Organic food: Is it safer or more nutritious?

There is a growing body of evidence that shows some potential health benefits of organic foods when compared with conventionally grown foods. While these studies have shown differences in the food, there is limited information to draw conclusions about how these differences translate into overall health benefits.

Potential benefits include the following:

  • Nutrients. Studies have shown small to moderate increases in some nutrients in organic produce. The best evidence of a significant increase is in certain types of flavonoids, which have antioxidant properties.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids. The feeding requirements for organic livestock farming, such as the primary use of grass and alfalfa for cattle, result in generally higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, a kind of fat that is more heart healthy than other fats. These higher omega-3 fatty acids are found in organic meats, dairy and eggs.
  • Toxic metal. Cadmium is a toxic chemical naturally found in soils and absorbed by plants. Studies have shown significantly lower cadmium levels in organic grains, but not fruits and vegetables, when compared with conventionally grown crops. The lower cadmium levels in organic grains may be related to the ban on synthetic fertilizers in organic farming.
  • Pesticide residue. Compared with conventionally grown produce, organically grown produce has lower detectable levels of pesticide residue. Organic produce may have residue because of pesticides approved for organic farming or because of airborne pesticides from conventional farms. The difference in health outcomes is unclear because of safety regulations for maximum levels of residue allowed on conventional produce.
  • Bacteria. Meats produced conventionally may have a higher occurrence of bacteria resistant to antibiotic treatment. The overall risk of bacterial contamination of organic foods is the same as conventional foods.

Are there downsides to buying organic?

One common concern with organic food is cost. Organic foods typically cost more than their conventional counterparts. Higher prices are due, in part, to more expensive farming practices.

Food safety tips

Whether you go totally organic or opt to mix conventional and organic foods, be sure to keep these tips in mind:

  • Select a variety of foods from a variety of sources. This will give you a better mix of nutrients and reduce your likelihood of exposure to a single pesticide.
  • Buy fruits and vegetables in season when possible. To get the freshest produce, ask your grocer what is in season or buy food from your local farmers market.
  • Read food labels carefully. Just because a product says it's organic or contains organic ingredients doesn't necessarily mean it's a healthier alternative. Some organic products may still be high in sugar, salt, fat or calories.
  • Wash and scrub fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running water. Washing helps remove dirt, bacteria and traces of chemicals from the surface of fruits and vegetables, but not all pesticide residues can be removed by washing. Discarding outer leaves of leafy vegetables can reduce contaminants. Peeling fruits and vegetables can remove contaminants but may also reduce nutrients.
April 18, 2017 See more In-depth