A growing number of people have started opting for organic foods year after year. Annual sales of organic products are growing at nearly 12% each year. In general, these foods are considered to be healthy and safe than their nonorganic counterparts. In the succeeding sections, organic foods and their nutrient contents are compared with nonorganic foods.
Before plunging into a comparison of foods, it is important to know about organic foods. These are foods produced (right at the farm-level) without using antibiotics, hormones or chemicals that are artificially made. These foods are also devoid of any organisms or processes that are genetically modified. As per food safety agencies, organic foods need to be free from chemical additives. A few examples of food additives are flavouring agents, chemicals added to boost colors, preservatives or sweeteners. This list also includes addition of monosodium glutamate (MSG), a chemical added to food for enhancing its taste.
Most commonly bought organic food products are dairy products, meat, grains, vegetables, and fruits. Products grown organically are found to enhance soil fertility as well as help save water – especially groundwater. Enhancement of soil health is achieved through use of natural fertilizers. Animal-based products – i.e., meat and dairy products – are sourced from animals that are fed with only organic feeds. These animals grow without the support of additional hormones, chemicals or any other artificial antibiotics. On the other hand, nonorganic foods are produced by using approaches that rely on the usage of artificial pesticides as well as chemical fertilizers.
So, people who have opted for organic foods do so from their fear of consuming foods laden with chemicals and dangerous pesticides.
Ground rules of organic farming
When it comes to nonorganic foods, a few farming practices are avoided. These are- usage of irradiation to get rid of pests or to stretch the shelf life of farm produce, engineering the genetics of crops to enhance their resistance to attacks of pests as well as to enhance their yields, administration of chemicals – such as antibiotics – for make way for robust growth, usage of sewage as manure, addition of chemical fertilizers, etc.
On the other hand, the following practices are used while producing organic foods. These include- usage of plant rotation approaches to enhance the fertility levels of soil; this is also said to effectively break pest cycles, addition of cover crops to avoid likely erosion of soil, especially of land that is not put to use, usage of mulch to inhibit the growth of weeds, application of natural fertilizers such as compost to enrich the strength of soil, etc. For pest control, organic farming resorts to trapping the pests or enabling the growth of predators (often, predatory insects).
Ways to grow livestock in an organic manner
Livestock farming – done in an organic manner – involves providing animals only with organic feeds, reliance on pasture-based nourishment system letting animals to feed during grazing periods and in general, an outdoor based living condition that paves for healthy growth in natural surroundings.
Processing of nonorganic foods leads to loss of nutrients
There is almost nil processing of organic foods using artificial means. These foods are grown with compost and manure made from cow’s dung. Nonorganic foods run the risk of losing many of their nutrients while being farmed as well as processed. For example, few nonorganic farms use human feces as a substitute for manure. Such practices are strictly not followed in organic farms.
Nonorganic animal products may be from animals which have been injected with growth hormones. These hormones are administered to hasten the growth of animals. Again, organic animal farms rarely resort to such practices. Owing to these basic differences, nonorganic foods are more susceptible to contamination as well as food poisoning.
Are more nutrients found in organic foods?
A few studies done on foods have observed organic foods being rich in many nutrients. The nutrients found in higher proportion include iron, zinc and vitamin C. These are essentially labelled as micronutrients. Apart from these, organic foods are known for their higher share of antioxidants; more than 50% higher in these foods. For example, organically grown corn and berries have been found to contain a higher share of antioxidants, to the tune of more than 55%. Similarly, increase in the quantum of micronutrients is seen at nearly 60%.
With such increased availability of micronutrients and antioxidants, consuming a single serving of organic foods can be equivalent to at least 1.5 times extra servings of such foods. But why do these foods have more amounts of antioxidants? In the absence of artificial fertilizers or hormones, these plants have to protect themselves. An increased presence of antioxidants is one way these plants keep themselves protected from external dangers – such as pests, etc. It is due to this reason there is a sizeable quantum of flavonoids (endowed with rich anti-oxidants) in organic foods.
You may be aware that antioxidants play a critical role in helping you avoid serious autoimmune diseases. Several ailments such as cancer, neuro disorders as well as cardiac problems may be avoided with the addition of needful antioxidants to your diet.
More fatty acids in organic foods
Research done on organic foods has found essential fatty acids may be in higher proportion in organic foods. This is seen not only in farm produced organic foods but also in organic animal products such as dairy, etc. Among such fats, omega-3 fatty acids are observed to be in higher proportion. The sizeable increase in omega-3 fatty acids is due to feeding of cattle with alfalfa and grass.
Lower levels of hazardous substances
Organic foods are seen to possess nitrates in lesser amounts. Plants grown organically possess upto 25% lesser nitrates than nonorganic plants. Nitrates can cause harmful effects such as rendering inability to hold oxygen – especially among newly born babies. Pronounced presence of nitrates is known to trigger risks associated with cancer. Organic foods contain fairly sizeable proportions of carotenoids (a few types), iron and vitamin E. Meat sourced from organic farms have noticeably high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
However, quantum of saturated fats is marginally lower than usually available meat. Dairy products – sourced from organically fed animals – may lack essential minerals. Such products are found to lack iodine and selenium. These are two essential minerals needed for maintaining good health.
Studies done on the differences between organic and nonorganic foods
People consuming organic foods were found to consume more amounts of nutrients; but studies also link this increase to a relatively higher consumption of vegetables. The only parameter where organic foods score very high is the lower levels of nitrates found in them. However, on all other parameters- reviews could only find very little differences. As all input parameters – such as type of soil, climatic conditions, feeds offered to animals, etc. – cannot be monitored in close quarters, many comparative studies are unable to differentiate the benefits effectively.
For instance, cadmium is a natural chemical found in the soil. Organic grains are found to have lesser levels of cadmium than conventional grains. This is mainly attributed to zero usage of chemical fertilizers in organic production of grains. However, this benefit is not so pronounced among organically grown vegetables and fruits.
Animal produce – especially meats – from conventional farms are found to have higher level of bacterial resistance to antibiotics. But in general, odds of contamination through bacteria are almost the same between organic as well as nonorganic foods.
Traces of pesticides are easily detected among nonorganic foods. However, organic foods may also have traces of pesticides due to usage of a few pesticides approved under organic farming. The traces may also be due to a few airborne pollutants.
Differences in taste and appearances
A few studies done on these foods do point out the differences in taste. But, taste is a subjective parameter. Hence, the precise differences in their tastes are not yet scientifically established.
Beyond taste, health enthusiasts prefer organic foods more because of the nutritional benefits such foods are perceived to offer.
People who are regular consumers of organic foods often claim that the appearances of such foods are way too different from nonorganic counterparts. The main reason they state is organic foods have a natural look while nonorganic ones may be looking too very perfect in shape and with brighter colors. These people also state that organic foods are never symmetrical and may even have some oddness – all these clearly differentiate them from nonorganic produce.
In general, organic foods are invariably gaining acceptance all over the world. People who have turned more conscious of their health have switched over to consuming organic foods and associated products.
Labelling of organic foods
US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has issued guidelines and standards for organic foods. If the product is approved, an organic seal of the USDA can be used on the product’s packaging. There are different categories of labels. These are:
– Organic label: This is a label accorded wherein at least 95% of inputs are organic. The list of ingredients however excludes water and salt
– Made with organic label: If at least 70% of the items that go into the product are of organic nature, this label is accorded; such products may however not have an organic seal
– Organic ingredients label: Upon having not more than 70% of ingredients as organic, this label is assigned
But to products which have all their ingredients as organic, 100% organic label is accorded. This can include vegetables, fruits, meats, eggs, etc. This label can also be accorded to foods that bear only one ingredient. However, the type of water and salt used in such products are exempted from scrutiny.
So what can be consumed?
You may be a person who strictly consumes only organic foods. Or, you may be eating both organic as well as conventional foods. Regardless of the type of foods you consume, always remember these points listed below.
– Ensure to purchase vegetables and fruits that grow in the season only. This means, never opt for foods that are either preserved or out-of-season. If such produce is made available to you, they may have been preserved by artificial means or may even be chemically modified
– Clean vegetables and fruits. You can wash, scrub and wipe them clean before consumption. Ensure to use running water as it helps get rid of traces of pesticides as well as other chemicals that may be on the surface of these foods
– Take needful care to read all labels printed on food packaging
– To be in the safer side, buy a variety of products. This can help avoid being exposed to same types of chemicals
World Health Organization (WHO) states nearly 3 million instances of poisoning due to traces of pesticides in foods are recorded every year. This is a big threat for lives in developing nations. Deaths due to poisoning of foods – mainly due to traces of pesticides – have been estimated to have crossed 200,000 each year. Several lifestyle related problems such as respiratory disorders, allergies, etc. are associated with usage of excessive chemicals. In children, these problems can manifest more severely. The problems children and younger adults face can include- stunted growth, hormonal imbalances, cancer, etc. Other health conditions that affect children are loss of energy levels, impairment of memory as well as ill-developed motor function.
Environmental Working Group (EWG) has listed a few foods that are found to have pronounced traces of pesticides. These include grapes, celery, apples, strawberries, spinach, peach, cucumbers, potatoes, sweet bell peppers, etc. Other than these, greens such as collard and kale may also possess significant traces of chemicals in them. You may have to choose between nonorganic and organic versions when it comes to the foods listed here. It is generally considered safe to opt for organic variants of these foods.
So, organic foods are those produced without using hormones, chemicals or antibiotics. Processes that genetically modify the growth of foods do not have a role to play in such foods. Organic foods are also free from food additives. A few examples of food additives are chemicals added to render bright colors, additives blended with foods to enhance their shelf life, etc.
So the next time you shop for groceries, take a look at the food labels and read the items printed on them carefully. Ensure to stay away from nonorganic produce when it comes to certain foods that are generally considered to have high traces of chemicals and pesticides. It is an important task to be done for your health as well as for your overall wellbeing.