What is Organic Food and What are the Health Benefits of Eating Organic?

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Organic Trade Association (OTA), the sale of organic food and products has been on the rise in the last decade. Organic sales were an estimated $28.4 billion back in 2012 and has grown to $52.5 billion in 2018. [9,10] The sale of organic produces (fruits and vegetables) makes up the bestselling category of organic food products. [9,10] OTA estimates that roughly 93% of organic food sales go through the conventional and organic supermarkets with the rest of the 7% directly from farmer’s markets, food services, and other sources. [7,10] The premium of organic products remained high; however, it is shifting to become more and more mainstream according to surveys.[10]

            If conventional food and organic food were the same prices, almost everyone would choose organic. Why is that you might ask? Most people want to be healthy and the first word eating organic brings to mind is “healthy.” When you are roaming through the supermarket aisles, you might notice that regular eggs are around $2 to $3 a dozen and right next to it, you see organic eggs selling for about $7. Why would people be paying almost double for eggs when the only difference is the word “organic” next to it. In this short article, we will briefly go over the health benefits of eating organic and you can decide for yourself if it is worth it to pay the additional premium for it.

            When a food product is said to be organic, it means that the product is grown or raised naturally. They are produced without the use of synthetic chemicals such as herbicides or pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, or genetically modified organisms (GMO).[1,3] For the plants, they are usually grown with natural fertilizers such as manure and the animals are raised with hormone free and GMO free feed. Since antibiotics are not used, the diseases are taken care of by natural methods such as living in a clean environment, eating a healthy diet, and providing more space for the animals to roam freely.[1,3] As you can see, the process of producing both organic produces and livestock are very time consuming and labor intensive; hence, the added premium to the cost when they are sold to consumers.

            Organic products are known to contain much fewer pesticides and heavy metals compared to conventional agricultural products.[1,3] Some studies have pointed out that the exposure to pesticides during pregnancy will increase the risk for birth defects associated with neurotoxicity in children.[2,4,5] Studies have suggested that these pesticides may interfere with children’s cognitive development leading to an increased chance of having disorders such as ADHD and others. [2,4,6] In addition, conventional livestock is injected with synthetic growth hormones and antibiotics which could be passed onto the consumers in traces. As you can guess, if these chemicals are passed onto humans, this could potentially cause a spread in antibiotic resistance as well as an increased risk for cancer.[4,5,6] Furthermore, it is suggested that organic products such as organic meat and milk tend to contain more omega-3 fatty acids and also slightly less saturated fat compared to conventional products.[3,6] Additionally, organic products are said to contain more antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals in some cases versus conventional products.[3,6] Nevertheless, due to the lack of solid clinical research there is no definitive report proving that organic products are able to unquestionably provide these health benefits.

            So, after reading all of the above information, the real question is, “is it worth it to eat organic?” The answer to that question depends on too many variables for me to give a definite answer. However, what the majority of consumers can do is to choose and select “when and what” to eat organic. If you want the best bang for your money, then you would want to substitute the produces with the highest amount of pesticides from conventional to organic and stick to conventional for the others that do not contain as much. The best produces to purchase organic are “apples, kale, sweet bell peppers, summer squash, cucumbers, nectarines, celery, peaches, potatoes, spinach, grapes, strawberries, cherry tomatoes, and hot peppers.”[1] The produces that you do not need to purchase organic if you are budgeting are “asparagus, onion, avocado, papaya, mushrooms, pineapple, cabbage, sweet peas, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, eggplant, grapefruit, kiwi, cantaloupe, and mango.”[1] Unless you are a vegetarian, you are most likely also consuming meat. It is recommended to buy organic meat, eggs, and milk if you are able to afford them due to growth hormones, antibiotics, and other chemicals as mentioned in the previous paragraph.[1] Overall, there is no doubt that organic food products are “better” than conventional products; however, whether they are worth the extra premium is the question that most people will need to consider.

Lastly, this article is not meant to treat, diagnose, or prevent any disease; it is for informational purposes only so make sure to consult with your physician and pharmacist before starting any new medications, medical food, or supplements.

References:

[1] Robinson, Lawrence, et al. “Organic Foods: What You Need to Know.” HelpGuide.org, Sept. 2020, https://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-eating/organic-foods.htm

[2] Grandjean, Philippe. “Health Benefits of Organic Food, Farming Outlined in New Report.” Hsph.harvard.edu, 8 Feb. 2017, https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/features/health-benefits-organic-food-farming-report/

[3] Brown, Mary Jane. “What Is Organic Food, and Is It Better Than Non-Organic?” Healthline, 14 May 2016, https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/what-is-organic-food

[4] Mie, Axel, et al. “Human Health Implications of Organic Food and Organic Agriculture: a Comprehensive Review.” Environmental Health: a Global Access Science Source, BioMed Central, 27 Oct. 2017, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5658984/

[5] Vigar, Vanessa, et al. “A Systematic Review of Organic Versus Conventional Food Consumption: Is There a Measurable Benefit on Human Health?” Nutrients, MDPI, 18 Dec. 2019, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7019963/

[6] Naftulin, Amanda MacMillan and Julia. “4 Science-Backed Health Benefits of Eating Organic.” Time, Time, 27 July 2017, https://time.com/4871915/health-benefits-organic-food/

[7] Haumann, Barbara. “Health Benefits of Organic.” OTA, https://ota.com/organic-101/health-benefits-organic

[8] Mayo Clinic Staff. “Organic Foods: Are They Safer? More Nutritious?” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 8 Apr. 2020, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/organic-food/art-20043880

[9] Gelski, Jeff. “U.S. Annual Organic Food Sales near $48 Billion.” Food Business News RSS, 16 Sept. 2020, https://www.foodbusinessnews.net/articles/13805-us-organic-food-sales-near-48-billion

[10] “Organic Market Overview.” USDA ERS – Organic Market Overview, 10 Sept. 2020, https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/natural-resources-environment/organic-agriculture/organic-market-overview.aspx

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