HEALTH AND FITNESS: Is organic food healthier?
Organic food, including produce, milk and meat, are becoming more popular among consumers each year. In fact, sales of organic foods now account for almost $26 billion per year, up from $1 billion just 20 years ago. There are many reasons to account for this increase, including potential health benefits and environmental impact. Despite the popularity of organic foods, there is little evidence that eating organic has significant health benefits. But organic foods may still be a good choice for you and your family.
There are several reasons why organic foods might be healthier than non-organic alternatives. Organic produce contains lower levels of pesticides and may be higher in certain nutrients. Raising animals organically may result in lower drug-resistant bacteria contamination since unnecessary antibiotic use is prohibited. Organic milk does not contain added growth hormones. But does this make organic food better for you?
A Stanford University review of more than 200 studies of organic foods published last month suggests that organic produce, milk and meat are not necessarily healthier. There are some studies that show that organic fruits and vegetables contain higher levels of vitamins and antioxidants, but this finding is not consistent. Organically-produced milk and meat may have higher level of omega-3 fats, which are associated with heart health.
These differences may not be completely attributable to organic farming techniques. The higher vitamin content in some fruits and vegetables may be due to ripeness, since organic produce might be more likely to be picked at peak ripeness than conventional fruits and vegetables. The elevated omega-3 fats in organic milk and meat may be due to the fact that most of these cows get more time to graze on grass than cows on congenital farms.
The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a report recently on organic foods for children which presents a balanced review of organic foods and sensible advice for adults and children. After reviewing the research, they concluded that there is no direct evidence that consuming organic food improves health or lowers the risk for disease. But they do note that organic foods, with lower pesticide levels, may be a smart choice for children who are more likely to be harmed by chemical exposures.
The take-home message is that organic foods are at least as healthy as conventional foods. But there are other reasons why you may choose to buy organic beyond the potential health benefits. Organic farming may be better for the environment due to reduced water contamination by pesticide run-off and healthier soil. Pesticide application also poses potential risks for farm workers. Additionally, there are issues of animal welfare that some consider important. Many people also feel that organic farming is more traditional and the way food “should be” produced.
Given this information about organic food, what should you do? First, eat fruits and vegetables in abundance, whether they are organic or not. There is substantial evidence that fruit and vegetable consumption is essential for good health. The same is true for whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean meat. Second, given that organic foods tend to be more expensive, be selective about what you buy, such as organic versions of foods that tend to be higher in pesticides (you can find lists online). Wash all produce before you eat it, which may help remove pesticide residue. Finally, make sure your food choices, organic or otherwise, are part of a lifestyle that includes a healthy diet and regular physical activity.
Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior.