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Organic assumptions: Looking beyond the label

March 7, 2014

For many, the “organic” label is synonymous with better health, higher nutrient value lower calories and a premium price to match. But are organic products actually better for us? Are they worth the additional cost?

Let’s consider fresh produce. By law, organic means no pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics, unnecessary hormones or radiation use during the growing, raising or processing of the food. Organic products are more sustainable, and in theory, they contain fewer chemicals that can be harmful to our health. This idea seems to imply that any non-organic fruit or vegetable is full of synthetic chemicals. However, some crops are naturally resistant to disease. Additionally, peeling foods automatically discards many contaminants. The Environmental Working Group maintains a list of the “cleanest” and “dirtiest” fruits and vegetables according to their residue contamination levels. Reading and acting on this allows you to prioritize organic purchases. Note that products do move up and down this list, so it’s worth checking annually.

It is commonly believed that organic foods have a higher nutrient status. This is difficult to measure consistently, as non-organic foods may be altered with additional nutrients, whereas organic produce relies solely on the soil they are grown in. The outcomes of studies that measure this vary, and are ultimately inconclusive. A better guarantee of nutrient levels could be achieved by buying local produce that has been harvested when ripe and sold within the week.

Organic meats are sought for lower contamination and better nutrient status as well as a consideration for animal welfare (“free range” and “natural” refer to animal treatment but do not indicate that products are organic.) The nutrient status does seem to be more favorable for organically raised animals when looking at beneficial fatty acids (good fats) and non-vitamin or mineral nutrients such as enzymes. However, be watchful of subsequent processing, especially in dairy products where the heat treatment necessary for pasteurisation can also affect the quality of the milk. Questions need to be asked about the slaughtering process and conditions. There is no point paying for organic meat if it then becomes contaminated after slaughter.

In conclusion, it is unwise to assume that an organic label equals low in calories or healthy. An organic cookie is not necessarily lower in calories, fat or sugar than a conventional one. In theory, it should boast more nutrients due to less processing, but this means it may also contain more calories via natural fats that were not removed during processing.

There are many reasons that people choose organic, and the topic is too complex to fully discuss here. However, I hope I’ve provided you with enough information to make informed decisions about what you spend your money on.

Julie Godfrey BSc (Hons) is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner and full member of the British Association of Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT) and the Complementary Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC). See www.foreverhealthyco.com or email jgodfrey@foreverhealthyco.com

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