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1. WHAT IS IT?
WHAT IS IT?
Organic food is produce, meat, milk, eggs, or other food items produced by “organic” farming practices. Such practices include the restriction of the use of synthetic (but not “natural”) pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, synthetic genetic modification, and irradiation . They also include the specific methods used for the cultivation of crops and the raising of livestock, such as crop rotation and animal waste fertilizers for soil fertility, and outdoor access requirements for livestock . The “organic” label is regulated by government bodies, such as the USDA in the United States, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in Canada. In order to label a product as “organic”, its production must satisfy standards that encompass the aforementioned practices, as well as other regulations. In other words, the term “organic” is therefore a description of production methods and regulations, as opposed to nutritional characteristics of the food.
The popularity of organic foods has increased tremendously in the past two decades. Between 1997 and 2015, sales of organic products have increased by over 10 times in the United States alone ($3.6 billion to $39 billion) [2-3]. This is despite the fact that organic foods can cost over double the price of conventional products [2, 4]. Many consumers justify this price premium on the basis of the perceived benefits of organic foods .
It is true that organic farming has some advantages over conventional farming practices, especially when it comes to environmental sustainability and animal welfare . However, when it comes to the health-related benefits of organic food, two major misconceptions (and marketing talking points) are common.
TWO COMMON HEALTH MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT ORGANIC FOOD
Quick Definition: "Systematic Review"
A systematic review (and/or “meta-analysis”) is a scientific study that examines the agreement between many clinical trials. Instead of looking at a single study, systematic reviews attempt to analyse the totality of evidence related to a topic. By doing so, the true answer to a given question can be more accurately estimated. For example, a single study might indicate that a particular treatment is effective, leading readers to believe that this treatment works. However, what if three other studies conclude that the same treatment does not work? A systematic review might analyse the data from all four of these trials and conclude (correctly) that the totality of the evidence indicates that the treatment does not work (3 say no, only 1 says yes). The relative importance of each study is determined by things like study size (number of participants – more is better), chance for bias, consistency of measurements, and many others.
Because of their strength, systematic reviews are generally considered one of the highest standards of evidence. However, they are also not perfect, and are subject to the quality of the contributing clinical studies. Hence, if only low-quality studies are used, low-quality results will emerge (a.k.a. “garbage in, garbage out”).
Misconception #1: Is Organic Food Healthier?
In short, no.
Many supporters of organic foods claim that organics are a healthier alternative to conventionally-produced products. Unfortunately, the best available evidence does not support this claim.
A systematic review of 237 studies comparing organic to conventional foods determined that, overall, organic foods do not appear to have superior nutritional value or health benefits over their conventional counterparts . The only reliable difference detected between the two food types was related to phosphorus content – organic produce had higher phosphorus levels. Unfortunately, this difference was not clinically important, given that dietary phosphorus deficiency in humans is essentially non-existent without starvation (i.e. having extra phosphorus in your diet does not provide any health benefits). For all other nutrients, there was no convincing or consistent evidence that organic foods have a superior composition. Likewise, no differences were found in health outcomes (i.e. actual effects on health) between those consuming organic versus conventional products.
Multiple other systematic reviews and analyses have reached the same conclusions [1, 5-6]. A previous systematic review of 55 research studies concluded that there is no evidence of a difference in nutritional value between organic and conventional produce, except for phosphorus content (again, higher in organics) . A subsequent systematic review found no health benefits associated with the consumption of organic foods . In a clinical guidance report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the authors concluded that there is no evidence of clinically relevant nutritional or health-related benefits for organic over conventional foods .
Interestingly, two recent systematic reviews found that organically produced meat and milk contained higher levels of unsaturated omega-3 fats when compared to their conventional counterparts [7-8]. To some, this may suggest that organic meats and milk are nutritionally superior to conventional ones. Unfortunately, this is likely not the case. The differences in omega-3 content were reported as significant (47% and 56% higher in organic meat and milk, respectively), but lacked proper context. The reported difference of approximately 50% was a relative one – that is, organic meats and milk contain approximately 50% more omega-3 fats relative to conventional products. What is important to recognize, however, is that both types of meat and milk (organic and conventional) are generally poor sources of omega-3 fats in the first place. For example, 1 cup of conventionally-produced 2% (fat-reduced) milk contains only approximately 2% of your suggested daily intake of omega-3s. This means that organically-produced 2% milk would only contain 3% of your daily intake (50% more than conventional). While this is technically a 50% increase, its significance is probably low. Considering that dieticians and physicians generally recommended consuming low-fat (1%) or fat-free (skim) milk products [9-11], the amount of omega-3 fats obtained from milk in a healthy diet should be even lower (since 1% and skim milk have less or no fat, respectively). Meat is similarly not recognized as a meaningful source of omega-3 fats , so a 50% increase between conventional and organic meats is also relatively meaningless. In other words, a 50% increase from “almost nothing” is still “almost nothing”. Organic meats and milk are still poor sources of omega-3 fats. In this respect, it is arguably more valuable to save the extra money spent on organics to purchase fish (a much better source of omega-3 fats) instead.
Overall, it is simply not accurate to claim that organic food is meaningfully healthier than conventionally-produced alternatives.
Misconception #2: Is Organic Food Pesticide-Free?
No. “Organic” does not mean “pesticide-free”.
There is credible evidence to suggest that organic produce contains lower levels of synthetic pesticide contamination than conventional produce [1-2, 13]. However, pesticide levels on organics are not zero – they are still readily detectable . A systematic review determined that organic foods are 30% less likely to be contaminated with pesticide residues when compared to conventional products . However, organics still regularly tested positive for pesticides, just not as often. Most importantly, there was no difference between organic and conventional produce when it came to the risk of detecting potentially dangerous levels (i.e. above the maximum allowed limits) of pesticides . Residues found on both organic and conventional foods are in such low concentrations that they pose no known risk to humans. In other words, while conventional produce may be more likely to test positive for pesticides when compared to organics, the difference between the two is relatively meaningless. Pesticide levels on both types of produce are so low that they are rendered harmless.
Organic food production is also not pesticide-free – it is synthetic pesticide-free. Organic farmers do not use synthetic pesticides, but they do use organic ones . The difference between synthetic and organic pesticides is that synthetics are, as their name implies, synthetic (man-made), while organics are naturally-occurring compounds. In other words, the difference is their origin (man-made vs naturally-occurring). However, it is important to understand that “naturally-occurring” does not mean “non-toxic to humans”. Many organic pesticides are, in fact, toxic to humans, and some are actually more toxic than synthetics. For example, copper sulfate, a common organic pesticide, may be at least 30 times more toxic than glyphosate, a common conventional pesticide. The oral LD50 value (the smallest oral dose at which 50% of lab animals die) for copper sulfate is 125 mg/kg body weight in rabbits, while the oral LD50 for glyphosate is only 3800 mg/kg (i.e. rabbits can eat 30 times more glyphosate before dying) [15-16]. For perspective, the oral LD50 value for caffeine in rabbits is 224 mg/kg (i.e. approximately 17 times more toxic than glyphosate) . Hence, just because something is “natural” (like copper sulfate and caffeine) does not mean it is “non-toxic”. Luckily, much like the caffeine in your coffee, the concentrations of both organic and synthetic pesticides found on food products are so low that they are harmless.
In summary: organic foods are not pesticide-free, and organic pesticides are not necessarily safer than the conventional alternatives.
TOO LONG; DIDN'T READ!
Organic food is no healthier than conventional food. It is not pesticide-free. Organic pesticides are not necessarily less toxic than synthetic pesticides.
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2) Smith-Spangler C, Brandeau ML, Hunter GE, et al. Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives? Annals of Internal Medicine. 2012;157(5):348. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-157-5-201209040-00007.
4) USDA ERS. Organic agriculture: Organic market overview. http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/natural-resources-environment/organic-agriculture/organic-market-overview.aspx.
5) Dangour AD, Dodhia SK, Hayter A, Allen E, Lock K, Uauy R. Nutritional quality of organic foods: A systematic review. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2009;90(3):680–685. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.28041.
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7) Średnicka-Tober D, Barański M, Seal C, et al. Composition differences between organic and conventional meat: A systematic literature review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Nutrition. 2016;115(06):994–1011. doi:10.1017/s0007114515005073.
8) Średnicka-Tober D, Barański M, Seal CJ, et al. Higher PUFA and n-3 PUFA, conjugated linoleic acid, α-tocopherol and iron, but lower iodine and selenium concentrations in organic milk: A systematic literature review and meta- and redundancy analyses. British Journal of Nutrition. 2016;115(06):1043–1060. doi:10.1017/s0007114516000349.
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10) Dietitians of Canada. Healthy eating guidelines to prevent heart disease. http://www.dietitians.ca/Your-Health/Nutrition-A-Z/Heart-Health/Healthy-Eating-Guidelines-to-Prevent-Heart-Disease.aspx.
11) American Heart Association (AHA). The American Heart Association’s diet and lifestyle recommendations. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Nutrition/The-American-Heart-Associations-Diet-and-Lifestyle-Recommendations_UCM_305855_Article.jsp#.V3GUsBJcA0w.
12) Dietitians of Canada. Food sources of Omega-3 fats. http://www.dietitians.ca/Your-Health/Nutrition-A-Z/Fat/Food-Sources-of-Omega-3-Fats.aspx.
13) Magkos F, Arvaniti F, Zampelas A. Putting the safety of organic food into perspective. Nutrition Research Reviews. 2003;16(02):211. doi:10.1079/nrr200361.
14) Bahlai CA, Xue Y, McCreary CM, Schaafsma AW, Hallett RH. Choosing organic pesticides over synthetic pesticides may not effectively mitigate environmental risk in soybeans. PLoS ONE. 2010;5(6):e11250. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0011250.
15) National Institutes of Health (NIH). TOXNET Toxicology Data Network: Copper Sulfate. https://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/.
16) National Institutes of Health (NIH). TOXNET Toxicology Data Network: Glyphosate. https://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/.
17) National Institutes of Health (NIH). TOXNET Toxicology Data Network: Caffeine. https://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/.