You are what you eat, or so the adage goes. It is this idea that has helped the organic food industry grow into a multi-billion dollar a year industry, as people want to better not only themselves but also the environment by eating organic products. But is the “clean” food actually better for you than more commercially grown varieties? Well, the science on that one is far from settled.
There are two main arguments when it comes to the benefits of organic food, specifically crops. The first posits that the nutritional content of plants grown free of synthetic pesticides is greater than the same plants grown under normal conditions, giving those who eat them certain “health benefits”. The second is that organic farms improve animal welfare, providing a more humane environment in which to raise livestock, as well as being better for the surrounding countryside and wildlife. While the organic foods industry hold these up as fact, there are some serious doubts as to the truth of the claims.
It is claimed that organic crops contain more nutrients than non-organic foods. One analysis from Newcastle University that looked at 343 studies, for example, found that organic crops contained up to 60 percent more antioxidants than conventionally grown crops – equivalent to eating an extra one or two portions of fruit or veg a day. Antioxidants, it is claimed, are good for you as they mop up free-radicals that are known to damage DNA and increase the chance of genetic mutations.
But it’s by no means clear that consuming more antioxidants is genuinely good for you. In fact, there is strong evidence to suggest the opposite. A Cochrane review, internationally recognized as the highest standard in evidence-based health care, found that rather than improving health, taking antioxidant supplements actually slightly increased mortality rates. The review included 78 randomized clinical trials involving 296,707 participants who each received either antioxidant supplements (composed of beta-carotene, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, and selenium), a placebo, or nothing. Those that took the supplements were up to 1.04 times more likely to die. While in high concentrations free radicals are harmful, at lower levels they may be beneficial.
The review concludes by stating that “the current evidence does not support the use of antioxidant supplements in the general population.” However, the same Newcastle University study that was published in the British Journal of Nutrition also found that these foods contain lower levels of heavy metals, such as cadmium, than conventionally grown crops. This could be down to the lower use of pesticides, but it could also be down to natural variations in crop varieties or differences in climate and soil type.
The other main advantage of going organic is the claimed benefit to the environment. To be sure, some practices employed by organic farms, such as crop rotations and the move away from monoculture, are good for the environment. But because the yield from organic farms is lower than from conventional farms, it means that they actually require more space to get the same amount of crop. This means that more land has to be cleared.
To be sure, the industrialization of agriculture is massively damaging to the environment. But other technologies such as the genetic modification of crops do have the potential to make a real difference. They can be designed to have higher yields, resist certain pests, and contain more nutrients, all of which would be highly beneficial. Basically, it's not cut and dry. Organic foods are not objectively better for the environment, but then neither are they worse.
So if the crops aren’t necessarily better for your health or the environment, then what is it about them that makes people think they are? Well, it could have something to do with the “halo effect”. This is related to how people tend to overestimate how healthy a food is based on a single claim. For example, many people judge foodstuffs that claim to be “low in fat” as having fewer calories, meaning that people will tend to eat more of that product, even though this isn’t usually the case.
The impact of this particular psychological effect on organic foods has been tested before. Researchers from Cornell University subjected members of the public to a double-blind taste test in which they gave participants “regular” crisps, yogurt, and cookies and asked them to compare these with “organic” crisps, yogurt, and cookies. In reality, all the food being tested was organic, but overall the public estimated that the foods with an organic label had fewer calories, were lower in fat, and higher in fiber. Not only that, but they also said that they were willing to pay more for the “organic” foods, even though the participants found no significant difference in taste between the products.
While the study, which was published in the journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, was only small and the authors note that the participants may have said they would pay more for the organic products simply because they felt like that would be expected, it does raise some interesting ideas about the perception of foods labeled as organic.
In fact, the USDA has stated that the official labeling of foods as “organic” in the US does not guarantee that the products are safer or of better quality or nutrition. It has even been suggested that the labeling was developed in part to bolster the sales of domestic organic crops. “Let me be clear about one thing. An organic label is a marketing tool,” Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman is reported to have said when the new USDA organic labeling system came into play. “It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is 'organic' a value judgment about nutrition or quality.”
It's also worth pointing out that many people believe that organic food is pesticide free. It's not - organic food doesn't use synthetic pesticides, but farmers are free to use as many "natural" pesticides as they like. And as we often point out, something being natural doesn't make it good for you.
Organic food may have higher levels of certain nutrients, but these differences may be natural variations, and there is no evidence to suggest eating more of them are better for you anyway. Some of the agricultural practices may be better for the environment, but at the same time, others are worse. And in the end, the perceived benefits from organic foods might just be that, perceived.