If you could buy a cup of coffee that cost a teeny bit more than your usual cup of coffee but was guaranteed to improve your health, improve the wellbeing of others and make a positive impact on the environment, would you pay the extra?
We’re not quite there with the research on organic coffee or food overall, but there’s increasing interest and a growing body of evidence to suggest that organic food may indeed play an important role in the health of the world at large.
Just the other day, my husband came back from the shops with some organic rice.
The problem was that although the label said ORGANIC RICE loud and clear, on closer inspection it was evident that this company was hoping to hitch a cheeky (even illegal) ride on the organic food train.
I couldn’t find anything on the packaging to suggest it was certified organic.
There is clearly an issue here. The average consumer, particularly when doing a quick supermarket dash, isn’t going to question that organic statement.
If it says organic, it must be organic, right?
The thing is that – similar to the word ‘natural’ – ‘organic’ is a tricky tag. There are many organic compounds that are of course harmful to our health. Take cyanide, for example.
Being blind to these differences can be dangerous.
But then there are artificial things that are harmful to our health too, like artificial fertilisers and pesticides (including the popular Roundup, still available in shops).
The benefits of certified organic food
Certified organics, on the other hand, have to pass assessment criteria before they’re allowed to display the label of whichever bodies govern organics in the area where you live.
In the EU, for example, food labelled ‘organic’ needs to contain at least 95% organic ingredients. Organic ingredients are those that have been grown on land that is free of artificial fertilisers and pesticides and has been certified as such. The same applies in the US.
In terms of meat, this also relates to the feed given to animals (no fertilisers or pesticides used in the growing or production process of the feed) and extends out to banned use of growth hormones and antibiotics.
The UK-based Soil Association as another example go even further with their certification, which focuses on ‘delivering the highest levels of animal welfare, protecting human and animal health, safeguarding the environment and protecting the interests of organic consumers’.
Food grown in grounds free from artificial fertilisers and pesticides and processed under strict guidelines is of course going to be better for our bodies. How can it not be? Especially when we’ve not even considered the issue of antibiotic resistance, for example, within this discussion .
And organic food, it could be argued, is better for our minds too, knowing that we’re looking after the people who grow our food by not exposing them to unnecessary chemicals, as well as caring for the world and the environment a little better overall by not introducing nasties into the ground and the air and so on.
Organics, science and sceptics
A positive of our current time is that science is starting to properly investigate the health benefits of eating organic food.
The sceptics among us might attribute this to the fact that a rise in organic consumers has resulted in some serious purchasing power, so suddenly organic produce is valued from a commercial perspective.
But who cares why there’s sudden interest, – surely it’s more important that it’s actually happening? At least a few more people might – through the persuasion of scientific findings, if nothing else – come to understand how there’s a choice to be made that can have an actual impact.
Even when we choose to eat organic, we still need to be savvy consumers and check we’re really being sold what we think we are, just like the aforementioned non-certified ‘organic’ rice.
And to make decisions easier, it’s worth learning the difference between the products that are likely to contain higher levels of fertiliser and pesticide residues, and the ones that are less problematic.
How to figure out which foods should be organic (and which are less problematic)
A popular tool to help you figure out these difference are the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen lists. As these are reviewed and updated regularly, it’s worth keeping an eye on these every year or two. New ingredients may make an appearance.
Take, for example, kale, one of the world’s superfoods of late. A 2019 study showed over 92% of kale samples contained two or more pesticides, and ‘a single piece of kale could have up to 18 pesticides on or in it’.
Much like the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen, another useful tool by way of a table is provided in Dr David Servan-Schrieber’s book, Anticancer: A New Way of Life.
Of note, he says that
‘it is more important to eat fruit and vegetables – even if they do contain traces of pesticides – than not eat them at all. Their phytochemical anticancer properties are much more beneficial than the pesticides are dangerous’.
Making the choice to eat organic food
My father was an organic/biodynamic gardener while I was growing up, so therein lies my influence and bias. Not everything I eat is organic, but whenever I have the choice, I opt for that. And in my little family unit we also try, wherever possible, to eat organic.
When options are limited or price is prohibitive, there are two choices:
- steer away to something different, or
- accept that you’re going to ingest a teeny bit of something that’s been treated at some point by a product that displays a skull and crossbones on the can.
When it comes to myself, stupid as it sounds to write it down, for many reasons I’m happy to be stay somewhat flexible on this.
When it comes to my son, less so.
How about you? Is eating organic food important to you or do you need to see more evidence before you’ll make the switch? Let us know in the comments below.
Further reading and resources
- Mayo Clinic (2018). Organic foods: Are they safer? More nutritious? https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/organic-food/art-20043880. Accessed 5 February 2020.
- Philippe Grandjean (2017). Health benefits of organic food, farming outlined in new report https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/features/health-benefits-organic-food-farming-report. Harvard University, School of Public Health. Accessed 5 Feb 2020.
- Curl C. (2019). Organic food health benefits have been hard to assess, but that could change. The Conversation. http://theconversation.com/organic-food-health-benefits-have-been-hard-to-assess-but-that-could-change-120959. Accessed 5 February 2020.
- Macmillan A and Naftulin J (2017). 4 Science-Backed Health Benefits of Eating Organic. Time. https://time.com/4871915/health-benefits-organic-food. Accessed 5 February 2020.
- Passy, J (2019). Over 92% of kale samples contained two or more pesticides, study finds. https://www.marketwatch.com/story/kale-joins-list-of-dirty-dozen-fruits-and-vegetables-most-likely-to-contain-pesticides-2019-03-20. Accessed 1 Mar 2020.
- Steen, J (2017). The ‘Dirty Dozen’ And ‘Clean 15’ Fruits And Veggies You Need To Know (2017). https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2017/03/19/the-dirty-dozen-and-clean-15-fruits-and-veggies-you-need-to_a_21902784. Accessed 1 Mar 2020.
- Environmental Working Group (2019). Dirty Dozen™ EWG’s 2019 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™. https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/dirty-dozen.php Accessed 1 Mar 2020.
- Environmental Working Group (2019). Clean Fifteen™ EWG’s 2019 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™. https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/clean-fifteen.php. Accessed 1 Mar 2020.