Is organic food worth the price tag?
Organic food was barely mentioned a few decades ago, yet it’s now a prominent feature of food shops and restaurants. But should you be making the move to an organic diet? Rhiannon Lambert, leading Harley Street nutritionist, author, and podcast host, digs into the evidence.
Many people consider organic food to be safer and healthier than regular food. And with the spotlight on sustainable diets, a lot of people are making the move to an organic diet as a more environmentally-friendly option. But is it really all it’s hyped up to be? And is it worth the higher price tag?
What’s meant by organic food?
The term ‘organic’ refers to the process of how certain foods are produced. When producing organic food, artificial chemicals, hormones, antibiotics, and genetically modified organisms are restricted. And all organic produce is also free of artificial food additives — including artificial sweeteners, preservatives, colourings, and flavourings.
What does the science say?
Opinion is somewhat divided when it comes to choosing organic vs non-organic foods.
A large number of studies have found insufficient evidence to recommend organic over non-organic. A systematic review analysed over 45 years of evidence and concluded that published literature lacks strong evidence to say that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. This was also concluded by the UK Food Standards Agency, who publicly support “consumer choice and is neither pro nor anti organic food”.
In addition to this, an observational study comparing the nutrient intakes of nearly 4,000 adults consuming either organic or conventional vegetables also found conflicting results. Similarly, a study of over 600,000 women found no difference in cancer risk between those who never ate organic food and those who ate it regularly.
When it comes to pro-organic studies, many of them are funded by organic farming charities — so they’re criticised for not being wholly independent. However, there are respected studies that have found organic foods to contain more nutrients. This includes observational research which suggests a lower risk of allergies and eczema in infants and children who eat organic food. Another study found that chickens fed an organic diet gained less weight and had stronger immune systems — but the results might not be the same for humans.
The results of all these studies should be interpreted with caution. Agricultural research is renowned for varying in results. The nutrient content of food depends on so many factors — for example, soil quality, weather conditions, and when the crops are harvested (which changes throughout the world). Even the natural variations in the production and handling of foods make comparisons difficult.
So, what’s the take-home message?
Choosing organic foods might reduce your exposure to toxins, pesticide residues, and
antibiotic-resistant bacteria. However, even if you choose to eat regular produce, the toxin levels are well below the safety limits and unlikely to cause harm.
It’s also reassuring that the UK is subject to some of the strictest regulations for pesticides in the world. Plus, thoroughly washing fruit and vegetables with tap water will go a long way towards washing off any pesticide residues.
Overall, there’s not enough strong evidence available to prove that eating organic food
provides health benefits over eating regular food. Ultimately, it’s a personal choice whether you choose to buy organic or not.
Written by: Rhiannon Lambert
Instagram @rhitrition / Twitter @Rhitrition