The organic movement is alive and kicking! Walk into any supermarket and you’ll find a spate of organic products, ranging from fresh produce to cleaning supplies. Naturally, these products come at a cost--usually around 40% more than their conventional counterparts . The question is: are organic products worth the extra moula or have we been sucked-in by the hype? Admittedly, I don’t know much about cleaning products but I know a thing or two about food.
Organic is a term given to foods that are free from pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, hormones, antibiotics, and artificial colors, flavors and preservatives. That is, "organic" denotes real food.
From a nutrient standpoint, organic and conventional produce are relatively comparable. Organic fruit and veg may contain more vitamin C and anti-oxidants, and in some cases (e.g. milk, fish), omega-3 fatty acids.
Pesticides & Your Health...
Things tend to come un-stuck when we start talking about pesticides. Pesticides lurking in our food supply have been implicated in brain and central nervous system disruption, infertility, and several forms of cancer . These effects tend to be magnified in children whose smaller body size and rapid growth make them particularly susceptible to the harmful effects of agricultural chemicals. Pesticide exposure at a young age has been linked to lower IQ, impaired memory and perceptual reasoning, and ADHD [1,2].
Are the levels in fruit and veg enough to cause damage? The paucity of data on chronic, low-grade exposure to pesticides makes it difficult to draw conclusions. Washing and peeling can reduce the pesticide content of fresh produce however some chemicals are absorbed systemically as the crop grows and matures. The Environmental Working Group found that 65% of produce contained at least one pesticide, despite washing or peeling .
What About Antibiotics & Hormones?
Another well-documented controversy is the use of antibiotics and hormones in animal products. Farm animals are treated with antibiotics to mitigate the effects of crowded conditions and the use of non-traditional feeds such as corn. This has spawned a host of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria in our food supply, which are particularly worrisome for the young, elderly and immune-compromised .
Hormones, on the other hand, are injected into cattle (and sometimes sheep) to promote growth and milk production. Growth hormones and sex steroids have been cited as a potential culprit for early-onset puberty in girls and cancer (particularly of the breast, uterus and colon). The EU has banned the use of hormones in beef however many countries, including Australia and the US, continue to use hormones in beef (but not poultry). Again, this is a grey area of nutrition. It’s unclear whether or not the amount of hormone and steroids used in beef is substantial enough to elicit damage in humans .
The Bottom Line...
- Choose organic fruit, veg and animal products, where possible, particularly if you have little ones. To learn more about the fruit and vegetables with the most and least pesticide residues click here.
- If you choose conventional produce, wash thoroughly before consuming.
- Choose organic anti-biotic and hormone-free (organic) animal products, where possible
- If you choose conventional animal products such as meat, poultry and eggs, be sure to cook thoroughly to minimize your risk of food-borne illness. For temperature guidelines to prevent food-borne illness click here.
- Choose grass-fed beef over corn fed to further reduce your risk of anti-biotic resistant food-borne illness.
Whether or not you choose organic or conventional produce is ultimately your choice. The evidence for either side of the fence remains cloudy. Regardless, both organic and conventional produce offer a host of nutrients advantageous for human health and should feature more frequently on your plate than the highly processed, pseudo-foods that have come to dominate today’s food supply.
 Organic foods: health and environmental advantages and disadvantages. Forman J, Silverstein J; Committee on Nutrition; Council on Environmental Health; American Academy of Pediatrics. Pediatrics. 2012 Nov;130(5):e1406-15.
 Pesticide exposure in children. Roberts JR, Karr CJ; Council On Environmental Health. Pediatrics. 2012 Dec;130(6):e1765-88.
 EWG's Shoppers Guide To Pesticides In Produce. Environmental Working Group. April 2014.