I have a dirty little secret: I don’t eat organic foods.
I’m often judged when I make this confession and I feel like it’s turned into a little chip on my shoulder. Nothing gets me more defensive when people ask for my reasoning behind my decision. People will accuse me of being ignorant. “Don’t you know better?” is an often heard catch cry as is “why not?” and “don’t you care about your food?!”
I think it’s often assumed that because I’m studying Dietetics then I must eat organic, just like it’s assumed that I don’t drink alcohol or eat sweets (psstt… I do!). I have a fairly strong opinion on the matter of sharing my own food beliefs – you can read more here if you are interested. The crux of my argument is that my way of eating is best for me and me alone, and I shouldn’t feel the need to justify my eating habits.
But back to organic foods. Organically grown foods are foods that are grown without synthetic pesticides or genetically modified components, and are often perceived to be a healthier choice than conventionally grown food. There are many reasons why people may choose or not choose to eat organic. I find there are a lot of misconceptions out there when it comes to organic food and, like a lot of food related things, it is a subject surrounded with much emotion. So let me step you through my reasoning for choosing not to eat organic foods.
It’s not nutritionally superior
This has been exhaustively studied, and yet some people still try this fear mongering tactic. They try and tell me that I’m missing out on valuable nutrients. Luckily for me, this has been extensively studied in the literature.
A 2012 systematic review concluded that the 17 studies in humans and 223 studies of nutrient and contaminate levels “lacked strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.” Similarly, this 2009 systematic review found “no evidence” in a difference between nutrient content of organically and conventionally grown food. Furthermore, a 2011 meta analysis, the most comprehensive of its kind, found “no strong evidence” that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventionally grown food.
In 2014 the Internet was a-flutter when a new meta analysis was published claiming that organic crops, on average, had higher levels of antioxidants than conventional ones. However, as well known health researcher Aaron Carol explains in this video, this study didn’t have any new data to examine, it was just more permissive of the types of studies it deemed of high enough quality for inclusion. He also gives a nice summary of the limitations of antioxidants. As with any research that takes a reductionist approach to nutrition, there are limitations to the conclusion that can be drawn. Looking at only one piece of the puzzle means we can miss out on the bigger picture.
So, I can definitively say no, I’m not missing out on nutrients by choosing conventionally grown food.
It’s not cheaper
This is my main reason for not buying organic produce. I could go down to my local supermarket today and buy a kilo of conventionally grown carrots for $1.90. A kilo of organic carrots is $5.50. I could go a little further a field and go to a Woolworths and get a kilo of “odd bunch” carrots for 94 cents. Research from America, the UK and Australia all lead to the same conclusion – the more time intensive farming practices and smaller businesses significantly contribute to higher prices. I’m a student, I don’t have much money and I simply can’t afford to pay for organic food.
It’s not necessarily more sustainable
Organic farming, while better for the overall health of soil, requires more land and produces less crops than conventional farming. On the other hand, conventional farming practices are quite intensive and can lead to decreased soil fertility and increased salinity, but have higher yields. This is an important fact to consider, when experts predict that the world’s population is set to boom to over 9 billion by 2050. So while conventional farming may not be the best option, organic is not the sole solution, as the nutritional needs of the population may not be met through organic farming alone.
It’s not pesticide free
Well this came as a big surprise to me while I was researching this article! This is THE big trading card of organic food and is often a major influencing factor for people wishing to eat organic. So long as the pesticide isn’t synthetic, its use is permissible in organic farming. In Australia, pyrethrins, light oils, copper and sulphur, and biological substances such as Bacillus thuringiensis, are all approved substances in organic farming.
The use and level of synthetic chemicals in conventionally grown food concerns many people. Synthetic pesticides simply refer to pesticides that are made in a laboratory to ensure their effectiveness. The reality is that synthetic or not, manufacturers must prove the safety of their product before it can be used. In Australia, we monitor levels of reside pesticide on our food and it’s always well below the level the safety level.
When it comes to my own eating, I have weighed the pros and cons of eating organically and have found that the risks (costing me more money) outweigh the benefits (hmm… not many it seems). Someone else might look at this evidence and decide that they actually do want to eat organic foods, and that’s totally okay! It’s fine to want to eat organic food for your own personal reasons, but I feel a line is crossed when the idea that organic is ‘better’ is pushed and I’m shamed for not eating organically (yes, that has happened!). Suggesting that we all have to buy organic fruits and vegetables can put unnecessary stress on people. Needlessly worrying people about the pesticides on their food and telling them to spend more on fruits and vegetables isn’t going to help people be healthy. The reality is you don’t have to eat organic foods to achieve good health. Eating any amount of fresh food and vegetables, organic or not, is better than eating none.