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Organic foods are generally perceived to be healthier and better for the environment. But do they live up to this perception?

“Organic” generally refers to plant and animal products grown or raised without artificially made fertilisers, pesticides, growth regulators and other chemicals. Instead they may use natural fertilisers such as compost or manure and manage pests using techniques like crop rotation. The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) regulates the term “organic” and defines standards that “integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” In Australia, the government does not regulate the use of “organic”, so you have only the grower’s or manufacturer’s word for it. However, a “certified organic” product is regularly audited by an independent certifying body and must meet their particular requirements, some being stricter than others.

Do organically grown foods taste better? It depends. For example, exotic heirloom fruit and veg can be grown on smaller farms, and produce may be smaller or have lower moisture content therefore intensifying the flavour. The taste of organic meats may reflect a more diverse diet. However, there are other factors at play including the freshness of the produce, the soil and the climate. And a regular apple purchased fresh from the farm generally tastes better than an organic apple that has sat around for weeks in a cold store.

Are organic foods healthier? The jury is still out on this. For example, organic ingredients don’t add health benefits to highly processed foods. An organic cookie is still a “sometimes” food and typically just as high in calories/kilojoules as a regular cookie. For fresh whole foods, the picture is more complicated. A recent scientific review reports that while some organic crops may have slightly higher antioxidant levels the authors conclude that it’s not actually possible to quantify to what extent organic food consumption may affect human health as “there is virtually no published data from (1) long-term cohort studies focusing on chronic diseases (e.g. cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and neurodegenerative conditions) and (2) controlled human dietary intervention studies comparing effects of organic and conventional diets.”

So, if you want to eat better, buying organic is not the logical first step. The bigger picture is many of us eat too many highly processed “discretionary” foods for which the organic label is irrelevant. Most of us don’t eat enough vegetables, period. As organic veggies are generally more expensive, eating enough conventional vegetables (five-a-day) would have a greater nutritional impact than buying fewer organic vegetables. As for food safety, all food, both organic and conventional, must meet food safety regulations of the country in which it is sold. For example, FSANZ (Food Standards Australia and New Zealand) regulates all foods sold in Australia to ensure any chemical contaminants are in amounts below the maximum residue limitAre organic farming methods more sustainable? While the answer to this question might seem instinctively “yes”, the scientific jury is still out. According to a recent meta-analysis, organic agricultural systems use 15% less energy. This is possibly because organic systems don’t rely on synthetic fertilisers and pesticides that require a lot of energy to produce. On the other hand, they noted conventional foods use less land (less deforestation) and had a lesser impact on nearby water ecosystems (which means less algal bloom and aquatic dead zones). The same study found that both organic and conventional systems had similar greenhouse gas emissions and comparable impacts on soil acidity (an adverse effect that reduces plant growth).

There is no clear winner when it comes to sustainability and more research still needs to be done. Moreover, organic agriculture is less intensive and therefore is unable to support our population growth projected to be nine billion people by 2050. We can’t feed the world with organic food, but a hybrid approach might work; combining aspects of organic farming methods such as composting and crop rotation with conventional farming to reduce energy usage.

Should I spend extra on organic? 

  • Safety: All foods, organic or conventional, must meet food safety regulations. 
  • Nutrition: For a nutritional boost, just eat more veggies (conventional or organic). 
  • Environment: Organic and conventional methods both have their pros and cons. You would have a greater impact by reducing food waste and eating more plant-based protein options instead of excessive amounts of meat. 
  • Get what you pay for: choose certified organic foods to ensure they really are organic 

Thanks to Rachel Ananin AKA for her assistance with this article.

 Nicole Senior   
Nicole Senior is an Accredited Nutritionist, author, consultant, cook, food enthusiast and mother who strives to make sense of nutrition science and delights in making healthy food delicious.  Contact: You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram or check out her website.