Does or­ganic = health­ier?

Women's Health (UK) - - CONTENTS -

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.

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