What makes a food healthy? The definition of healthy food and nutritious food is absolutely essential in order to answer the question: "is organic food healthier".
But a new widely publicized study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine this week answers this question without digging deeper into what defines "healthy". The study reviewed research comparing organic and conventional foods and concluded that there's "limited evidence for the superiority of organic foods".
Let's see what the study actually found.
Fewer pesticides, more phenols, no more vitamins
The researchers, led by Dena Bravata and Crystal Smith-Spangler identified 237 of the most relevant organic vs. conventional studies. Those included 17 studies (six of which were randomized clinical trials) of humans consuming organic and conventional diets, and 223 studies that compared either the nutrient levels or the bacterial, fungal or pesticide contamination of various products including fruits, veggies, grains, meats, milk, poultry, and eggs grown organically and conventionally. There were no long-term studies of health outcomes of people consuming organic vs. conventionally produced food - these would be difficult and expensive to do, and have not yet been attempted.
There were two types of nutrients organic food had statistically higher levels of: total phenols in organic produce, and beneficial omega-3 fatty acids in organic milk.
As expected, organic food had fewer pesticide contaminants: conventional produce has a 30% higher risk for pesticide contamination than organic produce. Another study found kids switched to an organic diet for 5 days had significantly lower levels of pesticide residue in their urine.
As for vitamins, overall there wasn't a significant difference in the vitamin content of organic and conventional plant or animal products.
There was no difference in the risk for contamination of produce or animal products with pathogenic bacteria (yes, organic produce does need to be washed!), but conventional chicken and pork had a higher risk for contamination with bacteria resistant to antibiotics than were organic alternatives.
Obsessed with vitamins
So is the meta-analysis' conclusion that organic has little health benefit correct?
If eating healthy is about getting as much vitamins as possible I guess you can conclude just that. But if eating healthy is about maxing on vitamins your route to health can easily be a vitamin supplement with a fast food meal (an abundant source of protein!).
Our obsession with vitamins has been fueled for years by nutritionists and marketers. But getting enough vitamins is hardly a central health issue in modern societies. Eating healthy isn't about getting your vitamins. Even devoted junk eaters gets plenty of vitamin C and don't need a vitamin boosted organic strawberry to save them from scurvy.
What is healthy eating? This is a complicated question. It's hard enough to even define health; is health the absence of detectable disease, or a state of physical, mental, and social wellbeing? I can't really answer this question (especially not in a blog post), but healthy food has to be more than the sum of all its vitamins.
More and more people are choosing organic. One popular reason is avoidance of chemicals. Conventional food is grown using a multitude of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. We now know that these remain in the food, and are absorbed by and present in our body. Although conventional growers and food producers make every effort to convince us that these chemicals are safe and harmless in these amounts, common sense says that they definitely add nothing good to our health, and we're probably better off without them. This study shows that organic food does have fewer pesticide residues and fewer antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
But organic farming is about so much more than our personal health and safety. Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that has deep environmental implications. Organic production is about respecting the land and all its inhabitants.
An organic farm doesn't contribute to the growing problem of chemical fertilizers' run-off contaminating our rivers, lakes, oceans and drinking water. This contamination is persistent, and affects us as well as wildlife.
An organic farm doesn't contribute to our worrying dependence on dwindling oil supplies (fertilizers are fossil fuel products). Farm workers on organic farms aren't subjected to a work environment heavily contaminated by pesticides. Soil fertility is maintained for future generations by organic practices. An organic farm recycles its waste, and doesn't fill landfills with hazardous waste.
An organic farm promotes biodiversity. Organic practices lead to crops that are more resistant to drought and pests, and probably are more complex in phytochemical composition. (Phytochemicals are chemical compounds derived from plants and fruits; there is evidence from epidemiological studies that phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables can reduce the risk of disease. This is one of the findings this study demonstrated by the higher level of phenols in organic produce).
And the list goes on and on.
Organic food delivers products with fewer chemicals, preservatives, additives, antibiotics and hormones, and the environmental reasons to go organic are compelling. I doubt informed buyers opt for organic strawberries for their superior vitamin C level anyway.
Full disclosure: I'm vice president of product development for Herbal Water, where we make organic herb-infused waters that have zero calories and no sugar or artificial ingredients. I'm also a pediatrician, an early adopter of organic practices and foods, and have been promoting good nutrition and healthy lifestyle for many years.