Is Organic Food Actually Better?
“We only eat organic.”
This seems to be the latest refrain among health-conscious families. There’s certainly nothing wrong with eating organic food, if that’s your choice. But what was once a personal diet choice has morphed into cult-like status symbol justified by self-righteousness. (I’m healthy, therefore I’m right—to paraphrase Descartes.) We place too much emphasis on what we buy—and too little on what that actually means, or what happens to it after we eat. The journey from shopping bag to hungry mouth is at least as influential (if not more) on the health benefits of food as the organic sticker on your tomatoes.
The truth is, the nutritional benefits of organic food over inorganic food are still debatable. Even if they were proven, many families would still eat inorganic out of necessity; the trendiness of organic food puts it out of reach for many in terms of access and affordability. Also, the definition of “organic” is amorphous: governments around the world have differing regulations as to what qualifies as organic, and can legally be labeled as such on packaging. The organic sticker on your produce means only as much as the regulations defining that label, so educate yourself about what term really means in the country where you’re shopping. Before you pay double for the aloo watered only with the tears of Himalayan doves, here are four things to consider:
The nutritional advantages of organic food are not proven.
If you are buying organic food based on the belief that it has a higher nutritional value, you might want to reconsider. Researchers at Stanford University evaluated nearly 250 studies comparing the nutrients in organic versus traditionally-grown foods (fruits, vegetables, grains, poultry, meat, and eggs), and the health outcomes of eating these foods. The researchers discovered very little difference in nutritional content, aside from slightly higher levels of phosphorous (needed for strong teeth and bones) in many organic foods, which they say was “not clinically significant.” Some studies, too, suggested that organic milk has higher levels of omega-3 fatty acid, which helps brain development in infants and improves cardiovascular health.
Dr Crystal Smith-Spangler, a teacher at Stanford’s Centre for Health Policy, said: “Some believe that organic food is always healthier and more nutritious. We were a little surprised that we didn’t find that.”
Organic does not automatically mean your diet is healthier.
Organic is a way of farming—not a rubber-stamp verification of healthfulness. Many assume organic food is good for you, full stop. But this isn’t so. If you’re consuming chocolate made with organic sugar, it’s still full of refined sugar and you need to watch how much you eat. Though it might have fewer chemicals (debatable), the sucrose content is the same—don’t be fooled into thinking you can eat more of the “healthier” sugar, without the same results. The World Health Organization recommends that you limit your intake of added sugars to no more than 10 percent of your daily calories. If you’re an average-sized adult, that’s roughly 50 grams of sugar, or the equivalent of 3 tablespoons, of granulated sugar a day. This guideline applies irrespective of how the sugar is produced.
Additionally, any health benefits you rack up by eating organic food are negated if you’re consuming processed food at the same time. Let’s imagine you’re eating a large bowl of salad made from organic produce for dinner. Wash the veggies thoroughly, chop them up, and then add the finishing touch: a generous splash of store-bought salad dressing. The preservatives and sodium bottled into that dressing are negating the nutritional benefits of your salad, no matter what the source. What you eliminate contributes to a healthy diet as much as what you include.
Organic or inorganic—nutritional value has a lot to do with the method of cooking.
If you’re blanching, boiling, roasting or stir-frying your vegetables you’re destroying most of the nutrients and the enzymes needed for digestion. And if you’re cooking with bicarbonate of soda (baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate) you’re leeching your veggies of nutrients further (even if they cook faster and look plumper). Of course, it isn’t necessary or practical to eat raw all the time, but introducing one meal a day that’s raw or steamed will preserve the fibre and essential nutrients you need.
Organic does not necessarily mean your food is cleaner.
It is a myth that all organic food is free of pesticides. If produce is organic, it means that any pesticides used are derived from natural sources, as compared to synthetic, lab-made pesticides used in conventional farming. But natural does not automatically mean better; in fact, because organic pesticides are less effective than synthetic ones, they are used on crops in larger quantities. And as researchers dig deeper, it is found that naturally occurring pesticides often contain deadly toxins. For example, Rotenone which was widely used in the US has been found to be highly dangerous. It kills pests by attacking mitochondria, the energy powerhouses of all living cells. Research found that exposure to rotenone caused Parkinson’s Disease-like symptoms in rats.
However, most bacteria and pesticides – organic or synthetic – can be removed by washing under running water for 30 seconds to one minute. Produce with firmer skins like apples, potatoes and carrots can also be scrubbed with a brush to ensure they are thoroughly cleaned before you eat them.
A healthy diet goes way beyond the decision between organic and inorganic food. New research is being published every day that challenges our conceptions on what’s good for us and what isn’t. Our suggestion: Equip yourself with all the facts, and don’t forget the other aspects of your diet.