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Organic foods — are they safer and healthier?


Organic foods have been increasingly popular these days moving from local co-ops and farmer’s markets to large retail chains that specialize in organic foods (such as Whole Foods) to general large retail chains. More and more stores dedicate portions of their produce sections to organic produce, usually at significantly higher prices.

Even dairy and meat sections of most supermarket chains have sections that contain organic products. Again, at significantly higher prices (so, you’ll see a trend here).

But there is a simple question that needs to be asked — are organic foods worth the extra cost? Are they healthier? Are they safer?

What are organic foods?

Organic foods are usually crops, meat, or other animal products (milk, cheese, honey) which have been produced without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Some people broaden that description to include genetic modification (or GMO or GM) along with certain preservation techniques such as food irradiation. In addition, some organic meats and animal products also state that they are produced without the use of antibiotics and growth hormones.

The “Food Babe” (is she still around, I’m not going to look) created this checklist to differentiate organic foods from bad foods:

organic foods

This list is inaccurate for lots of reasons that we will discuss later in this article. For example, I’ve written about glyphosate (Roundup) before, and its dangers are vastly overstated. And the other claims may or may not be relevant. Mostly this is alarmist fearmongering to cause fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) about our food supply.

Organic farming was pioneered in the early part of the 20th century based on the unproven idea that chemical pesticides and fertilizers supposedly had a negative effect on the flavors and nutritional values of foods. Since then, organic farming has grown into a huge business based on its supposed health and flavor benefits. Many people also claim that there are potential benefits that organic agriculture may have on the environment, based on the lower use of pesticides and other chemicals.

The problem with organic foods is that the standards for what is or isn’t organic may be highly variable. Many governments usually set standards for foods to be legally labeled as organic. In some countries, the regulatory role is taken on by non-governmental agencies. The Soil Association performs such a function in the UK, while the European Union sets its own rules for organic certification. In the United States, the USDA does have a certification program for organic foods.

So this causes a number of problems. First, organic foods in one country may or may not be organic in another country. Second, the actual regulation of what is organic is difficult — there aren’t tests that a government agency can use to determine if your tomatoes are organic or not. Third, and prepare to be shocked, but some foods that are certified organic can contain pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals.

Organic foods have become a cultural icon in much of the developed world. About 58% of Americans prefer organic food to regular food, according to a 2011 Thomson Reuters-NPR Health Poll (pdf), about 34% are concerned about “toxins” in non-organic foods. A minority also believe they taste better and are better for the environment, there are broad reasons for preferring organic foods. Another poll in 2003 found that 68.9% of Vermonters believed that organic food was “healthier.”

But are these foods really healthier? Are they actually safer? Well, that’s why we have science, and real scientists have examined it pretty carefully.

agriculture barn clouds corn
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The myths and science of organic foods

In a systematic review (which is at the top of the hierarchy of medical research) published in September 2012 in the Annals of Internal Medicine, the authors concluded that, using terms that you don’t find too often in the scientific literature:

…the published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.

In another systematic review published in July 2010 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the researchers found that:

…evidence is lacking for nutrition-related health effects that result from the consumption of organically produced foodstuffs.

Another systematic review published in September 2009 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition also concluded that:

…there is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs.

Finally, a systematic review published in December 2019 in Nutrients found some benefits in organic foods, but they were not able to determine if they were clinically significant. The authors concluded that:

The current evidence base does not allow a definitive statement on the health benefits of organic dietary intake

The wealth of evidence seems to indicate that organic foods probably do not provide any clinically significant health benefits. The problem is that most of the studies are observational nutritional studies, which many of us have found to be lacking.

Nutritional studies usually are not well-controlled double-blind clinical trials, they are observational. The participants indicate in a diary or memory what they are eating or not eating. which can be highly inaccurate. In addition, a lot of health benefits could be caused by confounding variables — it is entirely possible that healthier individuals choose organic foods, and it becomes difficult to find causality between the type of foods consumed and health benefits.

More science of organic foods

Of course, nutritional quality isn’t the only reason to buy organic foods. The first review, mentioned above in the Annals of Internal Medicine, stated that “consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”

However, we don’t know if there really is a benefit to organic foods. Here are some additional points made in that article

  • Two studies included in the review reported significantly lower urinary pesticide levels among children consuming organic versus conventional diets. However, the studies made no indication of whether there was any clinical significance — one of the hallmarks of science-based medicine.
  • The risk for contamination with detectable pesticide residues was lower among organic than conventional produce, but differences in risk for exceeding maximum allowed limits were small. Again, clinical significance was lacking.
  • On the other hand, studies of biomarker and nutrient levels in serum, urine, breast milk, and semen in adults did not identify clinically meaningful differences.
  • Estimates of differences in contaminant levels in foods were highly variable except for the estimate for phosphorus, which was significantly higher than in conventional produce, although not clinically so.
  • Escherichia coli contamination risk did not differ between organic and conventional produce.
  • Bacterial contamination of retail chicken and pork was common but didn’t differ between organic and non-organic farming meats. However, the risk of finding bacteria resistant to three or more antibiotics was higher in non-organic than in organic chicken and pork. This difference might be important if that bacterial contamination spreads to family members.
  • Only three of the human studies examined clinical outcomes, finding no significant differences between groups that consumed either organic or conventional foods for allergic outcomes (eczema, wheeze, atopic sensitization) or symptomatic Campylobacter infection.

In other words, there is some very slight evidence that organic foods are safer than conventional foods. But mostly, the evidence was equivocal or nonexistent. Given the higher cost of organic foods, it’s hard to come up with a cost-to-benefit equation that is convincing, especially if you can’t develop a realistic clinical risk from small pesticide contamination. To be fair, some may argue no pesticides is the best level, an example of the appeal to nature logical fallacy.

But what if simply washing the fruits and vegetables removes most of the pesticides and other chemical contaminants? That reduces any risk from conventional produce, which really ruins the cost-to-benefit equation.

And since we are supposed to thoroughly cook poultry and pork, don’t we reduce the risk of bacterial contamination? If we can reduce the minor risks of chemical and bacterial contaminations from traditional agricultural products, and we derive no known nutritional benefits from them, then why are we paying so much more for it?

Paying more for organic foods

In general, organic foods are more expensive (sometimes significantly more expensive) than traditional foods. There are a few reasons why the prices are higher, some just market forces, in that individuals will choose to pay more for organic produce and meats.

There are other subjective reasons to choose organic products:

  1. Taste. OK, this is totally subjective. Some produce comes from heirloom plants, which are cultivars that were commonly grown during earlier periods in human history, but which are not used in modern large-scale agriculture. Many heirloom fruits and vegetables have kept their traits, such as potato open pollination, while fruit varieties such as apples (red and green apples instead of black) have been propagated over the centuries through grafts and cuttings. They do have different flavors and textures that can be interesting and quite tasty. But they are expensive, and can only be found at local markets, some specialized supermarkets, and rarely off-season.
  2. Green. Some people believe that organic farming is better for the environment and better for slowing climate change. However, in another systematic review published in April 2012 in Agricultural Systems, the authors found that “Our review and meta-analysis of yield data comparing organic and conventional agriculture showed that currently, organic yields of individual crops are on average 80% of conventional yields.” In other words, organic farming is substantially less efficient than traditional farming.
  3. Support small farmers. Maybe. Again, the cost is going to be higher, and this does limit these foods to a certain economic class of people who can afford the food. Remember, large agribusiness does drive costs of food down so that larger numbers of people can afford food, a critical consideration for those who think it’s critical to feed people.
  4. No chemicals. I have a few issues with this. First, our culture has a significant “chemophobia,” so anything with a strange chemical name must be dangerous. Second, it’s impossible to have zero percent risk — organic farms may use manure for fertilizer, but that manure may contain some obscure bacteria that could contaminate the plant. Third, organic farming uses substances that are “natural” for herbicides and pesticides — just because something is natural, does not mean its inherently safe. Lots of plants produce toxins and chemicals that are harmful to humans.

Summary

Gideon M-K wrote in an article about organic foods:

But the fear of conventional farming is simply irrational. There is good evidence that pesticides in the amounts that you’ll find in most supermarket food has no impact on human health whatsoever. Conventional farming has revolutionized the world by allowing easy access to fresh food all year round — if anything, conventional farming has been responsible for saving many millions of lives worldwide.

The promotion of organic food is yet another example of the naturalistic fallacy: that things are healthy because they are natural. This is boring nonsense, as anyone who has been bitten by a natural viper or had natural tapeworms could tell you. Organic food is just another way for con artists to sell health because people are afraid of what they don’t understand.

And as Steven Novella says at Science-Based Medicine:

The recent review of organic vs conventional produce agrees with previous systematic reviews that there is insufficient evidence to conclude that organic produce is healthier or more nutritious that conventional produce. Despite the scientific evidence, the alleged health benefits of organic produce is the number one reason given by consumers for buying organic. This likely represents the triumph of marketing over scientific reality.

Yes, marketing sometimes does triumph over real science. Big Tobacco has, for years, claimed that smoking was healthy, despite 50 years of real science that said “nope, it’s dangerous.” And there are people who continue to try to claim that cannabis has a whole list of health benefits, yet none can stand up to scientific evidence.

A lot of Big Agriculture produces organic food to be sold. They charge more, partially because it costs more to produce, but also because people are willing to pay more for organic foods, despite the lack of scientific support that it’s healthier or better.

Honestly, I couldn’t care less if you buy organic or non-organic foods. I occasionally buy them because of a particular cultivar (especially for tomatoes that taste good compared to the Big Agriculture boring tomatoes). But don’t try to convince me that there are major health benefits of organic products — I’m skeptical.

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Michael Simpson
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