Organic food is seemingly popping up everywhere. On the surface, the word “organic” just sounds healthier. But is it? People have asked me time and time again as to whether they should make the switch. Ultimately, it’s up to you. And to help you decide whether it’s worth crossing over to team organic or not, I’ve dug into the facts!
Which foods are actually organic?
According to organic.org, organic produce and ingredients refer to those which are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilisers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms or ionising radiation. On the other hand, organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products are sourced from animals which are free of antibiotics and growth hormones.
The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) also adds:
Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasise the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations...companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified too.
Contrary to belief, "natural," "all natural," "free-range" and "hormone-free" are not interchangeable terms with "organic.” Although these descriptions must be truthful by law, don't confuse them as foods which are labelled as “organic” are grown and processed by different, organic standards.
How do I know if my food is organic?
In Malaysia, labelling is regulated by the Organic Alliance Malaysia in collaboration with the Crop Quality Control Division, Department of Agriculture, Malaysia. Registered operators must comply with the Malaysian organic standard MS1529. Products are approved and certified by the Department of Agriculture, Malaysia then stamped with the following label.
Is organic food grown with less pesticides?
"If you're talking about pesticides, the evidence is pretty conclusive. Your chances of getting pesticide residues are much less with organic food," says John Reganold, professor of soil science at Washington State University.
Professor Reganold points to a large-scale study completed by the Consumers Union. Researchers looked at data from more than 94,000 food samples and 20 different crops. They found that organically grown crops consistently contained about one-third as many pesticide residues as their conventionally grown cousins. Organic foods were also far less likely to contain residues of more than one pesticide.
It is important to note that organic farmers do in fact use pesticides though. The difference is that they use “natural” rather than “synthetic” pesticides. While some natural pesticides are certainly safer, others are not.
"Until recently, nobody bothered to look at natural chemicals (such as organic pesticides), because it was assumed that they posed little risk. But when the studies were done, the results were somewhat shocking. You find that about half of the natural chemicals studied are carcinogenic as well," cites Louis Hom.
This does not exactly mean that organic food is carcinogenic. There are limits as to how much pesticide residue can remain on food to deem it safe for consumption. While the Environmental Protection Agency sets a Maximum Residue Limit (MRL) on various foods to protect the health of consumers, this is also where things get a little blurry in the organic industry.
"We still have no real data about the most likely pesticide residues that occur on organic crops and we are unlikely to get any,” says Agricultural technologist Steve Savage.
Ultimately, more research on organic pesticides is required, including whether there are any long-term effects if these toxins accumulate in our bodies. In the meantime, always remember to wash your fresh produce to help reduce any surface-level residue, whether it is organic or not.
Is organic farming better for the environment?
This is the main driver behind the organic food movement. Organic farming practices are designed to benefit the environment. Although crop yields are generally lower than conventional farming, the gap is slowly closing. In some regions, innovative organic farming practices have been able to reduce the gap between their crop yields and those of conventional farms to as low as 6%, while reducing pollution and conserving soil and water quality.
In addition, conventional meat and dairy farms are renowned for their inhumane treatment of animals. To keep up with consumer demand and lower their costs, many have resorted to injecting their livestock with high levels of hormones and antibiotics.
Does organic food taste better?
Personally, I’ve always found organic food to be superior in taste. And many leading gourmet chefs would agree with me. Aside from the fact that organic food may be grown in environments with better soil quality and less chemicals, there are scientific reasons as to why organic food continually tantalise our tastebuds.
A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that organic food can contain up to 69% more antioxidants. The reason for this is that plants are forced to produce more antioxidants to fight against harm in the absence of pesticides. These higher antioxidant levels have been found to affect the food’s taste, aroma and mouthfeel, as well as how our senses detect the food’s unique flavour.
“People are yearning for more intense flavours, and there’s good news that organic farming accentuates flavour in fruits and vegetables,” says Charles Benbrook of Washington State University.
Is organic food nutritionally healthier than conventional food?
As previously mentioned, organic food tend to contain more antioxidants. This has been supported by a review conducted by the UK-based Soil Association Certification Ltd which found that organic crops are higher in essential minerals, phytonutrients and vitamin C.
On the other hand, a study examining the past 50 years worth of scientific articles about the nutrient content of organic and conventional foods found that organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs are not significantly different in their nutrient content.
As you can see, there’s a lot of conflicting research as to whether organic food contain enough extra nutrients to offer significant advantages to health. Many experts would agree that we still need more evidence in this area to come to a concrete conclusion.
"There's really very limited information in people on actual health outcomes with consumption of these products. We don't know enough to say that one is better than the other," says David Klurfeld, PhD, chairman of the department of Nutrition and Food Science at Wayne State University.
Is organic food more expensive than conventional food?
Organic is generally more expensive than conventional food when bought from the stores (you could always grow it yourself!). In saying that, the price is becoming more affordable as the amount of organic food which is produced locally has increased in recent years. In addition, some would say that the price difference is justified as buying organic reduces the amount of pesticides that you are exposed to, increases the taste of your food and is the equivalent of voting against animal cruelty and for a better environment.
So, is organic food all it’s made out to be?
As I mentioned at the start, the decision comes down to you and your family. Keep in mind that you don’t have to go in all at once - it’s fine to start slow and ease yourself in. The USDA’s Environmental Working Group has created a list called “the dirty dozen”. This list outlines 12 fruits and vegetables which contain exceptionally high levels of pesticides when conventionally grown. When buying these foods in particular, organic is a better option. Switch them out in your weekly shopping list, then take it from there!