Organic vs. Conventional: A New Review of the Pros and Cons

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Healthy organic vegetables and fruits as background

Is organic food really better for you?

Organic food is always better, right?

According to sales, yes. They increased by 11 percent between 2013 and 2014, reaching $35.9 billion. Sales of organic fruits and vegetables rose 12 percent, while sales of organic dairy increased by 11 percent.

Yet according to a 2012 study, the true health benefits of organic foods are unclear. An analysis of 17 studies in humans and over 200 in laboratories came up with conflicting results, many of which suggested that organics do not have more vitamins or minerals, on the whole, than conventional products.

You may have already suspected that, but over half of Americans didn’t. According to a 2010 study, three-quarters of Americans bought organic foods believing them to be healthier, and over half because they believed organics were more nutritious than conventional.

But wait…maybe they’re right. According to a more recent 2014 study—an analysis of 343 other studies carried out over the past several decades—organic foods do have a nutritional advantage.

Who’s right? And in the end, should we focus on nutrition when making our decisions about food, or should we turn our attention to pesticide exposure, or environmental impact?

1. Are Organics More Nutritious?

One of the early systematic reviews was published in 2009. Researchers from the United Kingdom looked at 55 qualifying studies and found no significant differences in nutrient quality between organic and conventional foods.

Then came the 2012 study mentioned above. Researchers analyzed data from all those studies and found the following:

  • Human studies showed no significant differences in nutrient levels between organic and conventional, or in how they affected health outcomes, particularly for allergies or infections.
  • All studies showed no significant differences in nutrient levels between organic and conventional foods.
  • The risk for contamination with pesticide residues was lower among organic than conventional produce.
  • Risk for bacteria resistant to three or more antibiotics was higher in conventional than in organic chicken and pork.

“The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods,” researchers wrote. “Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”

No dice on the nutritional advantage, but thumbs up for reducing pesticides and superbugs. (That superbug thing is a big deal—the CDC announced in a recent report that at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria resistant to antibiotics each year, and that 23,000 of them die as a result of those infections. Read more about the danger of antibiotic use here.)

But then a few years passed, and a different set of researchers published a different study in 2014.

“Demand for organic foods is partially driven by consumers’ perceptions that they are more nutritious,” the researchers wrote. “However, scientific opinion is divided on whether there are significant nutritional differences between organic and non-organic foods, and two recent reviews have concluded that there are no differences.”

This time they looked at 343 studies. Results were much the same on things like vitamins and minerals—both types provided similar amounts of these nutrients. Like the 2012 study, this study reported no greater levels of these nutrients in organic foods.

There was another key, important difference, however.

Researchers found that organic foods had significantly higher levels of antioxidants—overall, 17 percent more. When looking at flavanones alone, organics had 69 percent higher levels.

“Across the important antioxidant compounds in fruits and vegetables, organic fruits and vegetables deliver between 20 and 40 percent higher antioxidant activity,” said co-author Charles Benbrook. These included things like flavonoids and carotenoids, which have been linked to a lower risk of heart disease, cancer, and more.

Why would this be? Researchers theorize that an organic plant, because it’s grown with fewer pesticides, must fight off more environmental assaults (like bugs) on its own, spurring the production of antioxidants, which form the plant’s defense system. Organic crops also receive less fertilizer, which means they don’t grow as big or as tall—but may also mean that they offer a more concentrated source of antioxidants.

Whether organic produce would actually translate to better health in humans is unknown, however. So far, human studies have shown conflicting results.

2. Organics Expose You to Fewer Pesticides, Right?

Still, trying to base conclusions on the analysis of a number of different studies has it’s problems. Each study has its differences, and the food used in the comparisons is different, too. That means the debate is likely to continue as scientists find more ways to compare the two.

Meanwhile, it’s pretty much accepted that organic will expose you to fewer pesticide residues. As in the 2012 study, the 2014 study showed that pesticide residue was lower in the organic foods in this study—a consistent finding across most research. The frequency of occurrence of pesticide residues was four times higher in conventional crops. Conventional foods also had higher concentrations of the toxic metal cadmium. (It sometimes contaminates conventional fertilizers.)

The question is, how much affect does this have on human health? Even the so-called “higher” levels of pesticides in conventional produce are most often below safety limits set by governing organizations.

To qualify as organic in the U.S., foods must be grown without synthetic pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics, genetic engineering, or chemical fertilizers. Organics can still acquire pesticide residue through contamination during packaging, and from trace amounts in drifting soils or tainted irrigation water, but on the whole, they are consistently found to contain significantly lower levels than conventional foods.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that there is “reasonable certainty of no harm” posed by pesticide residues allowed to remain on food. Because of the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program, there’s been an overall decrease in the amount of pesticide residues in food since 1996. The EPA also notes that pesticides can affect the nervous system, irritate skin and eyes, disrupt normal hormone function, and even increase risk of cancer.

Meanwhile, the studies linking pesticide exposure to health problems are numerous. Here’s just a glimpse at the findings:

  • Autism: A 2014 study finds babies whose moms lived within a mile of crops treated with widely used pesticides were more likely to develop autism. This was the third project to link prenatal insecticide exposures to autism and related disorders.
  • Depression: A 2014 study finds pesticide exposure to be positively associated with depression and suicide among male pesticide applicators (farmers).
  • Intelligence: A 2012 study compared intelligence among children whose mothers had been exposed to organophosphate pesticides during pregnancy with those who had not. Results showed a loss of 16.9 million IQ points in those exposed to the pesticides—the most common used in agriculture.
  • Cancer: A 2004 study of pesticide applicators linked two widely used herbicides and two widely used insecticides to an increased risk of lung cancer. According to Dr. Lynn Goldman of the EPA, at least 101 pesticides in current use are probable or possible human carcinogens. Other studies of farm populations show exposure may increase risk of cancers of the blood, stomach, prostate, testes, brain, and soft tissue. Infant exposure has been linked to childhood brain tumors and leukemia.
  • Parkinson’s disease: A 1993 study found that exposure to insecticides and herbicides increased risk of young-onset Parkinson’s disease. A later 1998 study found similar results.

And it goes on and on. Pesticides have also been linked to a shorter attention span, birth defects, hormone disruption, and more. And these pesticides are getting inside our bodies. For a recent 2015 study, 4,500 people were tested for pesticide exposure (levels measured in urine samples). Results showed that among individuals eating similar amounts of fruits and vegetables, those eating organic had significantly lower levels of organophosphate pesticides than those consuming conventionally grown produce.

Are Pesticides Even More Dangerous Than We Thought?

A 2014 study raised additional concerns about pesticides. Researchers noted that in addition to dangers from the active ingredients, so-called “inert,” inactive ingredients could also pose potential hazards.

Turns out that these inert ingredients can magnify the effects of the active ingredients, sometimes by 1000-fold. Eight commercial products out of nine tested were hundreds of times more toxic than their active ingredient alone.

“Our results challenge the relevance of the acceptable daily intake for pesticides,” researchers wrote, “because this norm is calculated from the toxicity of the active principle alone. Chronic tests on pesticides may not reflect relevant environmental exposures if only one ingredient of these mixtures is tested alone.”

When considering pesticides and their affect on health, we don’t have all the answers yet—such as what levels of exposure directly translate to health problems—but from what we know so far, there seems no doubt that organic foods will reduce your risk of problems from pesticides.

3. Organic is Better for the Environment? Yes and No

Then there is the third reason to choose organic—it’s supposed to be better for the environment, and for farmers.

This is how the organic movement got its start. The original idea was to farm in a way that benefits the planet. Even the USDA standards for organic reflect this idea, noting that something can be labeled organic only if 95 percent of it was made with organic processes. These are defined as “integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.”

Buying organic means supporting those farms that are operating in such a way as to respect the land. Organic practices emphasize conservation, reduced pollutants, and humane treatment of animals grown for food. While synthetic fertilizers used in conventional farming can run off into waterways and fuel the growth of algae blooms that kill off marine life, organic farms use composted manure, which helps to nourish the soil. Organic farming is also reported to use less energy than conventional farming methods.

There is a debate here, as well, though. Conventional farming methods create higher yields from less land—farming organically requires more land for the same amount of food. If everyone ate organically, the thinking goes, we’d soon run out of farms and wouldn’t be able to feed everyone. Particularly with global population expected to increase by 50 percent by 2050, efficient food production is going to become even more critical as time passes.

There are also some other environmental concerns. Transporting organic foods from distant locations creates a larger carbon footprint than transporting locally grown (and potentially conventional) products to the grocery store. Converting natural habitat to farmland can also harm local environments, even if that farmland is meant for organic crops.

Expect to hear more on this debate in the next decade or so.

There’s also the concern for workers in the field—those working with conventionally grown crops are exposed to much higher levels of pesticides, and often suffer the dangerous health consequences. Buying organic supports farms that provide lower risks for workers. But buying organic from other countries may mean supporting growers who pay low wages and offer poor working conditions.

Bottom line: There’s no clear-cut answer here. Organic will expose you to fewer pesticides, which may have health benefits down the road. Currently, it’s better for the environment, though we’ll face challenges in food production in the future. Organic may provide a health advantage when it comes to disease-fighting antioxidants.

It’s like anything else when we’re talking about health. We take what we know so far and apply it to our daily lives.

What will you choose?

What do you think about organics today? How often do you choose organic?

* * *

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Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story, a northwest-based writer, editor, and ghostwriter, has been creating non-fiction materials for individuals, corporations, and commercial magazines for over 17 years. She specializes in the health and wellness field, where she writes and ghostwrites books, e-books, blogs, magazine articles, and more.

Colleen is the founder of Writing and Wellness. Her fantasy novel, “Rise of the Sidenah,” was released with Jupiter Gardens Press in September 2015. Her literary novel, “Loreena’s Gift,” is forthcoming in spring 2016 from Dzanc Books. She lives in Idaho.

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