Organic Doesn’t Really Mean Healthier

Today, the sale of organic foods is a billion dollar industry that continues to grow exponentially. However, you may be confused about what the facts are in regards to the supposed added health benefits of foods labeled as organic. The truth may surprise you.

What is Organic Food

First, to understand what the supposed health benefits of organic foods are, you should understand what the term “organic food” actually means. Organic foods are fruits, grains, and vegetables that are grown and cultivated in certain ways that support human health and the environment. However, the term can also refer to other farm products such as meats, eggs, and dairy products produced differently than those from non-organic farms.

Organic Fertilizers

Organic foods are grown, cultivated, and harvested with the intention of cutting down on things like chemicals and other synthetic man made products introduced during the farming process. One common example is the kinds of fertilizers organic farmers use to grow crops. Under conventional farming methods, chemical fertilizers add nutrients to the soil. Organic farmers use fertilizers or natural origin, such as compost and manure.

Pesticides

Another big difference between organic and conventional farmers is how they choose to fight pests. A non-organic farmer may use chemical insecticides to stop harmful insects from eating crops. An organic farmer will use different means to achieve the same end, for example, introducing a different kind of bug or animal into his or her fields. The bug or animal may kill the insects that would have eaten the plants. Alternatively, the farmer may set traps for bugs that do not involve chemicals. He or she may also do things to disrupt the insects’ mating cycles to weaken the next generation of insects that would attack the crops.

Weeds

Organic growers do not use chemicals to deal with weeds. Instead of the chemical herbicides that most non-organic farmers now use, an organic farmer will use other means to keep the weeds from interfering with his or her harvest. For example, the farmer may remove the weeds by hand. He or she may also use mulch to keep weeds away. Rotating the crops grown is also another way to keep the soil healthy and weed free.

Humane Treatment of Animals

Lastly, there is a big difference in regards to what is done to and with the animals that are raised in a farm that eventually find their way to your grocery store in the form of meat, eggs, or dairy products. Many non-organic farmers feed and inject their livestock with certain things in an attempt to either improve the final product or quicken its development. For example, growth hormones may be given to cows or chickens to cause them to grow larger muscles. This can result in bigger portions of meat after butchering. They may also be injected with medications to prevent the livestock from contracting diseases. Organic farmers, however, use different methods to reach the same ends. For example, they will allow their livestock to graze and move around outdoors. This can allow animals to grow muscle more naturally. If the animals spend more time outdoors, they will not spread disease as much as animals confined to small pens indoors. Many people also believe this is a much more humane way to treat livestock.

Obvious Benefits of Organic Farming

The benefits of these farming methods are obvious. Certainly, they are more environmentally friendly in certain ways and more humane to livestock. However, in the end, the thing that matters most to many shoppers is the product purchased in the grocery store. Organic foods often come with a very high price tag compared to non-organic foods. These premium prices are doubtless the fuel in the explosion of farmers entering the organic foods industry. However, are the health benefits of organic foods over non-organic foods big enough that it offsets the difference in price?

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Surprisingly, the answer is usually, “No.” Recent studies commissioned by the United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency1 support the fact. As far as nutritional differences are concerned, these studies found virtually no difference in 10 out of 13 crops. Due to this fact, it’s likely that the non-organic and organic foods you find at your grocery store will be just as healthy for you. In addition, some conventionally grown foods do not harbor pesticide residues as much as others. For instance, the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program2 found that bananas, kiwi, mangos, papaya, pineapples, asparagus, avocado, broccoli, cauliflower, corn, onions and peas generally do not hold onto pesticide residues. Financially, it makes little sense to buy organic versions of those items.

Some may still prefer paying a premium for organically grown or raised products. However, this should certainly be a decision based on the level of concern you have for how non-organic farming methods affect the environment, human health and the well-being of animals, as opposed to misplaced concerns regarding nutrition.

1 http://www.ajcn.org/content/90/3/680.full?sid=d251c200-2a71-48f4-9f10-80526ee1b4fc
2 http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELPRDC5091055