Organic food, including produce, milk, and meat, are becoming more popular among consumers each year. In fact, sales of organic foods now account for over $40 billion per year and further growth is expected. There are many reasons to account for this increase, including potential health benefits and environmental impact. Despite the popularity of organic foods, there is little evidence that eating organic has significant health benefits. But organic foods may still be a good choice for you and your family. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.
A review of over 200 studies of organic foods published in 2012 suggests that organic produce, milk, and meat are not necessarily healthier. This study received a great deal publicity, much of it critical of the conclusions of the report. There are some studies that show that organic fruits and vegetables contain higher levels of vitamins and antioxidants, but this finding is not consistent. Organically produced milk and meat may have higher level of omega-3 fats, which are associated with heart health.
These differences may not be completely attributable to organic farming techniques. The higher vitamin content in some fruits and vegetables may be due to ripeness, since organic produce might be more likely to be picked at peak ripeness than conventional fruits and vegetables. This is not always the case, though, since some organic food is shipped a great distance—literally halfway around the world in some cases—meaning it was picked before it was ripe. The elevated omega-3 fats in organic milk and meat may be due to the fact that most of these cows get more time to graze on grass than cows on conventional farms that eat more grain.
The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a report on organic foods for children which presents a balanced review of organic foods and sensible advice for adults and children. After reviewing the research, they concluded that there is no direct evidence that consuming organic food improves health or lowers the risk for disease. But they do note that organic foods, with lower pesticide levels, may be a smart choice for children who are more likely to be harmed by chemical exposures.
The take-home message is that organic foods are at least as healthy as conventional foods. But there are other reasons why you may choose to buy organic beyond the potential health benefits. Organic farming may be better for the environment due to reduced water contamination by pesticide run-off and healthier soil. Pesticide application also poses potential risks for farm workers. Additionally, there are issues of animal welfare that some consider important. Many people also feel that organic farming is more traditional and the way food “should be” produced.
Given that this information about organic food, what should you do? First, eat fruits and vegetables in abundance, whether they are organic or not. There is substantial evidence that fruit and vegetable consumption is essential for good health. The same is true for whole grains and lean meat. Second, given that organic foods tend to be more expensive, be selective about what you buy, such as organic versions of foods that tend to be higher in pesticides (you can find lists of the “dirty dozen” and the “clean fifteen” online). Wash all produce before you eat it whether it is organic or not. Finally, make sure your food choices, organic or otherwise, are part of a lifestyle that includes a healthy diet and regular physical activity.
Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. But it doesn't have to be that way. What can I help you with? firstname.lastname@example.org | http://twitter.com/drbrianparr