While there are many positive points to an organic diet, the o word is relentlessly abused in marketing material to boast bigger performance boosts over non organic produce. Is organic food healthier? And, if not, can organic get away with it?
Words by Lacey Dunn – Bikini competitor, PEScience and Bodybuilding.com athlete and senior dietetics scholar at the University of Georgia.
Is organic food healthier? Marketing might make you think so
The marketing ploys of food manufacturers will steer your health about as straight as a supermarket trolley with a bung wheel. It’s increasingly tough to negotiate the grocery store without finding products labeled “organic” or “made with organic ingredients.”
You probably believe these higher priced products lead to increased nutrition and health outcomes, but they fail tell to tell you exactly what the benefits are for choosing their product over other options. Consumers must be aware of their choices and understand that organic farming only indicates a method of production and processing. Let’s be clear from the get-go that the term “organic” does not mean healthy. It refers to how a product is made and processed through government regulations.
There are mixed conclusions to whether there are any clinically significant nutritional benefits to consuming organic over conventional products. In relation to how the change could impact your health and fitness goals, and putting morality aside, you can only guarantee that the change will mostly just impact your wallet.
Legislation for growing organic foods
Federal regulations define what makes a product organic, which means it must be made without genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, sewage sludge, most synthetic pesticides and herbicides, antibiotics and hormones. These are just a few of the regulations that organic farmers and manufacturers must follow to label their products as organic.
However, “hormone free” chicken is really just a marketing ploy, with hormone usage being illegal in US poultry products (FDA 2015), for example.
Looking at pesticide usage, the Environmental Protection Agency limits the amount of pesticide residues allowed on crops. These limits are well below the upper tolerance levels for safe consumption.
Are organic foods healthier on your insides?
On a cellular level, the ingredients in an organic product versus a conventional product are metabolized in exactly the same exact way in the body. For example, the molecules in 100% organic rolled oats will still be fully digested, broken down and absorbed identically compared to normal, conventional rolled oats.
Most organic foods don’t contain more nutrients than their conventional counterparts. In a comprehensive study analyzing the evidence in the Annals of Internal Medicine, the researchers found there was a stark lack of evidence to support organic food consumption based on increased nutrient levels.
That’s just one point of view, let’s look at the flip side. A study in the British Journal of Nutrition found there were indeed higher levels of antioxidants within certain organic foods, higher protein and iron levels found in conventional foods. Regardless, there is not enough evidence about the exact take away health benefits of eating organic food consumption versus conventional. If you’re
looking to increase the levels of vitamins and minerals in your diet, you’re better off focusing on increasing the quality and amount of nutritious all natural foods in your diet.
Take away message: to be healthier rather eat two normal apples than one organic one. What’s more influential is making sure you use cooking techniques that have higher nutrient retention. The more water that is used in cooking, the more vitamins and minerals leach out of the food. For the best nutrient retention, steaming, broiling, or baking are great options to preserve these beneficial nutrients.
Are conventional or processed foods harmful, then?
When you look at the GMOs found in conventional food, there are many factors to consider regarding their effects on health, the environment, and metabolism.
The FDA extensively studies GMO products for safety and health effects. There are currently only 12 GMO products on the market, with corn and soy beans being a large percentage of these.
Unfortunately, GMOs are negatively portrayed in the media, and the benefits from these foods are not highlighted, such as increased vitamins and minerals, decreased need for pesticides and antibiotics, and decreased environmental impact.
Looking at the effect on metabolism of a GMO food when digested, the genes are broken down and digested just like the genes found in and non-GMO foods. Many GMO foods are inserted or altered with innate genes, meaning genes that naturally occur in those foods.
A paper in Plant Physiology concluded that there was no evidence to whether consumption of the inserted or altered genes in GMO plants have detrimental health effects. Steering away from GMO foods is a consumer choice, but there is no evidence to their consumption being detrimental to your health, fitness or physique goals.
Choosing organic can decrease exposure to pesticides, but there is inconclusive evidence to fully answer whether the reduction of pesticides corresponds with a significant health outcome. A diet rich in fruit and veg has benefits that far exceed the miniscule exposure to pesticides in consumption.
The conclusion: Is organic food healthier as it claims?
Though going organic may not have significant beneficial effects on body composition or metabolism, it remains the best way to contribute to environmentally friendly agriculture. Plus it also may lead to the reduction of antibiotics and hormones in your diet. Organic animal handling is more ethically sound, and has the potential to reduce human diseases caused by antibiotic resistant bacteria, found a paper in the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Organic food also has a hefty price tag, with increased demand not being met by current supply. This further allows companies to drive prices up. Whether you decide to choose organic or conventional, it’s up to you to weigh the positives and negatives of consumption.
There is inconclusive evidence to state that choosing organic means you are choosing to better your health. However, a diet rich in whole grains, lean protein, low-fat dairy, healthy fats, and fruits and vegetables is essential, regardless if those products are coming from organic or conventional products.
So, is organic food healthier? There isn’t enough scientific evidence to say, but there is plenty of evidence for eating a calorie-controlled diet consisting of mostly whole foods. So, instead of focusing on the source of your products, focus on the quality and amounts you actually eat. That is the way to make sure that you are fuelling your body with the foods that it needs to live and grow.
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