Is organic veg really better for us than non-organic?

Hannah Collins, Associate Registered Nutritionist (ANutr) takes a look at whether organic fruit and veg offer superior health benefits compared to non organic food.

Why is organic so appealing?

We are currently living in a time where many people are concerned about their health. The coronavirus pandemic has emphasised how important nutrition and healthy weight are if we are to achieve positive health outcomes. So, I ask – are organic fruit and veg actually superior in their health benefits, when compared to their non-organic counterparts, or is it all a fad to get us to pay more?

There are many reasons why consumers choose organic veg; from environmental concerns, to animal welfare. Organic fruit and vegetables may also be perceived by consumers to be nutritionally superior.

Image by kati1824 from Pixabay

What does the scientific evidence say?

The science shows that there is minimal difference in the main nutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrate and fibre) between organic vs non-organic food. Some evidence suggests organic food is superior in regard to having increased antioxidant content and increased omega-3 healthy fats vs non organic. Yet, does this preferable nutritional profile actually translate into improved health outcomes for us – if it doesn’t then surely it is irrelevant?

A recent systematic review in 2019 looked at exactly this – whether organic foods improved health outcomes vs non-organic equivalents. The review looked at a range of individual foods: from apples, carrots, tomato puree and wine, to diets based wholly on organic or non-organic foods. A range of health outcome indicators were measured:

  • Pesticide traces in urine (some links exist to some cancers)

  • Overweight and obesity incidence

  • Sperm count and concentration, and similar markers of female fertility

  • Allergen antibodies present in the blood

What were the findings?

There were no differences in health outcome indicators when single items were replaced with an organic alternative.

In regards to whole-diet substitutions the following were observed in the organic diet groups:

  • Up to 90% reduction in urinary pesticide and herbicide levels.

  • 31-37% reduced risk of obesity and metabolic syndrome.

  • Reduced risk of pre-eclampsia and hypospadias (reproductive abnormalities in male infants) – particularly in regards to organic dairy and vegetable intake. Also, a 26% increased probability of a live birth during IVF.

  • 43% higher sperm concentration (no difference in total sperm count).

  • 40% reduced eczema risk in children when organic dairy is consumed.

What can we take away from these findings?

The results should be interpreted with caution yet there are some key points to take away:

  • Some pesticides are classed by the World Health Organization as ‘probably carcinogenic’. Organic foods have been proven to contain less pesticide, therefore may be protective against some cancers. However, differing pesticide content in various foods, the variations of what the term ‘organic’ means and the proportion of organic food replacement in the diet will all affect any potential health benefits.

  • The studies reviewed were all very short-term studies; more longer-term studies are required to discover if any health effects of organic diets are long-lasting.

  • The validity of the results may be reduced by confounding factors – people who buy organic food tend to be more active, are more often vegetarian/vegan, and consume more vegetables. It is therefore possible that any reported benefits may be due to the actual composition of the diet rather than a direct effect of consuming organic variants.

What if I can’t afford organic?

The most important thing to remember is that increasing our intake of any fruits, vegetables, wholegrains and fibre, and increasing any exercise is beneficial for our health. All fruits and vegetables contain vitamins, minerals and fibre, whether they are tinned, frozen, fresh or dried. Recent national data shows that less than 3 in 10 adults achieve the 5-a-day fruit and veg target. If you can buy organic, great; if you can’t – don’t worry!

Optimum health is a combination of positive mental health, exercising for 150 minutes a week if possible, eating a variety of fruits, vegetables and wholegrains and doing the best we can within our own circumstances!

In season at the moment are beetroot, carrots, cucumber, runner beans, sweetcorn and tomatoes, amongst other veg! Why not check out Vegpower’s website for some fantastic recipes to increase your fruit and veg intake – organic or non organic!

Thanks to Hannah Collins (ANutr) for preparing this blog post. Hannah is currently working in the NHS running weight management sessions and will be starting a PhD investigating plant-based milk alternatives in September 2020. Find her on Twitter @AllotNutrition

References

National Diet and Nutrition Survey (2018) NDNS: Results from years 7 and 8 combined. (Accessed 26 August)

Veg Power (2020) Recipes (Accessed: 26 August 2020)

Vigar et al., (2019) A Systematic Review of Organic Versus Conventional Food Consumption: Is There a Measurable Benefit on Human Health. Nutrients. 12(1):7. Doi: 10.3390/nu12010007 (Accessed: 26 August 2020)

Dr Laura Wyness is an award winning Registered Nutritionist specialising in evidence-based nutrition writing, workplace wellness and online nutrition consultations. Contact Laura for any enquiries: nutrition@laurawyness.com

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