What are Organic Foods?
“Organic food is the product of a farming system which avoids the use of man-made fertilisers, pesticides; growth regulators and livestock feed additives.”
– DEFRA (Depertment for Environment Food & Rural Affairs
Put simply, organic foods are produced using methods that comply with organic farming standards, most crucially by avoiding the use of man-made fertilisers or pesticides.
For a food to be classed as organic, at least 95 % of its ingredients must have been produced using organically farmed plants or animals. Organic food farmers and producers must have their products approved by a specific certifying body. This certification body carries out regular inspections on production methods, packaging, and labelling to ensure that producers continue to meet strict industry standards.
What are the advantages of organic food?
1. Reduced Risk of Heart Disease – A research study carried out by Newcastle University into organically produced crops, meat, and dairy reported that there are “significant nutritional differences between organic and conventional foods.” – Some of their key findings included the following: Organic crops contain up to 60% more key antioxidants than foods that are grown non-organically – this is equivalent to eating an extra 1-2 portions of fruit and veg each day.
The resultant increase in antioxidants ‘may reduce the risk of many diseases (including heart disease and certain cancers)’.
2. Improved Immune System – Organic meat contains 47% more omega-3 fatty acids which are linked to both improved cardiovascular health and immune function. Organic milk is significantly higher in omega-3 fatty acids – The Soil Association believes this is because organic livestock eats a more natural grass-based diet containing high levels of clover.
3. Improved Heart Condition – Exclusive grazing on natural grass increases the amounts of CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) found in animal products. The sun’s energy is well taken in by natural grass through photosynthesis and is converted into the most desirable organic CLA by the herbivores that feed on it. CLA is a heart-healthy fatty acid with the potential of bolstering cardiovascular protection, and it is found in higher quantities in the meat and milk products of animals that have been pastured in free-range.
4. Reduction in Pesticide Consumption – The USDA data showed that 73 percent of conventionally grown foods had at least one pesticide residue, while only 23 percent of organically grown samples of the same crops had any residues. More than 90 percent of the USDA’s samples of conventionally-grown apples, peaches, pears, strawberries and celery had residues, and conventionally-grown crops were six times as likely as organic to contain multiple pesticide residues.
‘Pesticide Action Networks UK found that there are two types of pesticide exposure;
Acute toxicity – Pesticides can be acutely toxic. This means that they can cause harmful or lethal effects after a single episode of ingestion, inhalation or skin contact. The symptoms are evident shortly after exposure or can arise within 48 hours. They can present as: respiratory tract irritation, sore throat and/or cough, allergic sensitisation, eye and skin irritation, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, headache, loss of consciousness, extreme weakness, seizures and/or death.’
‘Chronic (or long term) toxicity – Pesticides can cause harmful effects over an extended period, usually following repeated or continuous exposure at low levels. Low doses don’t always cause immediate effects, but over time, they can cause very serious illnesses. Long-term pesticide exposure has been linked to the development of Parkinson’s disease; asthma; depression and anxiety; attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); and cancer, including leukaemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.’
5. Industry Standards – One of the main advantages of organic food is its natural appeal. Organic food cannot contain any artificial colours or preservatives, it also contains fewer chemicals and pesticides due to the methods that must be used in its production to ensure it adheres to organic food industry standards. All organic food labelling must include a certification code and symbol from the certifying body it was awarded from. This is an industry-quality standard to help you identify organic food products.
Non-health related benefits
Animal Welfare – Organic livestock is free-range which is thought to give animals a better quality of life, and the methods of farming used to grow crops are more sympathetic to the planet. The lack of pesticides used on organic crops is believed to result in more bio-diverse and higher quality soil, whilst the run-off from organic crops creates lower pollution for the surrounding environment.
Trust – Thanks to strict labelling requirements, organic food can be traced directly back to where it was produced. This can help us to eat more sustainably, and it also encourages us to eat more locally and seasonally too. The requirement for clear labelling also gives consumers more confidence in what is contained in the food they eat.
Taste – A 2014 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that organic food can taste better too. This is because a plant that is grown organically without the use of pesticides naturally produces higher levels of antioxidants. These have been shown to enhance the taste, aroma, and feel of the food in the mouth, making organic food more enjoyable to eat.
Is organic food better for the environment?
Sustainability – Another advantage of buying organic food is its sustainability. Many organic food producers sell much of their produce locally which helps to strengthen local economies and reduce food miles. This makes it easier for consumers to trace their food directly from ‘Farm to Fork’.
Wildlife – Organic farms are said to attract more natural wildlife in comparison to non-organic settings due to the use of fewer chemicals and pesticides in their production. The UK’s leading organic certification body, The Soil Association reports that organic farms welcome up to 50% more natural wildlife like bees and wildflowers than non-organic settings.
The Opposing Argument
The opposing argument on this topic is that while there is growing evidence that eating an organic diet can have positive effects in the prevention of some diseases, allergies, and obesity, this evidence should be seen as inconclusive due to other contributing factors. This is largely because the people who choose organic food often tend to lead healthier lifestyles in general and would therefore enjoy better health as a result. It is important to remember that eating a well-balanced, nutritional diet helps is beneficial for our health. A diet low in saturated fat, processed foods and salt can help maintain healthy blood pressure and reduce the risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes. Being mindful of how our food is produced is an important factor in the quality of the food we eat – whether it is organic food, or not.
Is Organic Food Better?
From the research we have read we believe that an argument can be made either way. For example, it could be suggested that eating organic food may reduce the likelihood developing cancer or heart disease. However, other research suggests that there is very little to link health benefits with organic food, and they suggest that the consumers buying organic food are more health-focused and have a healthier lifestyle overall, which could be the main contributing factor to their health – not the organic produce.