Is organic food healthier?

2017-03-01 06:01
 Photo:supplied It appears that diets with more organic produce may expose consumers to fewer pesticides.

Photo:supplied It appears that diets with more organic produce may expose consumers to fewer pesticides.

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The majority of consumers who purchase organic food perceive it to be healthier, but is it really worth spending up to 40% more on what could be essentially the same product?

What is organic food?

Organic farming involves growing fresh produce without synthetic pesticides, chemicals and genetic engineering, and raising livestock without growth hormones and antibiotics. According to the International Foundation for Organic Agriculture (IFOA), it is a farming method that prides itself in strengthening the health of soils and our ecosystems. In a local study on Gauteng consumers’ purchasing behaviour, one in three respondents reported buying organic food at some point during the month. The majority of consumers who purchased organic food perceived it to be healthier.

Organic food in SA

South African organic produce includes various cereals, vegetables (mostly asparagus and potatoes), herbs, spices, fruits (largely bananas, pears and mangos), avocados, nuts and rooibos tea. Organic wine and olive oil are also produced, and organic dairy farming is increasing all over the country. In South Africa, according to estimates by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries there are currently 250 organic farms in the country, which account for only 0.05 % of the country’s total farming area.

Despite growing popularity, to date South Africa does not as yet have an official certification system for organic farming and organic farming is not held to strict standards by law. This lack of regulation makes the SA consumer vulnerable to misleading claims by bogus organic fresh produce suppliers.

Is it more nutritious?

The primary argument for going organic is that organic food is healthier, containing more and higher levels of nutrients than non-organic foods.

This is supported by the mentioned Gauteng-based study. Interestingly, while it may be argued that organic food is healthier because of fewer pesticides or has less of an impact on the environment (though this too is highly questioned), at this point, there does not appear to be convincing evidence of a substantial difference in nutritional quality of organic compared to traditional produce.

In two large reviews of the research done to date, the authors concluded in both cases that there is little evidence of nutrition-related health benefits from the consumption of organically produced food. There are no disease-promoting benefits deriving from eating an organic diet. On the flip side, there are also no detrimental or negative health effects from an organic diet.

Fresh produce like fruit and vegetables is the most commonly purchased organic food.

While there have been small differences in nutrient levels demonstrated by some studies, this may simply relate to differences in the way the produce is grown. It is likely that the nutrient content of fresh produce is affected by a variety of factors such as the geographic location of the farm, local soil characteristics, climatic conditions which vary seasonally, the maturity of the produce when picked, and how the produce is stored.

Research has also shown that milk from organically raised cows has the same protein, vitamin, antioxidant and fat content compared to conventionally raised cows.


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