Welcome to the great sparring match of the last decade, often fought on the grocery store shelves. In the blue corner, the fresh-faced yet immature organic food. Flashy and unpredictable, you never know if it will live up to the hype. In the red corner sits the ever-reliable conventional food. Much more modest and often predictable, you always know it’ll perform well.
So who wins?
Based on the history between the two, this contest is going the full twelve rounds.
The Red Corner
A 2012Â review study published in the Annals of Internal MedicineÂ analysed results of 237 studies (a process known as a meta-analyses) that had investigatedÂ the nutritionalÂ differences between organic and conventionally grown foods .
The authors concluded that based on the studies reviewed, organic foods are not nutritionally superior to conventional foods. This of course goes against popular belief. One of the authors, Dena Bravata stated:
â€œThere isnâ€™t much difference between organic and conventional foods, if youâ€™re an adult and making a decision based solely on your health.â€
Interestingly though, they did report that a diet high in organic foods may reduce total exposure to pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Of courseÂ you would expect this to directly affect health, but this point was not discussed in further detail, and in a way conflicted with their overall conclusion.
So it seems their verdict needs to be taken with a grain of salt, and it sure did piss a few people off (those in the blue corner).
The Blue Corner
Naturally (as with every study), there were critics that claimed the authors over-interpreted the data, and had left out many relevant studies that focused on pesticides. One research professor in particular, Charles Benbrook of Washington State University, pointed out that their conclusions were rather ambiguous.
In fact, in previous studies he has found there can be up to a 94% reduction in health risk just from eating organic forms of six pesticide-intensive fruits .
And thereâ€™s plenty of rodent studies which show high dose exposure to certain pesticides can be toxic to the animal and their offspring . Mind you these doses are much higher than you or me would ever have, but potentially similar to what agricultural workers experience.
The Judges Score
So whatâ€™s the take-home message then? Well as typical with most studies, they tend to raise more questions than they answer- especially on a topic that is so difficult to measure. Hence why there seems to be no definitive right or wrong answer at this stage.
But Iâ€™ve broken down what we do know, to give you some clear-cut advice about whatâ€™s best for you:
Thereâ€™s no disputing the fact that organic fruit & veg has less pesticides than conventional produce. But even still, current USDA regulations ensure that pesticide levels on all foods are limited to well-below safety thresholds.
As such, it does seem that current levels of pesticides used are not enough to do the body any lasting harm, although the question remains whether they can accumulate in the body over time. Current thinking is that it could affect pregnant women or children, but itâ€™s just still a grey area.
Now with regards to nutritional value, all vegies are the same– organic or not.
The main element that affects nutritional content is how long it takes the produce to get from the farm to our plate. The less time, the better. Thus our preference should be on whether the produce is local, rather than organic.
The research study I mentioned at the start found organic meats had no obvious health advantages compared to conventional. Organic meats do have less bacteria, however these are killed in the cooking process anyways. So in the end health is a factor that should not influence your decision.
Now what the animal is fed, for example grain fed cows vs grass fed cows, definitely does affect nutritional value of the meat. Grassfed beef tends to be far lower in overall fat and saturated fat, but contains more heart-healthy omega-3 fats. Naturally though, itâ€™s more expensive than grain-fed.
And just to clarify grass-fed beef does not mean organic, and organic does not mean grass-fed.
Overall the same recommendation as with vegetables- rather than focusing on organic or conventional, we should be searching for meats sourced locally. These are best because the longer the time from paddock to plate, the higher than chance of nutrition loss. Â Â Â
Organic Dairy Products
Dairy is much the same as meat in that the cooking process destroys any bacteria. Of course we donâ€™t actually â€œcookâ€ our milk, but pasteurisation of milk before it is packaged ensures thereâ€™s no harmful bacteria lurking. And based on current research, there is no significant differences between organic and conventional dairy, nutritional or otherwise.Â
How about you? Are you a fan of organic foods?
- Smith-Spangler C, Brandeau ML, Hunter GE, Bavinger JC, Pearson M, Eschbach PJ, Sundaram V, Liu H, Schirmer P, Stave C, Olkin I, Bravata DM. Review Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives?: a systematic review. Ann Intern Med. 2012 Sep 4; 157(5):348-66.
- Benbrook C. Initial Reflections on the Annals of Internal Medicine Paper â€œAre Organic Foods Safer and Healthier than Conventional Alternatives? A Systematic Review.â€ Available: http://caff.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/Annals_Response_Final.pdf
- Guerrero-Bosagna C, et al. Epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of vinclozolin induced mouse adult onset disease and associated sperm epigenome biomarkers. Reprod Toxicol; http://dx.doi.org/ [online 2 Oct 2012] doi: 10.1016/j.reprotox.2012.09.005.