While organic food at one time was restricted to health food shops, it is now more widely available, with even the smallest grocery stores now carrying at least some organic products. With its increased presence, you may have been tempted to try eating organic. However, if the concept of eating organically grown and reared produce is new to you, you might be left wondering exactly what is organic food and what are the benefits of organic food in the diet? Understanding both of these aspects can help you to make an informed decision to start incorporating organic produce into your weekly meals.
What Is Organic Food
Although the precise definition of organic food can vary depending on who you ask, at its most basic level, organic food is produced by way of farming methods which are kind to both the environment and to the animals themselves. Organic farming is free from artificial chemicals, so artificial fertilizers and pesticides - which are routinely part of non-organic farming - are not used on crops, and growth hormones and antibiotics are not given to animals reared organically. Instead, natural compost and manure are used to help nourish the soil, along with practices such as crop rotation and growing leguminous plants, which naturally add nutrients back into the soil. Instead of artificial pesticides, organic farms tend to have a greater diversity of crops, which in itself helps to reduce pests, though some natural pesticides may be sprayed. Crop rotation further aids this, as does the use of other organisms, which are natural predators of the pests that can be problematic.
Animals reared to provide organic meat, milk and eggs are given organic feed, but they are not given antibiotics to promote growth or prevent infections, and similarly growth hormone injections are not used. This is not necessary when animals are allowed to graze naturally, as is the case with organic farming, as their natural growth is not hindered and they are healthier so at less risk of infection.
For food to claim that it is organic, its production must adhere to the national standards for organic farming as set out by the US Department of Agriculture. Organic farms require annual certification to maintain their organic status. This helps consumers to be assured that when they see an item labeled as being organic food, that it genuinely is. Other methods of farming adopt some of the principles of organic agriculture, such as sustainable farming, though as these do not adhere to all of them, so the food produced cannot be called organic.
What Are Some of the Benefits of Organic Food?
When food is produced organically, it has a range of benefits. Some of these are advantageous to the environment, some to the animals reared on organic farms and others to those of us consuming organic produce, so the benefits of organic food are far-reaching. While you are probably most interested to know as a consumer what you have to gain by eating organic, knowledge of the other benefits may also help to inform your decision if you are interested in protecting the environment and animal welfare, so both of these are discussed here briefly as well.
One of the environmental benefits of organic food is that avoidance of artificial fertilizers reduces soil erosion and other organic practices help to restore soil content. This means that the quality of the soil is retained for growing crops and that as a result the nutritional content of these is higher, benefiting animals that graze on organic pastures and those of us who eat organic cereal crops, fruit and vegetables. Without artificial fertilizers, this also helps to prevent a process known as eutrophication, where the components of the fertilizers are leached into water supplies leading to pollution and an upset in the balance of aquatic life; this is also hazardous to babies if water containing nitrates is used to make up their formula milk. By not spraying crops with pesticides, these chemicals don't make their way into the ecosystem, which can otherwise have a detrimental effect on wildlife; anyone who has heard of DDT, an organochlorine insecticide which is now banned, will know the devastation this caused when its widespread use allowed it to build up in the environment. Another advantage of organic food production is that increased crop diversity encourages a greater array of wildlife, including birds, butterflies and bees, which have suffered a decline through more intensive farming methods.
As organically reared animals require access to outdoor free space, are fed a natural diet and are not subjected to unnecessary treatments, this ensures their welfare is maintained. This promotes their health and keeps them free from stress, so they have a good quality of life for as long as they are a part of organic farming.
Health Benefits of Organic Food
One of the main reasons people decide to choose organic produce is to avoid the pesticide residues left behind by the artificial chemicals used in non-organic farming to destroy insects, weeds and fungi. While these residues are present at a level below the maximum allowable level set by the Government and pose less risk to consumers than the farm workers who actually spray the crops, there is concern that over time levels of these chemicals can build up within the body and certain groups may be at particular risk from their exposure. Health problems related to pesticide exposure may include damage to the nervous system, an increased risk of cancer and disruption to hormone levels. Pregnant women may wish to be particularly careful, as may parents of babies and young children, as owing to their small body size a developing baby, infant or young child is more vulnerable to the effects of pesticide residues. For this reason they may wish to err on the side of caution and opt for organic food during pregnancy and for their young family. As organic food can sometimes cost more, most benefit can be gained by consuming those items that usually contain the greatest level of residues when produced by non-organic means. The US Department of Agriculture produces a list each year of the dozen foods that bring most pesticides into the diet and it has been suggested that just swapping to organic versions of these twelve foods can reduce your intake of these chemicals by around 80%.
Although conflicting evidence has been gathered by studies investigating the nutritional content of organically produced food, some research that has been conducted has demonstrated that certain micronutrients are certainly found at higher levels in organic produce. For instance, a comparative study of strawberries grown in California by organic and non-organic methods that was published in 2010, showed that those grown organically contained substantially more antioxidants, including vitamin C and polyphenols; these nutrients are linked to a lower risk of heart disease and cancer. A review of 41 studies that considered the difference in nutritional content between organic and conventional farming methods for fruit, vegetables and grains showed that not only was their vitamin C content on average 27% higher, but they contained 21% more iron, 29% more magnesium and 13% more phosphorous. As iron deficiency is still common in the US and some people are reluctant to eat meat, obtaining extra iron from plant-based sources is advantageous; magnesium and phosphorous have a range of functions in the body, though are both important for bone strength and the prevention of osteoporosis, which affects around 10 million Americans and a further 18 million are at risk of the condition. However, it isn't just organically grown food that offers extra nutrients, the produce from organically reared animals is also more nutritious.
A UK study that involved 25 farms found that milk from organic cows that grazed on pasture yielded milk with a greater content of the antioxidants vitamin E and carotenes, as well as containing more conjugated linoleic acid and omega-3 fatty acids; similarly, organic grass-fed beef also contains a more beneficial antioxidant and fatty acid profile. Conjugated linoleic acid is linked to promoting a healthy cardiovascular system, body weight, immune system and good blood sugar control, as well as guarding against cancers of the breast, colon, lung, stomach and skin. Omega-3 fatty acids meanwhile are known to protect against heart disease and stroke, and are also important for brain development and the maintenance of cognitive function; as many people do not eat oily fish, the main source of omega-3s, organic milk can offer a good alternative when consumed on a daily basis.
One of the other health benefits of organic food is that by avoiding unnecessary antibiotic use, this helps to reduce the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Antibiotic resistance is becoming an increasing problem and there may soon be some bacterial infections in humans that do not respond to any treatments, with drug resistant Clostridium difficile, salmonella, TB and Enterococcus (with the latter causing infections that can range from those of the urinary tract to more serious infections of the blood, heart and meningitis) growing in number. The spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria from livestock to humans can occur directly through ingestion of infected meat, but the bacteria can also enter the wider environment by way of manure, which may pose another route of transmission. While this isn't the only means by which drug resistant bacteria are developing - inappropriate prescribing and use of antibiotics in people is a large cause - increased use of antibiotics in agriculture has accompanied the rise in antibiotic resistance, so by developing organic practices, this problem can be reduced by a greater investment in organic food production.
Concerns about recombinant bovine growth hormone, used by non-organic farmers to increase milk yields, need not be an issue when you use organic milk. This artificial hormone mimics that naturally produced by the pituitary gland, which in turn increases levels of the hormone called insulin-like growth factor, which is linked to cell growth and has raised the question could ingestion of this by people increase their risk of cancer? While levels of bovine growth hormone are not much higher in the milk from cows injected with it, levels of insulin-like growth factor are. People who drink milk from cows injected with the growth hormone have 10% higher blood levels of the second hormone and higher levels of this may increase the risk of breast, colon and prostate cancers. While the link with this is weak, would you really want to take the risk?
When you choose organic food you also know that it is going to be free from any genetically modified ingredients, as foods that contain these cannot call themselves organic. Any organic meat, milk or eggs will also have been produced without the animals having been fed any GM feeds. Not enough is known about the impact that eating genetically modified foods may have on our health, so until there is conclusive evidence that they are safe - which may never happen - it is safest to avoid all GM produce. The only way to be certain of this is to eat organic.
The use of additives is also highly restricted in organic food. They can only be included when they are vital for food safety or a legal requirement - as is the case with the mandatory fortification of certain classes of food with vitamins and minerals. By choosing organic, you can avoid items such as the following:
- Trans fats. These unhealthy fats are found in bakery goods and fried foods. They raise levels of bad cholesterol, while lowering levels of good cholesterol, so are linked to an increased risk of heart disease.
- Artificial sweeteners. The artificial sweetener aspartame is linked to migraines, low mood, brain tumors and weight gain. Only natural sugars can be used to sweeten organic food.
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG). Consumption of this additive is linked to headaches, skin reactions, numbness and muscle weakness.
- Artificial colorings. These have been linked to hyperactivity in children.
With a better understanding what is organic food and the health benefits it can bring, you will be better placed to make the decision to include organic food regularly in your family's diet. Doing so not only has the potential to promote their current health and well-being, but that in the future as well.