Last updated by Dr Sarah Brewer on
Whether or not following an organic diet is better for health is a controversial issue. The answer to this thorny question was recently made clearer by a review of 343 studies published in the British Journal of Nutrition.
Researchers compared the nutritional quality and safety of organic versus conventionally-grown fruits, vegetables and grains, with direct comparisons made between similar products grown in the same areas, on similar soils. Any nutritional differences were therefore likely to result from the farming practices involved.
Organic foods provide more antioxidants
The researchers concluded that switching to organic fruit, vegetables and cereals would provide 20% to 40% more of the nutritionally important antioxidant polyphenols, especially the flavanones (69% higher) and anthocyanins (51% higher). This was the equivalent of eating two extra portions of fruit and vegetables a day – with no increase in calorie intake – to make the benefits of achieving your 5-a-day even greater. As many of these antioxidants are linked with a reduced risk of common chronic diseases such as heart attack, stroke, neurodegenerative diseases and certain cancers, who wouldn’t want more of them?
Not surprisingly, the level of pesticide residues in the organic foods were also between ten and a hundred fold lower than those found in conventionally grown produce. Levels of the toxic metal, cadmium, were around twice as high in conventional crops compared with those that were organically grown, possibly because certain fertilisers applied to crops make cadmium more bioavailable to plants.
Whether or not you select organic produce, you can maximise the level of vitamins and minerals you consume by eating fruit and vegetables raw, or only lightly steamed, where possible. Obviously some root veg such as potatoes need to be cooked until soft, but leaving on their skins, where practical, will increase their nutritional benefit.
Organic versus non-organic foods
The shops are full of plump, juicy fruit and vegetables that are specially bred for their colour, uniform size and ability to keep their appearance for longer. Often, this has been achieved at the expense of flavour and nutrients, and with the help of a range of agro-chemicals such as pesticides, weed killers, fungicides, fumigants, growth promoters, growth retardants and fertilisers.
These chemicals are often applied regularly, from the time the crop is still in its seed form, during germination and throughout its growing cycle. Each non-organic apple, for example, has been dosed around 40 times with up to 100 additives, before you eat it. These chemicals do not just lie on the surface of the produce, but are found beneath the skin and sometimes throughout the flesh itself. While some of these chemicals are considered safe to use on crops, the full effects of many on our long-term health, immunity and reproductive system are still not fully understood. That’s why increasing numbers of people are deciding to ‘go organic’.
Going organic means eating foods produced using organic farming practices and which have received minimal processing. These are proven and sustainable methods of producing food in harmony with nature, without the use of pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, artificial fertilisers, genetic manipulation, irradiation or undue exposure to environmental pollution. In their place, farmers use traditional methods of pest control, crop rotation, growing green manure crops (eg clover), careful timing of sowing and allowing land to lie fallow. This is good for the planet, and also good for your health. It results in products that are full of flavour, with higher levels of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, and which contain the lowest possible amounts of agricultural chemicals.
Unfortunately, organic foods often costs significantly more than similar but non-organic products. In the long run however, organic may actually cost less when you consider the benefits to health. Weight for weight, they are also better value in terms of the flavour and nutrients they contain. Overall, prices are slowly coming down as production capacity and consumer demand grows. To help keep your costs down:
- grow your own in pots and tubs
- buy fruit and vegetables in season rather than those imported at additional cost
- buy locally from farmers’ markets, stalls and co-ops
- buy in bulk where items will store
- buy wholefoods rather than processed foods
- eat more plant-based foods and less meat
- look out for special offers.
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