THE BLOG

Is Organic Actually Better for You?

08/09/2014 02:47 BST | Updated 07/11/2014 10:59 GMT

September is Organic month but, as a doctor, I am a bit of a sceptic. I like to see hard and fast evidence that something is better before I recommend it (my patients wouldn't expect anything else) and I haven't seen that much hard and fast evidence behind "organic".

The most common reason for buying organic given by over half of respondents, in a Soil Association survey, was healthy eating and avoiding chemical residues.

So... Is organic food actually better for our health?

Well, it should be. Organic agricultural practices mean avoiding chemical fertilisers - using instead crop rotation and natural nitrogen sources like clover, composted manure and seaweed. Pesticides are severely restricted and routine use of antibiotics and other drugs is banned. That means we should be ingesting far fewer chemicals ourselves.

A recent study has shown that non-organic food is more likely to contain antibiotic-resistant bugs than organic food (which presumably hasn't been exposed to such high levels of antibiotics). Antibiotic resistance is an increasing problem facing us all - we may lose some of our ability to treat serious infections. This study suggests that non-organic farming methods could be contributing to the crisis.

A recent study from Newcastle University has suggested that organic food contains 19 to 69% more antioxidants (important for health) than non-organic food, and lower levels of toxic metals and pesticides.

The researchers also found much higher levels of cadmium, a toxic metal, in conventional crops. Pesticide residues were four times as likely to be found on conventional crops than on organic food. Whilst these levels were still well below regulatory limits, the researchers noted that cadmium levels can build up in the body over time. Also, pesticide limits are set individually, not for the multiple chemicals in use on many, non-organically produced crops.

Sounds pretty convincing, but critics point out that these differences between non-organic and organic produce have not be proven to influence health and also note that there was some evidence that organic cereals have less protein than other crops. What's more, the findings of this study are in contrast to an earlier review by the Food Standards Agency, which found no benefit to eating organic - though it reviewed just 11 relevant studies and noted that they were of variable quality and that more research was needed.

Whilst organic food may contain more anti-oxidants and fewer chemical residues than non-organic food, it is usually more expensive too - between 50-200% more. That's understandable to a degree - it costs more to care for livestock properly rather than factory farm them. However, if that then means that people buy or eat fewer organic foods due to cost, they will get less of their potential benefit overall.

So, what is the Vavista verdict on the science?

The evidence is a bit sparse, I have to say. And a lot of the conclusions are contradictory, or non-committal at best. However, I am not really surprised. As you might imagine, one manufacturer's organic product may be nothing like another. You may remember from my article on the 'Health Halo', we are more likely to buy a product with buzz-words like 'organic' and 'anti-oxidant' without checking the product or label properly, as we assume it must be healthy. It is good for sales, so for some less scrupulous manufacturers, 'organic' will be more about profit - they may not necessarily be producing the quality of food we expect from the 'organic' label. In contrast, other farmers or manufacturers may be producing far better products, lovingly-tended vegetables, well-cared-for livestock, but not have the manpower, infrastructure or finances to go through the rigorous assessment process that enables them to actually label their products as organic. What's more, some standards, such as the Soil Association's Organic Standards for Food and Drink may be more robust than EU regulations.

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So, the range of so-called organic products will vary widely - and the benefits of such products are therefore more difficult to ascertain.

However, if farmers and manufacturers adhere to the principles of organic farming we can be pretty sure that we are supporting the environment and community by buying organic - which is another big benefit.

Organic practices are important in maintaining hedgerows, ponds and other natural habitats, keeping animal welfare as a high priority, strengthening local communities and paying our farmers a fair price.

Usually, organic farmers and producers reduce packaging and processing too - another benefit to the planet.

Regardless of health benefits, that is worth the additional cost, if you can afford it.

Later in the week I will be posting a blog on ways to seek out nutritious foods without relying on organic. To see full articles visit www.vavista.com - lose weight...live life...DIET FREE!