Are Organic Foods Better?


Many people feel that pesticides in the food they eat may have played a role in their cancer. This may lead them to ask "Is organic food better?" This is an excellent and important question. Sometimes organic food costs more than conventionally grown food. Sometimes organic food is hard to find. Is it worth your time and money to eat organic?

The Politics of Organic

As you may know, there is disagreement on this topic. This means that the information you receive on the possible health benefits of organic food may be affected by those who are providing it. Naturally, people want to promote the type of food that they produce, distribute, market, and sell. Those who benefit from the sale of nonorganic (conventionally grown) food will say that organic food is no better than conventionally grown food. On the other hand, those who benefit from the sale of organic food will tell you that organic food is healthier and more nutritious than conventionally grown food. What is the truth?

Whenever you read information on this topic, be sure to consider the source. This will help you to be a more informed consumer.

Also, considering the possible nutrition differences between organic and conventional food does not address other important issues, such as the environmental impact of using pesticides and the agriculture chemical exposure of individuals who grow and process our food supply. These issues may or may not be important to you personally.

Available Research

Possible Benefits of Organic 

The research that is available on this topic tells us that organic fruit and vegetables generally are higher in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other healthy nutrients when compared with conventional produce. Studies tell us that organic fruit and vegetables have higher levels of vitamins C and E, iron, magnesium, carotenes, and some polyphenols. Carotenes and polyphenols are groups of nutrients that are found in fruit and vegetables and are believed to reduce disease risk.

Another benefit of choosing organic food is that it may be one way to reduce your personal exposure to pesticides. One study in which researchers collected urine samples and dietary information on preschool age children found that those eating a more organic diet had significantly lower exposure to a group of agricultural chemicals known as organophosphorus pesticides.

The major limitations of all of these studies on this topic are that they are small and they only have considered nutrition content of a few selected foods.

Possible Downsides of Organic 

One of the possible downsides of organically produced food may be spoilage. In other words, without the use of chemicals to treat the food when it is grown and stored, there is concern that it may spoil faster. It may be more susceptible to contamination by insects and rodents as well as natural toxins produced by mold and fungus. However, recent studies on this topic suggest that organic food is just as safe as conventionally produced food.

Other Considerations 

Beyond health, there may be other reasons why people chose to eat organic foods. For example, research does not show a link between small amounts of pesticides on food and the health of people eating those foods, but what about the people who grow and process that food? Those people are exposed to larger quantities of these chemicals. We know this is not healthy.

Also, where do these pesticides go once they wash off of the food? They end up in the environment. And we all share the same environment. 

From a "community-oriented" or "global" perspective, if we are looking out for the health of the entire community and the health of the planet, it makes sense to limit the use of pesticides.

However, some people cannot afford the monetary cost of eating more organic food or they may not have organic food available to them. These are good reasons why some people cannot eat organic food.

Putting It All Together: The Big Picture

We know that with all of this conflicting information, it is difficult to decide whether you want to eat more organic food.

Although it is clear that manufacturing, working with, or otherwise being exposed to pesticides and agricultural chemicals in high amounts can increase the risk of cancer, it is important to keep in mind that there is no good research showing that the trace amounts of pesticides found on fruit and vegetables are linked with cancer or other diseases.

This does not mean that these chemicals in food are harmless; what it means is that the benefits of eating vegetables and fruit outweigh the potential harm of agricultural chemicals that may be found on this food.

To put it another way, we know that hundreds of research studies show that the more fruit and vegetables a person eats, the lower his or her risk of cancer and other diseases. These studies have been conducted on the general population, most of whom eat conventional produce. If the harm of the pesticides outweighed the benefits of these foods, we would not see the consistent protective effects of eating these foods (fruits and vegetables). But we do see these protective effects.

Bottom line: The one time when it does not make sense to eat organic is when organic is not available. Eating fruits and vegetables, no matter how they are grown, is important for reducing cancer risk.

It makes sense to avoid pesticides where we can, but if you have trouble getting organic or it doesn't fit into the food budget, you are still better off eating conventional fruits and vegetables rather than avoiding them altogether due to fear of pesticides.

In summary, organic food is a healthy choice, both for you personally and for the environment. But if you cannot afford these foods or they are not easily available in your community, you should still eat your fruits and vegetables as much as possible. Remember, no matter how you eat these foods, conventional or organic, you will get benefit from them.

This content was last reviewed August 15, 2010 by Dr. Reshma L. Mahtani.
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