Organic food may enjoy the “health halo” effect but few understand why it’s considered healthier than conventionally grown food.
In fact, many people are skeptical that organic food has any additional health benefits and assume that “organic” is just another word for expensive.
So, is it worth paying more for an organic label, or is it just another marketing ploy?
Counting the Costs
There are standards behind the use of the organic label, and depending on the country, they are often legally enforced.
When a product is certified as organic, it signifies that inspectors have ensured its farmers or producers have adhered to the certification’s list of restrictions on synthetic pesticides, chemicals, antibiotics and growth hormones.
“[Organic farmers] need to be paid a little more for the risks they take,” Martina Bin, Eat FRESH
Aside from the cost of certification—which is not cheap—there are several other reasons why organic food can be more expensive, according to Martina Bin, managing director of Eat FRESH—a home delivery service in Hong Kong that works with many local organic farmers.
“Farmers need to use fertilizers that are more expensive than conventional ones,” she explains.
“They are also exposed to all the risks of growing organic because crops can be infested by pests and die—and that’s a real loss for the farmers,” Bin says.
“So they need to be paid a little more for the risks they take.”
Organic vegetable producers manage fertility with cover crops, compost, bone meal, blood meal and liquid fertilizers from plant material; while conventional producers apply manure and synthetic fertilizers to their land.
Bin also points to crop rotation—a practice in which different crops are grown on the same plot of land in sequenced seasons to help reduce soil erosion and increase soil fertility and crop yield.
Because of this practice, organic farmers lose income when the land has to rest and will produce fewer crops over a two-year period from an acre of land than conventional farmers.
Organic farmers depend on the price premium for organic goods to achieve the same or similar profits.
In some cases—such as that of almond production—pest and disease problems can reduce organic yields further, by 50 to 80% of conventional yields. Another impact on pricing.
Higher labor costs also come in to play with the practice of hand weeding, compared to the use of herbicides in the conventional system.
Producers of organic livestock and poultry, meanwhile, must provide housing that complies with indoor density requirements and may need additional land for grazing and pay higher feed costs. They also face potential losses to death and illness because of restrictions on antibiotic use.
As a result, organic farmers depend on the price premium for organic goods to achieve the same or similar profits.
What about organic food in Hong Kong? Click here to learn more about local certification efforts.
Vitamins, Minerals and … Pesticides?
One of the main health reasons people choose to eat organic produce is to avoid the questionable chemicals used in conventional farming.
For example, commonly used herbicides (weed killer) contain glyphosate, which was found to be a “probable human carcinogen” by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2015.
Exposure to pesticides has been linked to ADHD in children as well as reduced sperm quality in men.
Several follow-up studies, including one by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), dispute the WHO claim.
They did, however, find glyphosate to have potential for effects on birds, mammals and plants.
Pesticides are also heavily used in conventional farming for insect control to attain higher yields, better quality, improved productivity and a reduction in crop losses.
An EPA study found worldwide pesticide usage, including herbicides, totaled almost 6 billion pounds in 2012, or just over 1 pound per person.
According to a 2017 report to the United Nations, pesticides are responsible for 200,000 acute poisoning deaths each year, with around 1 million hospitalizations—with the greatest problems in developing countries.
Exposure to pesticides has also been linked to ADHD in children as well as reduced sperm quality in men.
Is Organic Produce Free From Toxins?
With the overwhelming prevalence of synthetic pesticides, can organic farmland really remain untouched by toxins in the environment?
According to a 2014 report in The British Journal of Nutrition, organic crops have a lower incidence of pesticide residues than non-organic crops.
They are also 48% less likely to contain cadmium, a toxic heavy metal that accumulates in the liver and kidneys.
We don’t want to be overly dramatic though: Stanford University scientists have pointed out that almost all produce sold in the U.S. already contains less than the maximum allowed by the EPA.
The greatest benefit for organic food in this case would apply to pregnant women, young children and elderly people with chronic health problems.
What Makes Animal Products Organic?
Meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products designated organic must come from animals that are given no antibiotics and growth hormones.
While antibiotics can protect against illness and growth hormones can help animals grow faster and larger, many believe these substances can make their way to our bloodstream when we ingest treated animal products.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates one in five cases of antibiotic-resistant infections are caused by germs from food and animals, whereby resistant bacteria in animals given antibiotics spreads to food products and the environment.
The use of growth hormones in livestock, especially beef, has likewise been controversial over the years.
The European Union in 1989 banned the import of U.S. meat that contained artificial growth hormones due to health concerns. The ban was later amended, then ruled against in 1997 by the World Trade Organization Dispute Settlement Body when it was deemed there was not enough scientific evidence.
Nevertheless, an increase in hormone-dependent cancers, including of the breast, ovaries and prostate, has been linked to increasing consumption of beef in Japan.
Hormones in milk have also been blamed for early puberty among American youth, but recent studies have refuted the claims and instead put the cause as a rise in obesity rates.
What’s the Big Difference?
Aside from choosing organic food in order to avoid ingesting certain substances, many consumers choose organic because they believe it’s more nutritious. And there have been studies that support this theory.
A 2016 study published in The British Journal of Nutrition found that organic meat and dairy products can have about 50% more omega-3 fatty acids (an unsaturated healthy fat) than conventional products, perhaps due to the livestock’s grass-fed diet and greater time spent outdoors.
A six-year study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry also found that organic onions had about a 20% higher antioxidant content than conventionally grown onions.
Critics, however, pointed out that the study was limited to one aspect of phytochemicals and that if researchers chose to measure a different vitamin or mineral, the results may have been different.
After analyzing 237 studies of produce, meat and dairy products in 2012, researchers from Stanford University found “little significant difference in health benefits between organic and conventional foods.”
They concluded the reasons for buying organic are determined more by budget, taste preferences and concerns about the effects of conventional farming practices.
A Matter of Choice
With the jury still out on whether it is in fact better for you, choosing to pay more for organic food is ultimately a personal decision.
Martina Bin notes that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, especially in a city as diverse as Hong Kong when it comes to household size, income levels and health concerns.
“Everybody needs to look at [their own] priorities. I would say prioritize the type of food that you want to have organic,” she says.
“For example, I don’t mind buying thick-skinned fruits that aren’t organic because farmers don’t have to worry about pests and don’t need to use chemicals when growing them.”
Bin also suggests checking the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen guide (see below) that details the conventionally grown produce with the highest levels of pesticide residue.
The list, which is updated each year, also has a companion Clean Fifteen with the produce found to have the lowest amount of residues.
At the end of the day, choosing organic is just part of the bigger picture when it comes to being well fed.
While eating organic alone doesn’t automatically equate to a better diet, it’s worthwhile considering your individual health concerns and the substances you want to avoid, whether that’s pesticide residue or antibiotic-resistant bacteria, as well as the type of farming you and your family want to support.