By: Lacey Dunn
We all know the area of the grocery store aisle with products labeled as “organic” or “made with all organic Ingredients”. Many consumers are made to believe that these high priced products lead to increased nutrition and health outcomes. Are organic foods healthier than conventional foods and what is the real difference between these types of products? Organic products make numerous marketing claims that capture the eye of the consumer, but do not tell the consumer exactly what the difference is for choosing their product over the conventional option. Consumers must be aware of their choices and understand that organic farming only indicates a method of production and processing.
The term “organic” does not mean healthy. It refers to how a product is made and processed through USDA federal regulations. Organic production is done to promote ecological balance, conserve biodiversity, promote animal welfare, and reduce environmentally damaging production practices. There is mixed conclusions to whether there are any clinically significant nutritional benefits to consuming organic over conventional products. In relation to how the change could impact your health and fitness goals, you can only guarantee that the change will mostly impact your wallet.
Federal regulations define what makes a product “organic”. An organic product must be made without: genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, sewage sludge, most synthetic pesticides and herbicides, antibiotics, and hormones. These are just a few of the regulations that organic farmers and manufacturers must follow to label their products as organic. However, organic farming still allows the use of approved pesticides and vaccines. In the realm of hormones in products, only conventional beef and sheep are approved for usage. “Hormone free” chicken is really just a marketing ploy, with hormone usage being illegal in poultry products (FDA 2015). Whether you mix your post workout protein powder with regular or organic milk, your body will absorb and metabolize those foods in the same way.
Looking at pesticide usage, whether used on conventional or organic products, the Environmental Protection Agency limits the amount of pesticide residues allowed on crops. These limits are well below the upper tolerance levels for safe consumption, especially with their washing and cooking. Choosing organic can decrease exposure to pesticides, but there is inconclusive evidence to fully answer whether the reduction of pesticides corresponds with a statistically significant health outcome. A diet’s benefits of being rich in fruits/vegetables far exceeds the miniscule exposure to pesticides in consumption.
On a cellular level, the ingredients within an organic product vs a conventional product are metabolized the same exact way in the body. For example, the molecules in 100% organic rolled oats will still be fully digested, broken down, absorbed the same exact way as your normal conventional rolled oats! The carbohydrates in the oats will be used in the same way and have the same effect on your hunger, satiety, and blood sugar. Looking at the nutrient differences in organic vs convention products, there is inconclusive evidence to full answer whether one is more nutritious than the other. Most organic foods do not contain more nutrients than their conventional counterparts. In a comprehensive study analyzing the evidence in Smith 2012, they found that there was a lack of evidence to support organic food consumption based on increased nutrient levels. However, a study in the British Journal of nutrition found that there were indeed higher levels of antioxidants within certain organic foods, and higher protein and iron levels found in conventional foods. Regardless, there is not enough evidence to the health benefits of organic food consumption vs conventional. If looking to increase the vitamins and minerals in your diet, one should rather focus on increasing the quality and amount of nutritious foods in your diet, making sure to use cooking techniques that have higher nutrient retention. The more water that is used in cooking, the more vitamins and minerals leach out of the food. For best nutrient retention, steaming, broiling, or baking are great options to preserve these beneficial nutrients.
If looking at GMO’s found in conventional food, there are many factors to consider regarding their effects on health, the environment, and metabolism. The FDA extensively studies GMO products for their safety and potential health effects. There are currently only 12 GMO products on the market, with corn and soybeans being a large percentage of these products. Unfortunately, GMO’s are negatively portrayed in the media, and the benefits from these modified foods are not highlighted, such as increased vitamins and minerals, decreased need for pesticides and antibiotics, and decreased environmental impact. Looking at the effect on metabolism of a GMO food when digested, the genes are broken down and digested just like the genes found in non-GMO foods. Many GMO foods are inserted or altered with innate genes, meaning genes that naturally occur in those foods. Weber 2012 concluded that there was no evidence to whether consumption of the inserted or altered genes in GMO plants have detrimental health effects. The focus should be on incorporating more whole foods in the diet that contain essentials macro and micronutrients. Steering away from GMO foods is a consumer choice, but there is no evidence to their consumption being detrimental to your health, fitness, or physique goals.
Though going organic may not have significant beneficial effects on body composition or metabolism, it is the best way to contribute to environmentally friendly agriculture practices! It also may lead to the reduction of antibiotics and hormones in your diet. Organic animal handling is more ethically sound, and has the potential to reduce human diseases caused by antibiotic resistant bacteria (Organic 2012). Organic food also has a hefty price tag, with increased demand not being met by current supply. This further allows companies to drive prices up, knowing that consumers will pay for their products. Your favorite organic brands are actually even owned by big brand companies- for example, Bolthouse Farms is owned by Campbell Soup Company. Whether you decide to choose organic or conventional, it’s up to you to weigh the positives and negatives of consumption. There is inconclusive evidence to state that choosing organic means you are choosing to better your health. A diet rich in whole grain grains, lean protein, low-fat dairy, healthy fats, and fruits and vegetables is essential, regardless if it’s coming from organic or conventional products. Instead of focusing on the source of products, focus on the quality and amounts. That is the way to make sure that you are fueling your body with the foods that it needs to live, and grow!
Organic Foods: Health and Environmental Advantages and Disadvantages Joel Forman, Janet Silverstein, COMMITTEE ON NUTRITION and COUNCIL ON ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH
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