A recent report from the European Parliament reviews the existing scientific evidence regarding the impact of organic food on human health. I think this document, (eu-organic-food) is a reasonable summary of the science in this area. The summary can be broken down into 4 key points:
- Very few studies have directly addressed the effect of organic food on human health. They indicate that organic food may reduce the risk of allergic disease and obesity, but this evidence is not conclusive. Consumers of organic food tend to have healthier dietary patterns overall. Animal experiments suggest that identically composed feed from organic or conventional production has different impacts on early development and physiology, but the significance of these findings for human health is unclear.
Meaning: We just don’t have good evidence to support routine use of organic foods.
2. In organic agriculture, the use of pesticides is restricted. Epidemiological studies point to the negative effects of certain insecticides on children’s cognitive development at current levels of exposure. Such risks can be minimised with organic food, especially during pregnancy and in infancy, and by introducing non-pesticidal plant protection in conventional agriculture. There are few known compositional differences between organic and conventional crops. Perhaps most importantly, there are indications that organic crops have a lower cadmium content than conventional crops due to differences in fertiliser usage and soil organic matter, an issue that is highly relevant to human health
My take. A 2014 review concluded that “the frequency of occurrence of pesticide residues was found to be four times higher in conventional crops, which also contained significantly higher concentrations of the toxic metal Cadmium”
The review also concluded that ” the concentrations of a range of antioxidants such as polyphenolics were found to be substantially higher in organic crops/crop-based foods…… phenolic acids, flavanones, stilbenes, flavones, flavonols and anthocyanin.”
3. Organic milk, and probably also meat, have a higher content of omega-3 fatty acids compared to conventional products, but this is not likely to be nutritionally significant in light of other dietary sources.
My take. I disagree. I wrote about why I only consume full-fat dairy products that are “organic” and come from grass-fed cows here. There are a lot of benefits, beyond increased omega-3 fatty acids, in consuming dairy that comes from cows that eat grass versus corn and are treated properly.
4. The prevalent use of antibiotics in conventional animal production is a key driver of antibiotic resistance. The prevention of animal disease and more restrictive use of antibiotics, as practiced in organic production, could minimise this risk, with potentially considerable benefits for public health.
My take. I agree. Cut out the antibiotics. Other countries seem to be able to do this.
I would also agree with the conclusion of The Lancet’s editorial comment (Organic Food: Panacea for Health?) on the EU paper:
Large, prospective, long-term studies are needed as well as deeper examination of agricultural policy and health. Much still rests on the provision of robust multidisciplinary research to guide future food choices for health.
Until we get such studies, I will be erring on the side of caution and consuming food with the least amount of pesticides, cadmium and antibiotics possible.