Are organics really healthier?

Organic food is the fastest growing area of the food and farming sectors, according to the US Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. Growth in organic retail sales has topped 25 per cent in Europe and the US annually since 1990.1 In October 2002, the USDA defined federal standards for organics labelling, providing a consumer guarantee of the meaning of an organic label. The majority of growth in Europe has taken place since similar controls were implemented in 1993 (EC2092/91), so the growth of organics is set to continue.

Parallel to this trend is the growing interest in functional foods. A belief that organic foods are 'better for you' is a key consumer motivation, creating possible synergies with the marketing of many functional food products. Yet functional food manufacturers have largely overlooked organic ingredients, perhaps due in part to claims of a lack of evidence that organic foods are either healthier or safer than conventional foods. Why pay more for ingredients and increase the price of your health-promoting product if there is no recognised health benefit from doing so?

It is a reasonable question. Increasing criticisms of organics on both sides of the Atlantic have laid down the challenge to the organic movement to support its long-standing claims that organic food is better for you. The initial response, published by the UK Soil Association in 2001, was the most thorough review of the available evidence to date. It revealed that there is, in fact, evidence to support the view that organic foods are generally safer and healthier than non-organic foods. The key differences should be of particular interest not only to food manufacturers wishing to market health-promoting products, but anyone who eats food and desires good health.

Is organic safer?
High on the list of consumer food safety concerns are pesticide residues in food. Annual surveys in the UK and US typically reveal that approximately one-third of all conventional food samples and half of all fresh produce tested contain low levels of pesticide residues. Regulators assert that rigorous safety assessments have confirmed that these levels are not a threat to food safety. Consumers intuitively know this is a false assurance. No rigorous scientific safety assessment has or can be made of the infinite number of mixtures of compounds consumers are exposed to. Individual samples sometimes contain up to seven different pesticides, and the US FDA has found up to 350 different pesticides in foods sampled.

Although scientists are documenting the significantly increased toxicity of multiple compounds (the cocktail effect),2,3,4,5 safety tests are conducted only on individual compounds. Most evidence of pesticides harming humans comes from occupational or environmental exposures, though dietary exposures to pesticide residues have been linked to stomach problems and headaches,6 breast milk contamination7 and some reductions in sperm quality.8,9,10 A combination of environmental, household and dietary exposure has caused developmental deficits in children in Mexico,11 and similar routes of exposure are not uncommon in developed countries via municipal pest control programmes, household and garden insecticides and agricultural residues in food. The British Medical Association urges a precautionary approach "because the data on risk to human health from exposure to pesticides are incomplete."12

Accordingly, organic standards restrict pesticide use to non-routine applications of just seven natural compounds, and organic produce is almost always found to contain no pesticide residues. In the most recent study, in which researchers compared residue levels in organic and conventional foods, they discovered that organic foods did have some pesticide residues, usually because of environmental contamination from conventional agriculture. However, compared with conventional foods, the rate of contamination was far lower, the number of pesticides found was much lower, multiple residues were rare on organic samples, and where residues were found, the levels were much lower.13

Vigilance is required for organic manufacturers using concentrated ingredients (for example, dried fruits or grain flakes) and, perhaps even more so, health product manufacturers using concentrated conventional ingredients, as residue levels may be concentrated to higher-than-expected levels.14 When marketing a product as 'health promoting,' if it is laden with pesticide residues, it will damage your marketing message and diminish consumer benefit.

Food additives
Consumers are increasingly concerned about food additives. Because of the restrictions on additives stipulated by organic processing standards, organic manufacturers avoid a wide range and large quantity of potentially allergenic or harmful additives. Many of the approximately 500 artificial food additives permitted in processed foods are relied upon to replace the taste, texture, colour or flavour that processing often removes, and it is estimated that the average American consumes more than two kilograms of additives annually.15

Organic standards permit approximately 30 additives and only if they are necessary for that food's production. The standards prohibit specific additives and ingredients that have been implicated in various health concerns, including hydrogenated fats, phosphoric acid, aspartame, MSG and artificial colourings linked with heart disease,16 osteoporosis,17 headaches,18 asthma19 and hyperactivity.20

Researchers estimate that organic produce tends to contain 10 to 50 per cent higher phytonutrient levels than conventional

What about persistent claims that organics are a food safety risk from pathogens, such as E. coli and mycotoxins? Most of these claims come from pro-GM or agrochemical organisations that choose to manipulate or ignore scientific evidence. There is no evidence linking organically produced foods with an increased risk of food poisoning. Organic farms employ methods such as lower stocking rates and careful composting of manure to minimise pathogenic risks. Independent analyses by the UK Public Health Laboratory Service 21 and reviews of the evidence by the Royal Agricultural Society of England, the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA), neither of which is known for its advocacy of organic food or farming, and even the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, have all agreed that organic produce carries no greater pathogenic risk. 22,23,24

The Soil Association review of the evidence differed from previous (and even subsequent) inconclusive reviews, uniquely introducing exacting criteria to establish the adequacy of the methodologies used in research. Looking only at quality research comparing nutrient contents in organic and conventional foods, it concluded that the available valid evidence showed that average vitamin C and mineral contents are higher in organic foods.25 American researcher Virginia Worthington quantified these differences, revealing that based on current dietary patterns, the differences demonstrated between organic and conventional foods can mean the difference between achieving the recommended daily allowance for some nutrients or failing to do so.26

But the most exciting nutritional differences may be in phytonutrients—the five to 10,000 compounds in plants other than vitamins and minerals, often with known antioxidant effects on human health.27 Many believe they are the primary reason fruits and vegetables are so health-promoting. They may be higher in organic foods primarily because many phytonutrients are part of the plant's defence systems and the lack of pesticide usage forces the plant to produce more of its own defences in the absence of an artificial one. Research is in its infancy, though higher levels in organic foods have been found for lycopene in tomatoes,28 polyphenols in potatoes,29 flavonols in apples30 and resveratrol in red wine.31

In a recent review of the subject, researchers estimated that organic produce tends to contain 10 to 50 per cent higher phytonutrient levels than conventional produce,32 although until more is known, product claims will be made on a case by case basis.

Recognising that there has now been sufficient analysis of the existing data with more demand for primary research, the USDA, FSA, Soil Association, the newly-formed US-based Center for Organic Education and Promotion (COEP) and many others are conducting or planning major new research projects comparing organic with conventional foods.

The bottom line
Consumers committed to wellness want to know what is in their food. Organic standards offer them a clear statement. Although many benefits of organic food—no pesticides, no artificial additives, no GMOs, high nutrient content, rich antioxidants and ease on the environment—are deliverable without using organic ingredients, an organic label (requiring at least 95 per cent organic ingredients, according to the new USDA rules) conveys all of these benefits. Functional food manufacturers may therefore increasingly find their competitors marketing organic versions carrying brand or product-specific fact-based marketing claims, and benefiting from continued research that strengthens their messages.

Shane Heaton is a nutrition consultant, author and organic food quality researcher based in Manly, Australia. He spent 10 years in the UK, working with the Soil Association and the Institute of Optimum Nutrition. [email protected]m


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32. Brandt K, Mølgaard JP. Organic agriculture: does it enhance or reduce the nutritional value of plant foods? J Sci Food Agric 2001(81);924-31.

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