Get the facts: Is organic really better for you?

19 Nov, 2020

Is organic really better for you? The short answer is: probably.

The long answer is that some studies suggest organic is healthier, but there aren’t actually that many good studies available. And most are confounded in some way that makes it hard to assess the real impact of organic.

Read on for the really long answer, and a couple of things that we do know for sure.

Organic food may help you lose weight

There are a few studies that suggest organic foods are associated with reduced obesity.

But there are too few studies, and the evidence is too unreliable as consumers of organic food tend to have healthier lifestyles overall. So we can’t be sure if organic food actually caused the weight loss.

Organic food may reduce allergies and eczema

A number of studies have found that families that eat organically have fewer allergies and less eczema.

But in most of these studies, the families that ate organically also tended to have a healthier lifestyle. They didn’t account for the fact that organic consumers tend to be more health conscious, are more likely to be vegetarian or vegan and are more likely to be physically active.

So it’s impossible to say, for sure, whether it was the organic food that did the trick.

Organic food may be better for kids’ cognitive development

Organic food production uses fewer pesticides. And quite a few studies have suggested that exposure during pregnancy to certain pesticides has a negative effect on children’s cognitive development.

But none of these studies provided conclusive proof. The researchers couldn’t say for certain that these effects weren’t caused by other neurotoxic agents. Also, animal studies (where they could rule out other neurotoxic agents) show adverse effects only when the exposure is 1,000 times greater than the exposure in the human studies.

In other words:

“Pesticide residue exposure is clearly lower with organic foods as compared with conventional foods, but the potential impact of this difference on human health is not clear.” (Organic Food in the Diet: Exposure and Health Implications)

The studies

Organic food probably reduces your risk of cancer

A UK study and a French study both found that women who usually or always eat organic food are less likely to get non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Postmenopausal breast cancer rates also decreased.

But again, these studies aren’t conclusive, because these women also had healthier dietary and lifestyle habits, generally (e.g., more likely to exercise, and less likely to smoke or eat red and processed meat).

Overall:

“Owing to the scarcity or lack of prospective studies and the lack of mechanistic evidence, it is presently not possible to determine whether organic food plays a causal role in these observations.” (Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture: a comprehensive review)

Also organic fruits and vegetables tend to contain more phenolic compounds, which may play a role in preventing cancer (and cardiovascular disease and neurodegeneration).

Not surprisingly, pesticides also play a part in the cancer discussion. Organic cereal crops probably have less cadmium, which is carcinogenic (and also toxic to the kidneys and can demineralise bones).

However, the jury’s still out on the cadmium front:

“…long-term farm pairing studies or field trials that are required for definitely establishing or disproving this relationship are lacking” (Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture: a comprehensive review)

And:

“Organic foods convey lower pesticide residue exposure than do conventionally produced foods, but the impact of this on human health is not clear” (Organic Food in the Diet: Exposure and Health Implications)

Some organic foods are more nutritious

There’s not much evidence that organic foods are much more nutritious than non-organic.

Here are some of the findings available so far:

  • As mentioned above, organic fruits and vegetables tend to contain more phenolic compounds, which may play a role in preventing cancer (and cardiovascular disease and neurodegeneration).
  • Organic dairy products have more omega-3 fatty acids. But this probably doesn’t make much difference to your health. (It seems logical that it would be the same for organic eggs and organic meats, but no one has really studied it yet.)

But once again, none of this is conclusive:

“…although in general being favourable for organic products, the established nutritional differences between organic and conventional foods are small, and strong conclusions for human health cannot currently be drawn from these differences“ (Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture: a comprehensive review)

The studies

Organic foods probably reduce the effectiveness of antibiotics

Antibiotics in animal production contributes to the development of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, which reduces the effectiveness of antibiotics, generally.

Organic animal production uses far less antibiotics, and so reduces the risk of this resistance:

“Organic farm animals are less likely to develop certain diseases related to intensive production compared to animals on conventional farms. As a consequence, less antibiotics for treating clinical diseases are required under organic management… This decreases the risk for development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria…” (Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture: a comprehensive review)

Organic foods may improve fertility

A couple of studies have found a positive correlation between sperm quality and organic food consumption. The first found organic food eaters are more likely to have ‘morphologically normal’ sperm, and the second found that they’re more likely to have a higher sperm concentration.

And an American study found that women who consumed fruit and vegetables with more pesticide residue were less likely to fall pregnant and give birth.

But, as with the other studies, the people who eat organic also tend to live a healthier lifestyle, so it’s impossible to say, for sure, if the organic food was what improved fertility in these studies.

Organic foods may reduce pregnancy complications and birth defects

Several studies have suggested that an organic diet can reduce the risk of pre-eclampsia, and that it can also reduce the risk of hypospadias or cryptorchidism in infant boys.

But again, people who eat an organic diet tend to have a healthier lifestyle, all-round, so it’s not clear whether the organic diet is what reduced these risks.

Conclusion

While there is some evidence that organic food is better for you, it’s pretty thin on the ground and, for the most part, inconclusive, because people who eat organic tend to have healthier lifestyles generally. (Also, a lot of the studies rely on the participants self-reporting – e.g. filling in surveys – which isn’t a very reliable way to collect data.)

A 2020 review of 35 relevant studies concluded that:

“While findings from this systematic review showed significant positive outcomes from observational studies in several areas, including reduced incidence of metabolic syndrome, high BMI, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, infertility, birth defects, allergic sensitisation, otitis media and pre-eclampsia, the current evidence base does not allow a definitive statement on the long-term health benefits of organic dietary intake.”

Similarly, a 2017 summary of the scientific evidence for compositional differences and health benefits of organic compared with conventionally produced food found that:

“The available evidence supports consumers’ belief that organic food production and consumption result in lower pesticide exposure, are more environmentally friendly, and may be better for animal welfare. However, the impact on human health of the actual low-level pesticide exposure from conventionally produced foods is not clear. Some studies indicate better nutritional profiles in organic foods than in conventional foods, but the differences are mostly small and may not be of practical relevance in well-nourished populations. Few studies have investigated the possible health benefits of organic food consumption in humans. While providing some indications, the available evidence is limited and therefore insufficient to conclude whether organic food is healthier. The beneficial health effects of vegetables and fruits and other foods recommended in a balanced diet are well documented, but the jury is still out and not ready to conclude whether choosing the organic alternatives would provide additional benefits. The current dietary guidelines, which recommend more fruit, vegetables, and plant foods and less meat, are based on a large number of studies and are valid regardless of whether the produce is organic.”

Another 2017 review of existing evidence on the impact of organic food on human health concluded with slightly more confidence that:

“Suggestive evidence indicates that organic food consumption may reduce the risk of allergic disease and of overweight and obesity, but residual confounding is likely, as consumers of organic food tend to have healthier lifestyles overall… Epidemiological studies have reported adverse effects of certain pesticides on children’s cognitive development at current levels of exposure… The nutrient composition differs only minimally between organic and conventional crops, with modestly higher contents of phenolic compounds in organic fruit and vegetables. There is likely also a lower cadmium content in organic cereal crops. Organic dairy products, and perhaps also meats, have a higher content of omega-3 fatty acids compared to conventional products, although this difference is [sic] likely of marginal nutritional significance. Of greater concern is the prevalent use of antibiotics in conventional animal production as a key driver of antibiotic resistance in society; antibiotic use is less intensive in organic production. Thus, organic food production has several documented and potential benefits for human health, and wider application of these production methods also in conventional agriculture, e.g., in integrated pest management, would therefore most likely benefit human health.”

Summary

So what’s the takeaway? While we may not (yet) be able to prove, beyond doubt, that organic is healthier, we do know that people who eat organic tend to be healthier. Whether it’s cause or effect is, in some ways, beside the point.

One way or another, if you eat organic, you’re statistically more likely to be healthy. And who wouldn’t want to be in that camp?

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