The reasons are numerous. Fitness buffs may buy organic greens for their morning smoothie because they want the extra antioxidants. Mothers may want to shield their children from higher levels of pesticides, and environmentalists may buy organic to support a healthier planet. Whatever the personal reason is, there is some concrete science out there that shows us why – as consumers – we are better off buying the big “O.”
Health: Antioxidants and Omega 3’s
Although there are many claims that exist about the health benefits of organic, there are a few scientifically tested ones that you should keep in mind. According to the most thorough study done to date, organic food is found to have lower levels of toxic metals and more antioxidants than their conventional counterparts – on average between 19-69% more antioxidants per serving. Similarly, a study released this year found that organic meat and milk products may contain as much as 50% more omega-3 fatty acids than conventional products. In other words, by switching to organic from your conventional options, you get more beneficial compounds that are linked to heart and neurological health, and can reduce your risk of chronic diseases.
The pesticide issue is a hotly debated topic – while some pesticides are linked to certain adverse health effects, even conventional produce has to stay under regulated safety limits for pesticide residues. But with that in mind, science has found that pesticide residue on conventionally grown fruits and vegetables is much higher than organic produce, including certain levels of toxic metals like cadmium – which has been linked to health issues like kidney and liver failure. While these higher levels are still under the safety limits, eating organic reduces your exposure. This is especially important to note for children, and studies have found that the levels of pesticides in children’s bodies can drop dramatically after just a few days of eating organic.
Any food labeled “organic” has to follow strict guidelines in the U.S. This includes restricted use of food additives, processing aids (substances used during processing, but not added directly to food) and other chemicals including preservatives, artificial sweeteners, colorings, flavorings, and MSG. Science is increasingly telling us to stay away from preservatives. As a general rule, the more food is processed and preserved, the more it loses its nutritional value, and the more it can contribute to health issues, even increasing risk of cancer.
Organics also limit the “additives” that can be used in dairy products and meat. Organically raised animals and dairy cows are not given antibiotics, growth hormones, or fed animal byproducts. The use of antibiotics in conventional meat production helps create antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, which is becoming an increasing global health concern.
Traditional agriculture has a lot of negative impacts on the environment: it relies heavily on inputs like fertilizers and pesticides, which require a lot of fossil fuels to produce, and pollutes local ecosystems and water. Organic agriculture takes a different approach – farmers rely on plant diversity, nitrogen fixing plants, and natural inputs like compost to control pests pests and soil fertility. They don’t use any pesticides or chemicals, which can otherwise remain in the air and soil for decades, if not longer. There are also other benefits like water conservation and decreased erosion. In general, studies, including one by the Rodale Institute in 2011, emphasize the ecological benefits of organic, and urge consumers to switch for the long term health of the planet.
While much more needs to be done to protect farm animals on organic farms, organic agriculture does have certain benefits for animals that exceed conventional agricultural standards. For one, organic farming helps preserve more natural habitats, which is good for insects, birds, fish and all sorts of other animals that are allowed to coexist with organic agriculture. Organic also encourages birds and other natural predators to live on farmland to assist in natural pest control. In addition, animals on organic farms are generally exposed to chemical free grazing – which makes them naturally health and resistant to illnesses.