When you walk through the grocery store and see an organic product, you’ll notice two things: The manufacturer seems super proud of its organic status, and they’re eager to make consumers cough up some extra money for the privilege. Organic foods are often marketed as being “cleaner,” more natural, and ultimately healthier than conventional, non-organic foods. As a consumer, this begs the question: In terms of health, is forking over some extra money for organic products actually worth it?


What does “organic” mean?

Weighing the costs and benefits of organic food products requires a basic knowledge of what distinguishes organic foods from conventional foods. Organic food production practices are primarily intended to promote sustainability, soil fertility, biological diversity, and minimization of the use of synthetic materials. For instance, fields in which organic crops are grown must be free from synthetic chemical treatments for at least three years, and such crops can not be genetically modified or grown with the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, or ionizing radiation. Organic livestock must be fed organic food, must be free from antibiotic and hormone treatments, and must be raised in conditions that accommodate their natural behaviors (like grazing). This does not mean that all organic crops are raised in the absence of fertilizers or pesticides; it simply means that the fertilizers and/or pesticides used do not contain synthetic chemicals.

Before moving forward, I’d like to nip something in the bud here. You might feel an urge to go ahead and make a conclusion already– organic is natural, conventional may not be, natural stuff is good, so what’s there to argue? This logic may feel correct at a very basic level, but it is a prime example of a logical fallacy referred to as “appeal to nature.” The reality of the matter is that nature is riddled with potent toxins, and there are countless safe (and in many cases, health-promoting) synthetic materials. When it comes to non-organic agricultural practices, each process or material should be considered on an individual basis with regard to its potential for health-related effects, along with its likelihood to actually induce these effects under normal circumstances.


Nutrient composition and pesticide exposure

Several studies have been conducted to determine if the nutrient content of organic food is different from that of conventional food. Largely, the answer appears to be no. In one systematic review, authors concluded that conventional foods tended to be higher in nitrogen, whereas organic foods tended to be higher in phosphorus [1]. For all other nutrients evaluated, differences were not statistically significant. A separate study concluded that organic produce may contain slightly more vitamin C than conventional produce, in addition to lower protein content but higher protein quality [2]. Nonetheless, the authors concluded that there is insufficient evidence to suggest differences with regard to other nutrients, and the small differences observed between organic and conventional foods were not large enough to make a meaningful impact on health. Unfortunately, the literature on this topic is highly inconsistent, but for justifiable reasons. The nutrient content of produce depends on several factors, including fertilizer use, pesticide use, growing conditions, season, ripeness, storage conditions, and many more. As such, there is a great deal of variation in the nutrient content of a given crop, even when comparing the same exact conventional food grown on two different farms or at two different times throughout the year. In general, any differences in nutrient content between organic and conventional crops are too inconsistent to rely on, and too small to impact health in a meaningful way. The same can be said for meat from organic livestock; while differences in fatty acid composition have been noted [3], the differences are wildly inconsistent between studies, influenced by many extraneous factors, and unlikely to meaningfully influence health outcomes.

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