You’ve probably heard the hype over organic food.
Some people swear by it and will go without coffee, cable, new clothes, and Netflix just so they can get their organic fix every single week.
Whole businesses are built around the idea that organic foods are inherently healthier for us, and organic advocates decry the use of pesticides, claiming that they’re a key player in disease and illness and that by consuming them, we run the risk of having toxins build up within our bodies.
But what does the research say?
Is organic food really healthier? Does it make you leaner? And is non-organic food potentially dangerous?
We did the digging with this article so you don’t have to.
What Makes a Food Organic?
The USDA regulates whether foods can be labeled organic or not, and the rules and regulations are overseen by the National Organic Program (NOP).
To put it simply, organic food is farmed in a way that doesn’t use any man-made fertilizers, growth regulators, additives, or pesticides. In the case of animals that produce meat, eggs, or dairy products, they can’t have been given any antibiotics or growth hormone. Companies that produce and handle produce must also be given an organic certification for the final product you see on the shelves at the grocery store to meet organic guidelines.
Anything produced using GMOs (genetically modified organisms) is certified as non-organic.
The Nutritional Benefits of Going Organic
Aside from having an enormous sense of wellbeing and the potential placebo effect of feeling healthier, is there any advantage to going organic?
It seems that when it comes to dairy and some animal products, there may be. On the surface at least.
A 2016 study from The British Journal of Nutrition found that organic cow’s milk had a more desirable fatty acid content than non-organic milk , and additional research has shown that animal products may offer higher levels of CLA and omega-3 fats . However, because the amount of these nutrients are so small in the first place, the actual difference is often not nearly high enough to be meaningful.
Take milk for instance.
A typical serving of whole milk contains 0.048 grams of omega-3 fat, whereas a serving of whole milk from a grass-fed organic cow comes in at 0.078 grams. While this 56% difference might sound staggering initially, it doesn’t mean much when you look at the actual amounts. Milk, in general, is simply not a good source of omega-3, even if you are drinking organic whole milk and getting that extra 0.03 grams. Also, since the omega-3 is coming from the fat portion of the milk, if you drink low fat or skim milk (which most of us macro-conscious types do), you’ll be getting even less!
So is the ‘extra’ omega-3 worth the higher price tag?
Almost certainly not. When you consider that a 4 oz. portion of salmon has about 3.4 grams of omega-3, or nearly 45 times as much omega-3 as a glass of organic whole milk, it is clear that you’d be better off just eating an extra serving of oily fish per week rather than swapping your regular milk for organic.
Finally, as you might have guessed, some research also suggests that organic plant foods may have a higher concentration of antioxidants than their non-organic counterparts [3, 4]. However, other research has not found this to be the case . To complicate the whole matter further, a lot of other factors such as soil condition, temperature, time of harvest, and treatment of the produce after harvest also come into play to influence a plant’s nutritional content.
The Health Benefits of Going Organic
A study from The British Nutrition Journal came up with an interesting conclusion; supposedly, regular consumers of organic food often display a better understanding of healthy eating guidelines, have health as a higher priority, and may have a lower risk of developing certain conditions such as type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease .
This may well be true, but it’s important to note that this is more likely to be a correlational result, not a causational one. It’s very doubtful that eating organic food will automatically increase a person’s understanding of healthy eating and ramp up their interest in health, rather, they were probably more health-conscious to begin with, which drove them to choose organic food in the first place.
Also, while those who consume organic food may be healthier, this is less likely to be a result of eating organic food and more likely due to their prioritization of health and higher intake of fruits, vegetables, and fiber, and lower intake of trans fats. Perhaps not surprisingly, those who eat organic food also tend to have a higher socio-economic status , which may also be associated with better health.
What About Pesticides?
Many people buy organic fruits and vegetables because they believe that they were grown without the use of pesticides, but this simply isn’t true.
Farmers growing organic crops can use pesticides, fungicides, and fertilizers as long as they come from natural sources. But natural doesn’t necessarily mean safer. In fact, the use of many organic pesticides have been shown recently to pose exactly the same health risks (if not more) as synthetic pesticides [8,9].
A potential benefit of organic produce, however, is that it has generally been found to contain lower levels of pesticide residue. Unfortunately, the jury is still out on whether or not this is a substantial benefit of going organic, as residue in both conventional and organic crops is very low. Therefore, it is unlikely that reducing exposure by eating organic would be clinically relevant.
What About Antibiotics?
Some people choose to buy organic dairy and meat to avoid accidentally consuming residual antibiotics that they believe might accumulate in meat or dairy. However, what many people don’t know is that neither organic nor non-organic food contains antibiotics.
All milk is tested for antibiotics prior to being sold for human consumption, and although meat is randomly tested, farmers are required to keep records of which animals were given antibiotics, the type used, the date, and the dose in order to allow adequate time for the drug to be out of the animal’s system before being slaughtered.
Bottom line: When it comes to antibiotics, procedures and testing is rigorous. If the food doesn’t make the grade, it doesn’t hit our shelves.
What About Bacterial Contamination?
Bacterial contamination is a slightly more realistic concern than antibiotic contamination in meat. Since antibiotics are not used on animals producing organic dairy or meat, organic meat tends to have higher levels of bacterial contamination than non-organic meat . However, research also shows that non-organic meat is more likely to be contaminated by antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. Whether meat is organic or non-organic, it should be well-cooked to kill all bacteria and prevent pathogen-related illness.
What About GMO’s?
Many proponents of organic eating claim that the GMOs present in non-organic foods are toxic and carcinogenic, but there isn’t even the slightest fragment of truth in this.
Nutritional zealots often cite one study in particular which concluded that GMOs gave rats cancer . However, this study has since been retracted as it was designed for this particular outcome to happen. The statistics weren’t properly run and certain outcomes were cherry-picked, meaning it’s defunct, dated, and redundant. No other studies have shown any potential toxicity from GMOs.
But Will Organic Food Make Me Leaner?
Plenty of people fall prey to the false belief that just because something is organic, it’s healthy.
It doesn’t matter whether a food is organic or not, a gram of sugar still has 4 calories and a gram of fat still has 9 calories, and those calories can make you put on body fat if they’re sending you into a surplus.
Your organic brownies, cookies, and almonds might be tasty, but they’re still calorie-dense!
Show Me the Money!
Your wallet will take the biggest hit when switching to buying organic food.
By going organic, companies will charge a small fortune extra for their products. This is partly because of the added expense of adhering to organic rules and methods, and also because of the expense of the certification process. It is costly for companies to certify their food, and private companies are springing up left and right to certify food products as organic (for the USDA).
In a 2015 consumer report, it was found that on average, organic food was 47% more expensive than the non-organic food . If you’re already on a tight budget, this can have a huge impact on your finances and your security.
Beware of Fancy Buzzwords
Organic marketing is clever…very clever.
By throwing around words that strike a chord with the health-conscious but unknowing Joe public, companies that produce organic food have a lot of people convinced that it is nutritionally superior to its non-organic counterparts.
Putting Together the Organic Puzzle
There are no clear nutritional or health benefits conferred by eating organic food over non-organic food [2, 13], and they certainly won’t make you leaner.
But we’re not saying that organic foods are bad or that you shouldn’t buy them. In fact, there may be some benefits to the farming methods used to produce some organic foods.
If eating organic food eases your conscience and makes you feel uplifted, you can financially afford it, and you prefer the taste, then go right ahead.
The bottom line is that the calories and macros in organic food are the same as their conventional counterparts and aren’t processed any differently, the protein quality isn’t any higher, and the enhancement of vitamins and minerals is somewhere between zero and minimal.
As always, when it comes to body composition and even general health, calories and macronutrients are the most important factors.