Organic food is often more expensive than non-organic food, although the price difference can vary. For example Tesco Loose Braeburn Apples cost £2.00/kg compared to £2.94/kg for their Organic Braeburn Apples (price correct 08/11/16). There are many different factors as to why people may choose to buy organic food based on the nutritional, environmental and ethical impact. Although I will very briefly mention the other factors, I will focus on whether there is any nutritional basis for switching to organic products.
A meta-analysis (data combined from multiple studies) published in 2014 showed that organic crops contain higher levels of antioxidants, including vitamins C and E, which have been linked to reduced risk of diseases such as cardio vascular disease and certain cancers. The authors of the study found that consumption of organic crops provided an average of 20-40% higher antioxidant intakes than non-organic, equivalent to one or two portions of fruit or veg. However, they did recognise that there is still not much evidence showing that an increase in antioxidant intake actually improves health.
Another meta-analysis in the British Journal of Nutrition looked into the nutritional content of organic vs non-organic cow’s milk. They found that there was no significant difference in saturated and mono-unsaturated fat content. However, there was significantly more omega-3 fatty acid in organic milk.
Omega-3 may protect against heart disease as well as maintaining a good memory. Milk is not one of the richest sources of omega-3, though. Oily fish, such as mackerel and salmon, and nuts and seeds are good sources. So don’t feel that you have to change to organic milk to increase your omega-3 intake. It could be a change that complements other changes to your diet such as those mentioned above.
This interesting study found that people perceived organically labelled processed food such as cookies to be more nutritious than non-organically labelled food, even though the actual food was exactly the same. Participants also hugely underestimated the calorie content of the test food when it was labelled as organic, sometimes by as much as 24%! There is no strong evidence to suggest that the calorie content of organic food is different to its non-organic equivalent.
Regarding concerns about hormones used in dairy farming, hormone growth promotors have been banned for use in dairy farming in the UK, and other forms of hormones are only allowed to be given to cattle if specifically prescribed by a vetinary surgeon. Antibiotic use is also now restricted to reduce the risk of antibiotic resistance. For more information on cattle and dairy regulations in the UK visit: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/cattle-health
From an environmental point of view, organic farming reduces pesticide run-off and contamination of ground water. This reduces the chance of our drinking water being contaminated.
Organic also prohibits the use of genetic modification (GM) technology. However, there is still not a lot of strong evidence to suggest that GM has an effect on our health. It is a relatively new technology so the long term effects cannot really be tested yet.
There is emerging evidence that organic food may be more nutritious, but it is often a decision that people make based on environmental and ethical beliefs as well. Organic food can be a lot more expensive than non-organic so it may be more beneficial to increase your fruit and veg, fish and pulses intake, as part of a healthy diet. There needs to be more research done into whether eating organic food significantly improves your health.
*Please remember that I have written this article as a nutrition student so have focused on the nutritional effects of eating organic food.