Unless you’ve been lost in a kale field for the last 10 years, you’ve no doubt heard a lot about ‘organic’ produce.
But is it all hype, or is there truth to the claims that organic fruit and vegetables are better for you?
What’s the difference?
Before answering that question, it helps to understand the difference between organic and conventionally-grown fruit and vegetables.
Organic food is grown without using synthetic chemicals such as pesticides and artificial fertilisers. Organic farmers don’t use genetically modified components or expose food to irradiation.
However, organic foods aren’t necessarily chemical-free. They may be grown on land that has chemical residue from previous farming. But the pesticide residues in organic food are much lower than those in foods produced with synthetic chemicals.
It’s also important to know that the term ‘organic’ isn’t regulated in Australia, explains Maria Packard, an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia.
For food to be certified as organic, it has to be assessed by one of several organisations that are accredited by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. Many organic producers choose to be certified to substantiate their labelling claims.
Does it matter for your health?
Although widely promoted, the health benefits of organic food are yet to be proven, according to a review summarising the existing evidence published in Environ Health last October.
This review indicated a lower risk of childhood allergies, adult overweight/obesity and non-Hodgkins lymphoma in people who ate organic food. However, organic eaters tend to have healthier lifestyles, so these differences can’t necessarily be attributed to the organic food.
With regard to nutrients, this review confirmed little difference between organic and conventional crops, with modestly higher levels of phenolic compounds – which have antioxidant properties – in organic fruit and vegetables.
Is the price worth it?
The answer to this depends on your reasons for buying organic. If you want to minimise your exposure to pesticides, organic might be the way to go. But if you’re hoping to squeeze in more nutrients, the evidence is not convincing.
“Overall, organic and conventionally-grown foods can provide all the nutrients required when included in a healthy balanced diet,” Packard explains. “Like any purchase, buying food is a personal choice – often based on a number of factors, including availability, affordability, taste and environmental concerns. At this stage, whether to buy organic or conventionally-grown food really comes down to personal preference.”
She recommends washing your fruit and vegetables thoroughly before eating them, to help remove any residues or bacteria that may be left on the outside of the food.
But Packard notes that the level of chemical residue allowed in foods is carefully regulated. “This means that all food sold in Australia is safe to eat, regardless of whether it is organic or not.”