Differing views on organic food and its health benefit

There is a rising debate on the benefits, utility, authenticity and cost issues of organic foods over conventional produce. There are industry spokespeople who claim that organic foods can do wonders for health. They claim that the pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers used in conventional production can do more harm than we know.

Expert speak in favour of organic produce

Andre Leu, chair of the Organic Federation of Australia says, “There are some very good studies that show that on balance organic food has higher levels of nutrition…The data we have from Australia and around the world tends to be consistent. The number one reason people buy organic is for health reasons and concern about the use of pesticides…People believe that organic foods have higher levels of nutrition and leave less of an environmental footprint. It’s better for the environment and organic food tastes better.”

American nutrition expert Michael Pollan in his recent book “Food Rules” agrees. “What they were pumping onto the crops was so toxic that the farmers would not go into the fields for five days after spraying…And for their own consumption, the farmers were growing organic potatoes in a small patch beside their house,” he said.

A review of studies and an experiment

Associate Professor Samir Samman of the School of Molecular Bioscience at the University of Sydney however believes that there is no true evidence that can pin point the fact that organic food is nutritionally better than conventional food, especially in relation to fresh fruit and vegetables.

He along with his team has worked on a study that has been accepted in the international scientific journal Critical Reviews In Food Science And Nutrition. They have “surveyed the international literature and critically evaluated the results” – and they aren’t heartening for the organics industry.”

He says, “Our review showed [that] when all the published articles on this topic are considered, organic food is reported to contain more vitamin C and phosphorous than conventionally produced food...[But] when the articles are scrutinised for scientific quality, and only the better-quality articles are considered, only phosphorous remained significantly higher in organic food as compared with conventional foods….

Phosphorous is not in any way a limiting nutrient in the diet. The presence of higher amounts in organic food has probably little significance. We conclude from the analysis that the nutrient composition differs very little between foods that are produced by organic and conventional methods.”

After analysis of the nutritional contents of the food that was bought from both conventional and organic shops the researchers found that with oils such as olive, flaxseed or canola and peanut, “the method of production [organic or conventional] has no real impact on the composition” of the fatty acids contained in the food. Similar result was found for eggs. His team is now conducting research on nuts, dairy foods and meat.

Professor Samman also said, “Some health professionals believe that organic foods have more nutrients and elicit favourable effects on health…This advice is given despite the lack of scientific evidence to support it.” More fruits and vegetables are the need of the day in diet he said. “The really important thing for consumers is that they continue to consume fruits and vegetables regardless of the source, because this is going to bring about health benefits…If you only eat one organic apple because that’s all you can afford, instead of having two conventional apples, surely you’re better off having two,” he added.

There are further issues about damaging the environment with conventional farming. Professor Samman refutes that by saying, “The more that the organic supply increases, the more likely it is to be detrimental to the environment in a sense, because we have to get the food transported to the cities, we have to get it mass produced and we have to use some of the equipment that conventional farming uses.”

The Cornell University Food and Brand Lab also conducted a similar experiment by randomly assigning 54 college students to try out cookies that were labelled “organic” or had no label. There was organic flour and sugar in both types of cookies. After the test the participants were given questionnaires regarding their understanding and preference for organic foods and also their awareness towards protection of the environment.

The results were surprising. The group that had organic labeled cookies thought that they had 40 percent lesser calories than unlabelled ones. They claimed that “organic” cookies had more fiber content than the other. These students were the ones who buy organic foods more often. On the other hand those who led a more out door life and believed in exercising for health claimed that “organic” cookies did not taste natural.

According to study co-author Brian Wansink just the label could give a “health halo” to the cookies. He said, “It's the same basic reason people tend to overeat any snack food that's labeled as healthy or low fat. They underestimate the calories and over-reward themselves by eating more.” This study was presented at the recent Experimental Biology conference in Anaheim.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.


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  1. courage courage Australia says:

    I have my "own study" of over 20 years of conventional food, when I wake-up every morning with my lips and tongue burning, unlike in rare occasions when I can find and afford organic. How can that man's study find resources to contradict a not so published statistic, from which I will be part probably soon, With my 2 yo bladder cancer and a migrant background from not so chemical food?

  2. Gemfyre Gemfyre Australia says:

    Most people I know of don't choose organic for health benefits.  We buy it because it's not covered in poisons and has a smaller environmental impact - I'd actually take a small decrease in health benefits for a product that didn't destroy the environment so much.

  3. pigsmayfly pigsmayfly Australia says:

    Organic food isn’t just a healthy choice but also a lifestyle issue, unfortunately anecdotal evidence would suggest that the love affair with organics isn’t a reciprocal one. As pointed out there are few if any legitimate studies that validate the efficacy of eating organic food, yes there are the humanitarian (organic animal meat) issues and the purported environmental benefits but mounting evidence would suggest we may be wasting our money. I had the pleasure of listening to Costa from Costas garden odyssey at resent talk on the benefits of super foods and organics. Costa was certainly passionate about organics but i pointed out to him that  regardless of whether you eat organic foods or conventional farmed food the human body doesn’t differentiate both are broken down in the same manner for energy and building blocks for protein structures in our bodies. So eating organics isn’t just a furphy but also a financial encumbrance.

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News-Medical.Net.
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