributed across smaller produce volumes. Moreover, organic food is more labour intensive since the farmers do not use pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or drugs, and organic feed for animals can cost twice as much. Considering the fact that most organic farms are too small to receive government support, it is no surprise that they have to sell their products at a higher price.

Can consumers be sure about the safety of organic products?

The term organic is defined by law, therefore all organic food production and processing is governed by a strict set of rules. Any organic product sold in the UK must display a certification symbol or number. When you see a symbol or number you can be sure that the product complies with the minimum government standards as set by the UK Register of Organic Food Standards (UKROFS).

In conclusion, as with most food related ‘debates’, the choice between organic or conventional products lies with the consumers. The key is to be informed, open minded, and look for the truth behind media reports and food industry claims. You can always give organics a go and decide for yourself!

By Kleio Bathrellou
Associate Nutritionist & ISSN Certified Sports Nutritionist

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