Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives is a scientific literature review recently published by respected Annals of Internal Medicine. Organic generally means food produced without synthetic chemical pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics or growth hormones.
This review has caused tumultuous stir in both pro and anti organic camps. Here’s my attempt to bring “neutral” summary of what the review really says.
Nutrient levels in food depend on weather, geography, cultivar, harvesting, storage etc. Different cultivars of tomatoes don’t taste the same, even fruits from a same can tree taste different, alluding to heterogeneous nutrition profile. The review didn’t find significant differences in the vitamin and other nutrients between the same cultivar/breed of organic and conventional food. (Cooking changes nutritional profile significantly; baked potato is not same as fries!)
Organic food often had 30% less pesticide residues compared to the conventional produce. Both were well within the maximum allowed limits (we are exposed to hundreds of synthetic chemicals within allowed limits). The lower pesticides residue is expected since by definition, organic means food produced without any “synthetic” chemical pesticides. Organic food are allowed to use pesticides, they just have to be non-synthetic.
Risk of bacterial contamination such as Salmonella, Campylobacter, Escherichia coli is same for organic and conventional produce. This is logical since food contamination largely depends on food handling/storage issues.
There is about one-third more risk of finding antibiotics resistant bacteria in conventional chicken and pork than in their organic counterparts. Health effects of this are not discussed.
Adults vs. children
Some studies reported a lower urinary pesticide levels in children who ate organic foods. One study found young children who consumed organic dairy products had a lower risk for eczema. However, other studies found no difference in allergies between children consuming organic and conventional foods. There are not significant numbers of studies to conclude organic food increased allergy or other health conditions in children and should be interpreted with caution.
Is organic food healthy?
Studies so far suggest organic foods and conventional food are similar in nutrient content. Eating organic food slightly reduces exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. There are no long-term studies on health issue for populations eating predominantly organic versus conventional food.
Based on our current understanding, it’s difficult to judge if organic food is “healthier”. All we can say is nutritiously organic food is same, but they do have slightly lower pesticides. Basically, more long term studies are needed before we get the answer. In the mean time, what will you buy?
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