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Organic food- a healthier alternative or well-marketed myths?

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UK consumers are buying organic more than ever before with a further climb in sales of organic food and drink this year – this follows six years of growth for the sector. People choose to buy organic for a number of reasons and a healthier diet is often cited as one. However, is faith in the nutritional benefits of organic food misplaced?

Image Source:PexelsThe question of whether organic produce should be seen as some form of health panacea is indubitably contentiou as debate continues to be widespread in the dietetics community. Here, we look at the various nutritional claims surrounding organic produce and dispel the myths based on current scientific understanding.

Claim 1: Buying organic prevents consumption of dangerous levels of pesticides found in regular produce

By definition, organic food is generally understood to be grown without the use of artificial fertilisers or pesticides. However, the claim that it is safer than regular food is weak. Food standards in the UK are so high that by the time a non-organic product reaches the consumer the level of pesticide detected is so low that it is not considered dangerous.

Professor Louise Fresco, author of Hamburgers in Paradise, said at The Hay Festival in Wales: “The chemical composition of the Apple is the same whether it’s an organic apple or not…In Britain and in Europe with the rules we have, we cannot have toxic residues and other pesticides because the pesticide application needs to be long before the harvest so in principle you do not have UK apples that have pesticide residues.”

Claim 2: Organic produce has anti-cancer properties

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There is widespread belief that organic food and drink contains higher levels of antioxidants (anti-cancer properties) than non-organic consumables. However, this has been disputed by a number of leaders in dietetics spheres. The World Cancer Research Fund’s head of research interpretation Michelle McCully comments: “There is currently no strong evidence to support the idea that organic foods offer added protection against cancer compared to conventionally grown produce”.

Current advice for cancer prevention places focus a balanced diet of vegetables, fruits, wholegrains and pulses regardless of whether these foods are conventionally or organically grown – buying organic is certainly not an established mechanism for cancer prevention or treatment based on current scientific understanding.

Claim 3: Organic produce is more nutritious in general

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Several published studies point to general health benefits of choosing organic produce over regular produce. One major study in 2016 provided evidence that organic milk contains 50% more omega-3 fatty acids than ordinary milk – omega-3s are crucial compounds for healthy brain and heart function. Although the study made headlines, there are several features of the report which should be questioned. First, the study was funded by the Sheepdrove Trust, a British charity which supports organic farming – this gives immediate reason to doubt the credibility (and thus the conclusions) of the study.

As well as this, the levels of Omega-3s found in milk are so minimal that the doubled quantity found in organic milk still amounts to little nutritional value – critics of the study have highlighted that you could get many more health benefits by spending your money on fruit and vegetables instead of expensive organic produce.

All in all, the consensus seems to be directed towards denial of organic produce reigning nutritionally supreme over regular food and drink. However, other advantages of choosing an organic lifestyle must not be neglected. One major benefit of organic farming is its lower environmental footprint: it reduces soil erosion, pollution and uses less energy among other advantages. Moreover, organically-raised animals are not fed antibiotics unlike non-organically-raised animals – the practice can lead to hazardous strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria being introduced into the foodchain.

Choosing to buy organic is without a doubt a personal judgment: it is crucial to weigh up the (often conflicting) evidence and make decisions based on your ethical, health and environmental priorities as well as your budget, as organic food is often significantly more expensive than non-organic produce. However, for now, it can be said that the alleged health benefits of buying organic should be at least questioned.

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