Is organic food really better for you?
The message of ‘clean eating’ seems to be everywhere these days, with healthy eating defined as choosing ‘unprocessed’, ‘natural’ and even ‘organic’ foods. But will shopping the organic aisle of your supermarket or health food shop really make a difference to your health?
Size, shape, taste
The first noticeable difference between organic and conventional produce is the appearance. Organic produce tends to be available in all sizes and shapes, and often has an ‘imperfect’ look, whereas conventional produce is intentionally bred and selected to ensure consistency of size and shape.
Have you ever noticed that the apples at your local supermarket look exceptionally shiny? Yet the organic versions have a more dull finish. Actually, the dull finish is how apples look naturally. The conventional ones are waxed after picking.
Even organic cuts of meat (beef, pork and poultry) can differ from the non-organic versions. While the colour is fairly similar, organic meat—especially organic chooks—tend to be slightly smaller.
As for the taste, this may be influenced by personal bias. Many lovers of organic food praise it for the superior taste, but we all have flavours we like and dislike.
While no significant differences in taste have been scientifically proven, scientists have demonstrated the influence of perception bias when it comes to our palates. For instance, cheaper wines poured into bottles with a more expensive label have been rated higher by wine tasters in several studies.
Could the presentation of organic food be colouring your tastebuds?
Until recently it was thought that there was no nutritional difference between organic and non-organic foods. However, a scientific analysis led by Professor Carlo Leifert from Newcastle University in the UK found that organic foods contained a significantly higher level of antioxidants, ranging between 19–69%.
In fact, switching to organic versions of fruits, vegetables and grains could give an antioxidant boost equivalent to adding an extra 1-2 serves of fruit ’n’ veg each day.
Previous thinking that farming doesn’t affect the quality of our food supply has been shattered by this new research.
Plants produce antioxidants to help fight pest attacks. Therefore, the higher levels of antioxidant compounds in organic crops may result from their lack of artificial protection by chemical sprays and pesticides.
What does it all mean? Organic food may be better at helping you fight off chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and brain and thinking disorders.
Pesticides and other nasties
Conventional crops are commonly treated with various chemicals, fertilisers and pesticides to ensure they grow to the optimum size, shape, colour and consistency to appear more pleasing to the eye of consumers. But what are these chemicals doing to your body?
Giving a gold star to your child for eating their fruit for the day may not have the same value if you consider the extra nasties they may be consuming along with that shiny red apple.
Researchers have discovered higher levels of cadmium (a toxic metal) in conventional crops compared to organic. Even though these levels were still below regulatory limits, scientists have concerns because cadmium is a metal that accumulates in your body over time.
Pesticide residues have also been found to be four times higher in conventional crops than organic foods!
But organic food is so expensive!
One major factor affecting the cost of organic produce is seasonality. The banana is a good example. The cost of bananas at mainstream supermarkets generally hovers around $A2.95 per kilo.
When organic bananas are in season, the cost is fairly comparable. But competing in the off-season means organic bananas are fighting against undesirable climates to grow. The key to buying organic produce without breaking the bank is, therefore, to shop seasonally!
Look for what’s in season before you plan your meals and shopping list.
A survey from UK-based charity The Soil Association showed 44% of consumers were choosing organic foods for environmental reasons. It’s true that with less synthetic manipulation of the growing process, there is far less harm to our environment.
Organic farming usually also means greater animal welfare due to less human manipulation of animal feeds to promote more rapid growth and breeding conditions for that perfect cut of meat.
The question of organic vs non-organic, in terms of overall quality, can be quite subjective. If you prefer more ‘perfect’ physical characteristics in your food then organic might not be the way to go.
However, if you also consider the nutrient value (particularly antioxidants), use of synthetic chemicals and pesticides as well as the environmental impact, then you should definitely consider going organic. Or perhaps try buying organic produce more often.
Sue Radd is an Advanced Accredited Practising Dietitian and one of Australia’s leading nutritionists and health communicators. Her most recent book Food as Medicine: Eating for Your Best Health received the Gourmand World Cookbook Award for Best Health and Nutrition Book in the world for 2016.