FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Does organic = healthier?
Quick question: given the choice between a conventionally grown apple and an organic one, which would you choose? If the latest findings from the Soil Association (the UK’S largest organic certification body) are to be believed, it’s likely to be the latter. For the fifth year in a row, organic food sales have increased; and as well as supermarkets cottoning on, healthy fast food outlets such as Pret and Leon are now also serving up organic milk and coffee. Why? It’s more nutritious, they reason. But it’s more expensive, too. The idea of organic food being higher in vitamins, minerals and healthy fats, and free from chemical fertilisers, antibiotics, GMOS or pesticides is understandably appealing. And indeed there are multiple studies to support these claims – but there are also research papers that paint a very different picture. So which side should you believe? When it comes to meat and dairy, it’s pretty straightforward. In 2016, research by Newcastle University compared nutrients in organic and non-organic meat and milk using over 250 studies. Organic contained higher quantities of omega-3; full fat milk, for example, had 39 milligrams per 500ml compared with 25 milligrams in nonorganic. The main pull, though, is obvious – organic equals better animal welfare. But the case for fruit and vegetables is less clear. Studies show little or no difference at all in levels of minerals, vitamins and carotenoids (pigments that act as antioxidants), with researchers of one 2014 review concluding that ‘no clear benefits in nutritionally important compounds could be seen in organically grown crops’. Oh. Right then. Nutrition aside, evidence for fewer pesticides is more robust – analysis in 2014 found pesticide residues to be four times higher in conventional crops. And these remain present even after washing. In the UK, the Expert Committee on Pesticide Residues in Food (PRIF) tests foods for residues of nearly 400 pesticides annually, checking levels don’t exceed what’s considered safe. Last year, levels in lettuce and peaches exceeded acceptable levels – yet they remained on sale. ‘Any effect on health would be minor and reversible,’ justified the PRIF. It’s easy to be frightened by this, especially as we don’t know enough about the long-term effects of low-level exposure to pesticides. Studies have shown eating organic can reduce allergy risk in children but research on adults hasn’t yet revealed meaningful differences. Although, according to the Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK), many of these tests have involved single rather than multiple pesticides. Truthfully, there’s no strong evidence that eating organic results in meaningful differences in nutrient levels. It’ll reduce exposure to pesticides, sure – but we don’t actually know what this means for health. My advice? Focus on getting the basics of a healthy diet, then shop selectively for organic food, substituting the worst offenders for pesticides (see below) so you get the maximum payback for the extra cash spent. Savvy, simple, sorted.