What is organic food and is it really better for us?
As we all become more aware of the impact that our food has on our health, one little term is surrounded by a lot of misinformation and mystery: organic.
You might have heard several ‘experts’ telling you why you should eat organic. Or perhaps you’ve heard dietitians say that it’s just a gimmick. Either way, you need to understand the pros and cons of organic food, so you can decide whether to make the switch for yourself.
What is organic food?
Registered Pharmacist and Nutritionist Sarah Gray is very knowledgeable about the definition – and subject – of organic food.
“Organic food is produced with special farming methods or practices,” Sarah explains. “In Australia, organic farmers have to follow certain practices and grow produce without the use of any synthetic chemicals such as pesticides and artificial fertilisers. In addition, organic farmers and manufacturers do not use genetically modified components or expose any food to irradiation.”
She also mentions that organic farmers must keep the welfare of their animals in mind. They have to treat animals humanely and with respect.
Organic food certifications
The definition of organic food can sometimes be confusing. When you start looking at organic food certifications, things become a little murkier.
To start with, Australia applies six different organic certifications to organic food:
- ACO Certification Ltd (ACO)
- AUS-QUAL Pty LTD (AUS-QUAL)
- Bio-Dynamic Research Institute (BDRI)
- NASAA Certified Organic (NCO)
- Organic Food Chain (OFC)
- Southern Cross Certified Australia Pty Ltd (SXC)
“Those certifications all mean that the certifying organisation has checked the food manufacturer’s ingredients and processes to ensure they’re all organic,” Sarah says. “The organisation then audits the manufacturer at regular intervals to ensure the certification is still valid.”
She warns, however, that it’s also important to read the packaging very carefully. It may be the case that some, but not all, of the ingredients in a product, are organic. Australian authorities don’t require a business to gain certification from one of the governing bodies above for it to describe its product as organic.
Sarah has a few tips to ensure that any organic food you buy is actually organic:
- It’s not possible to see whether the fresh produce you buy from a retailer is genuinely organic. This means you need to ask the grower or look them up to see if they’re certified as organic.
- Don’t be fooled by packaging that claims a product is ‘natural’ or ‘chemical-free’. For a start, everything in the physical world – from water to sand to plants to your body – is made up of naturally occurring chemicals. But if a product doesn’t include proper certification on the label, it almost certainly isn’t organic.
- If you’re buying from an organic retailer, check for an Organic Retailers’ and Growers’ Association of Australia (ORGAA) notice, which the retailer should prominently display.
The pros and cons of organic food
Does organic food truly live up to the hype? Sarah says that the evidence of any benefits of organic food for our health isn’t clear, although there have been some positive findings to date.
“There’s not a lot of evidence showing that organic food is really better for you,” she acknowledges. “It may have more nutrients such as vitamin C and phosphorus, although the differences are small.”
She also mentions that several studies have compared the nutritional content of organic and non-organic plants. Most have shown no significant differences in key vitamin and mineral content.
However, the differences don’t stop with nutrient content, Sarah adds. “One disadvantage of eating non-organic food is that you may consume trace amounts of pesticides and hormones that are used in regular farming. On the other hand, organically grown crops may have less nitrate, which has been shown to negatively impact heart health.”
In the end, when you weigh up the pros and cons of organic food for your diet, Sarah recommends considering two major factors.
“On the plus side, organic food is definitely better for the environment,” she says. “Organic farming helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and produces food more sustainably, while also treating animals well. On the other side, organic food is more expensive because, by nature, organic farming simply doesn’t lend itself to farming at scale.”
Organic food and the environment
Given that the environmental benefits are such a positive element of organic food, they’re worth digging a little deeper into. “Organic farming is concerned with working in harmony with existing ecosystems,” Sarah explains. “This includes conserving water, soil and energy, and using renewable resources and natural farming cycles.”
This means that key environmental benefits of organic food include:
- Lower greenhouse emissions. Organic farming often uses less energy, and also creates less pollution from the manufacture and transportation of chemical nitrogen fertilisers.
- Sustainable food production. Conventional farming may deplete the soil of nutrients and decrease biodiversity. Additionally, the world’s supply of mined phosphate fertiliser, which conventional farming uses, is running out.
Organic food on a budget
One of the biggest barriers to eating organic food is the cost. Eating well can be expensive!
There are several reasons for this. Not only are production costs higher due to the less scalable business model and higher labour costs, but demand for organic food is also currently greater than supply.
Sarah encourages people to prioritise fresh produce over processed food as a good way to start introducing organic food into their diet. “Start with fresh fruits and vegetables,” she recommends. In particular, she suggests focussing on:
- green, leafy vegetables such as spinach, which are often highly sprayed at a crop level
- berries, which tend to be treated a lot to keep them fresh for longer
- any foods like tomatoes or apples, where you eat everything including the skin
“Buying in-season fruits and vegetables will also minimise the cost,” Sarah adds. “This is due to more abundant supply and lower production-related overheads.”
If you want to go further than that, she suggests then trying organic meat, and finally moving to organic processed food.
Organic food myths
Some myths about organic foods seem to persist.
One of those is about the difference between natural and organic food. People often assume that they’re one and the same, but that’s not the case.
While organic foods have a certification, nothing similar exists for ‘natural’ foods. A food could be labelled natural because it contains natural sugars, flavourings or other ingredients. But unless a food is certified organic, or its producer can substantiate claims of it being organic, that food is not organic.
The other organic food myth worth addressing is that you have to take an all-or-nothing approach to eating organic. Instead, Sarah says, you can slowly introduce organic food into your diet as you’re able to.
As with any new habit, if you want to stick with eating organic, it’s best to make any changes achievable and realistic.
Going organic or not is up to you
Whether you think organic food is better for you or not is something you need to weigh up for yourself based on the facts. The research shows potentially minor health benefits. The benefits to the environment are more clear. But the costs may be prohibitive to some.
In the end, the choice is yours.
If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read about how to change your relationship with healthy food.
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Sarah Gray is both a Registered Pharmacist and Registered Nutritionist with a particular interest in health education and helping people to take small steps to big change in their health journey. Sarah is the Head of Health and Nutrition on the healthylife Advisory Panel.
Reviewed by healthylife Advisory Board June 2021