Organic products have been growing in popularity over the last 20 years with consumers concerned about their health and the planet. The number of USDA-certified farms in the USA has risen considerably in recent years, from 10,900 in 2008 to over 17,000 in 20211.
But does eating organic have real health benefits? Does organic food really guarantee that there is no exposure to pesticides?
We break down the topic here with nutritionist Anthony Berthou.
What is organic agriculture?
Organic farming limits the use of synthetic chemicals
Organic agriculture limits the use of synthetic chemicals such as pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are artificial substances developed in laboratories and manufactured in factories, often with inputs from the petrochemical industry.
In the United States, Organic farming uses mainly organic substances and only resorts to synthetic substances under strict conditions: when “substance cannot be produced from a natural source and there are no organic substitutes”. All the substances must comply with the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances2. Thus, the substances allowed in organic agriculture are much more limited than those permitted in conventional agriculture. For example, in the European Union, there are 363 commercial products authorized in organic, versus 2,668 in conventional farming3.
Some synthetic substances are extremely problematic for human and environmental health, so they are banned from organic agriculture. Organophosphates, for example, are used as insecticides and act on insects by blocking neurotransmission in the brain. But according to several researchers, they could also cause central and peripheral nervous system dysfunction in humans4. Some of them are also classified by the US EPA and the IARC as probable carcinogens5,6.
These insecticides are also criticized for their impact on biodiversity : studies show toxicity in insects, plants and animals. In addition, these substances can persist for several months in the soil after being spread in the field and contributing to soil acidification and causing loss of fertility7.
However, some natural substances can also be problematic
Some natural substances and naturally derived substances used in organic farming can still be problematic for human health and/or the environment. A symbolic example involves copper-based compounds, and especially Bordeaux mixture, a combination of copper sulfate and lime. This mixture is authorized for organic farming in all countries. The use of copper-based pesticides is problematic for both the environment and public health. On the environmental side, the INRAE (France’s national institute for research in agronomy) reports, among other things, that “excess copper concentrations have known phytotoxic effects on the growth and development of most plants”8. On the health side, this mineral exerts a major pro-oxidative effect, which can lead to damage to our cellular component9.
The European Union has defined a list of 77 substances currently authorized in organic as “candidates for substitution”10. This means that these compounds are of particular concern to public health or the environment, and alternatives must be found. They remain authorized as long as there are no alternative solutions approved by the authorities.
Organic agriculture, therefore, significantly reduces human and environmental exposure to synthetic chemicals. One of the challenges facing organic agriculture today is the identification of alternatives to certain worrisome natural pesticides.
Organic farming also limits the use of additives
Beyond pesticides, organic agriculture also limits the use of additives. In fact, 82 additives are allowed in organic farming in the United States versus more than 500 in conventional farming11. Many highly controversial additives such as tartrazine (E102), BHA (E320) and aspartame (E951) are prohibited in organic products.
What are the different organic labels and their requirements?
There are various labels that impose requirements regarding the organic origin of ingredients and products. However, the specifications vary from one label to another.
The general requirements are the following:
- Substances (agrochemical products and ingredients) must comply with the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances
- Sewage sludge, ionizing radiation or GMO’s are prohibited for crops (no test for GMO residue at several levels of production are required)
- Animals may not be administered antibiotics or hormones
- Animals must be fed 100% organic feed and forage
- Greenhouses are allowed
- A distinct buffer/boundary must exist between organic and non-organic crops
- Animals must be raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors (like the ability to graze on pasture)
There are four different levels within the USDA Organic label, indicating varying levels of organic content and production methods.
- 100% of ingredients and processing aids in processed products must be organic (excluding salt and water)
- Allowed to display USDA Organic seal
- 95% of ingredients and processing aids must be organic (excluding salt and water)
- Remaining 5% elements must be non-agricultural (minerals, agar-agar, etc.) or agricultural if an organic version is not commercially available and must meet the minimal requirements : comply with the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances and exclude methods such as GMO’s and ionizing radiation.
- Allowed to display USDA Organic seal
There are two other levels within the USDA Organic label, but they are not allowed to display the USDA logo on their products. Only the mentions indicated below can be displayed on the products.
Made with Organic Ingredients:
- Processed products that contains at least 70% organic ingredients (excluding salt and water)
- The remaining 30% non-organic ingredients must meet the minimal requirements detailed in the previous section
- These products are not allowed to use the USDA Organic seal
- Processed products that contains less than 70% organic ingredients
- The other non-organic ingredients do not need to meet the minimal requirements (GMO’s are allowed for example).
- These products are not allowed to use the USDA Organic seal
Certified Naturally Grown
The Certified naturally Grown promotes sustainable conditions of production through peer-review certification. It is managed by a private non-profit organization not affiliated with the USDA.
- Based on the exact same organic crop and livestock general requirements as the USDA National Organic Program
- A unique label, no categories based on the percentage of organic ingredients in the products unlike the USDA organic label
- Used for raw agricultural products (fruits, vegetables, meat, honeys, mushrooms, and flowers) sent directly to the consumer
- Label which guarantees minimum paperwork and affordable certification dues for producers
N.B.: The ‘Non-GMO Project‘ label focuses on the absence of genetically modified organisms, and not on the organic aspect of ingredients and products. There is no prohibition to use chemical and synthetic substances or requirements about other aspects of agricultural production.
Eating organic reduces exposure to pesticides
Generally speaking, organic products are never completely free of pesticide contamination, but studies all agree that they contain much lower volumes. As a result, organic products are believed to contain on average 75% fewer pesticides compared to conventionally farmed foods, according to a large meta-analysis published in 2014 in the British Journal of Nutrition12.
Pesticides are now recognized as substances that can cause many diseases. First, most studies show an increased risk of cancer in individuals most exposed to pesticides13-18. The implicated cancers are non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, brain tumors, hormone-sensitive cancers, lung cancer and melanomas.
In addition, numerous studies show a link between exposure to certain pesticides and the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. Research shows that people with high lifetime exposure to pesticides could have a 62% higher risk of developing the disease19. Pesticides are also blamed for an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease20,21 and Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease22-24, as well as for cognitive and anxiety disorders25,26.
For pregnant women, pesticide exposure during pregnancy may also have significant consequences on child development, including a higher risk of premature birth, autism, heart defects, or even metabolic complications in adulthood27-29. Finally, increased exposure to certain pesticides also appears to foster both male and female fertility disorders30.
Organic food also reduces contamination from certain heavy metals
Beyond pesticides, studies also show that organic products are less contaminated by certain heavy metals. The level of cadmium contamination, for example, is almost twice as low in organic products as in conventionally farmed products12. Cadmium contamination is mainly linked to the use of phosphate fertilizers, which are forbidden in organic agriculture.
Cadmium is listed as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1) by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Related cancers are those of the respiratory tract, especially the lung31. It is also suspected of being mutagenic and toxic to reproduction32,33.
Organic food has nutritional benefits
More antioxidants in organic fruits and vegetables
Organically grown fruits and vegetables are 20% to 70% higher in antioxidants than conventionally grown produce, with variable volumes depending on the type of antioxidant12. This is attributable to the fact that a non-chemically treated fruits and vegetables have to defend themselves naturally against external aggressions (drought, parasite attacks, etc.). To adapt to this stress, they will produce more defense molecules, particularly polyphenols, compounds that belong to the antioxidant family.
Switching to a totally organic diet could increase the antioxidant content of the average diet by 20% to 40%, and even 60% for certain antioxidants.
Antioxidants are essential to our health and help protect our cells. They play an important role in preventing cancers, degenerative diseases (multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, etc.) and even cardiovascular diseases (see our post on antioxidants).
More vitamins and minerals in plants
Several studies have also shown higher volumes of certain vitamins and minerals in organic plants. According to these studies, there may be more vitamin C (6% to 27%), iron (21%) and magnesium (29.3%)34,35. Other studies, however, have found little or no difference36,37.
Higher Omega-3 content in animal products
As for meat and milk, studies show that their Omega-3 content increases when they are produced organically, and that their Omega-6 content decreases. Omega-3 fatty acids are extremely beneficial and our intake is currently insufficient: we consume only about 30% of the recommended allowance of Omega-3. More importantly, we currently consume too much Omega-6 (see our post on fats).
On average, organic meat contains 22% more Omega-338. This is a result of the feed given to organic animals, which consume grass or hay instead of soybean meal. As for milk, it may contain up to 56% more Omega-3 according to a meta-analysis of 170 studies39.
Organic food plays a role in preventing many diseases
A broad three-year study of 60,000 people in France known as BioNutrinet showed the benefits of an organic diet on the risks of becoming overweight or obesity and developing diabetes40. According to this study, the people who consumed the most organic food had a lower risk of being overweight: 36% less likely for men and 42% for women. The risk of obesity is reduced by 62% in men and 48% in women.
Furthermore, among the highest consumers of organic produce, the risk of type 2 diabetes was reportedly reduced by 31%41,42. This is because some chemical pesticides are endocrine disruptors linked to the risk of obesity and diabetes.
With regard to cancer risk, the same study concluded that regular consumption of organic foods could reduce the risk of developing cancer by 25%.The risk appears to be significantly reduced for breast cancer in postmenopausal women (-34%) and for lymphoma (-76%). However, the causal link cannot be established on the basis of this study alone, which has certain biases, and these figures need to be confirmed by other studies.
Finally, a study published in 2022 in the Environment International journal associates organic food with a significant reduction in oxidative stress, a phenomenon implicated in many chronic pathologies (neurodegenerative diseases, some cancers, diabetes)43. Researchers believe these results are probably linked to the presence of synthetic pesticide residues in the conventional diet.
Eating organic: the best solution for better health?
Eating organic products has many health benefits. However, this alone is not enough to optimize your health. Consuming organic products should obviously be part of an overall healthy and balanced diet.
Consider the example of processed products such as chips or cookies. The fact that they are organic does not cancel out the fact that they may be far too sweet or salty. Thus, the organic dimension is far from being the only criterion to take into account, especially when purchasing processed foods.
When it comes to unprocessed foods such as fruits, vegetables, meat or dairy products, choosing organic is certainly a better option for your health.
The USDA organic label is a useful starting point for limiting our exposure to pesticides.
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