Health-Related Value of Organic Food
Organic food has been becoming more popular. Not only do upscale supermarkets Whole Foods carry entirely organic products, but discount giant stores Walmart also started putting more of them on their shelves. Groceries are expanding their organic segments in response to the growing demand of consumers. On the other side, consumers choose organic food for several reasons, and one of the main reasons is its health-related value. Because people tend to think that organic food is more nutritious and safer than conventional food, they are willing to pay higher prices for organic food. However, scientific research finds no clear evidence to prove that organic food is healthier than conventional food. Most of studies found no significant differences in nutritional values between organic and conventional food.
The handout “Organic Production and Handling Standards” of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides a brief definition of organic food based on the methods approved by the department. These methods include “cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity,” and may not include synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering. In the introduction of organic products on its website, Whole Food more intricately defines organic food through practices in agricultural and livestock management and food processing:
Agricultural management practices . . . promote healthy ecosystems and prohibit the use of genetically engineered seeds or crops, sewage sludge, long-lasting pesticides, herbicides or fungicides. Livestock management practices . . . promote healthy animals by providing organically-grown feed, fresh air and outdoor access while using no antibiotics or added growth hormones. Food processing practices . . . protect the integrity of the organic product and disallow irradiation, genetically modified ingredients (GMOs) or synthetic preservatives.
Organic food is theoretically subject to stringent producing procedures preserving the environment, ensuring food safety, and keeping food authentically organic even in processing practices.
Because farmers utilize better practices to produce organic food, more people prefer organic food, and the trend is growing exponentially. According to the article “U.S. Consumers Across the Country Devour Record Amount of Organic in 2014” of Organic Trade Association (OTA), which is a membership-based organization representing more than eight thousand organic businesses in America, organic sales in the United States reached 39 billion dollars in 2014, and organic food sales claimed almost 36 billion dollars, which is 5 percent of total food sales, compared to 3.4 billion dollars equivalent to less 1 percent of total food sales in 1997. The dominators of organic food sales are still fruits and vegetables constituting 13 billions dollars and 36 percent of total organic food sales. Besides the traditional distributor of organic food Whole Foods, the nation’s biggest grocer Wal-Mart is expanding its organic food sector with the promise to sell organic and conventional at the same prices. Wal-Mart officially announced its collaboration with Wild Oats, a popular brand in organics, to bring affordable organic products to its customers. Wild Oats is able to keep their products’ prices low in manufacturing and distribution chain because it makes good use of the economic scales of Wal-Mart. The quick increase of organic food sales in recent years and the expansion of organic food in grocery chains prove the growing trend of consuming organic food. Therefore, organic food becomes more and more important in our daily life. Everyone either consumes organic food or knows someone choose organic food.
Companies claim many benefits of consuming organic food, and one of these benefits is health-related value. People often think organic food is more nutritious and safer than conventional food. In promoting organic food, OTA emphasizes that organic food has more nutrients, such as Vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus, and less nitrates and pesticide residues than conventional food. However, a meta-analysis conducted by Crystal Smith-Spangler and her colleagues in Stanford University shows that evidence is insufficient to determine the health benefits of organic food. The analysis obtained data from prominent sources, such as MEDLINE (from 1966 to 2011), EMBASE, CAB Direct, Agricola, TOXNET, and Cochrane Library (from 1966 to May 2009). It selected English-written reports comparing organic and conventional food and examining populations consuming these two kinds of food.
After analyzing the data, they found that organic produce contains 30 percent less pesticide than conventional produce (358). However, this 30-percent difference has uncertain impact on human health because despite being higher than that in organic food, the amount of pesticide in conventional food may not exceed safety limits and thus can still be acceptable (358). Therefore, even though conventional food contains more pesticide, it can still be as safe as organic food. Nevertheless, one study shows that children who eat organic food for 5 days have notably less pesticide residue in their urine, which is consistent with the authors’ findings among other food studies (358). Because children’s bodies are not fully developed and thus more susceptible to physical damage by pesticide, organic food can be healthier for children.
Moreover, the analysis found that both conventional and organic animal products regularly contain harmful bacteria, such as Salmonella and Campylobacter species, and this report is in agreement with the published reports of U.S. retail meat samples (358). One study in the analysis shows that manure used as fertilization in some organic farms increases the risk for contamination with E. coli (358). While conventional farms use synthetic fertilization to grow their produce, organic farms uses manure as more natural fertilization. In their attempts to make their farming more natural, some organic farms unintentionally spread more harmful bacteria to consumers. Within this aspect, some organic food is less healthy than conventional food.
Also in the authors’ findings, conventional chicken and pork have higher bacteria-resistant rates to 3 or more antibiotics than organic alternatives, which can be explained by the regular use of antibiotics in the animal husbandry of conventional farms (358). Nevertheless, the relation between the use of antibiotics for livestock and antibiotic-resistant bacteria in human bodies are unclear, and the main cause of antibiotic-resistant diseases in humans is their improper use of antibiotics (358). Thus, even though conventional food contains greater bacteria resistance to antibiotics than organic food, it still may not have negative impacts on human health.
Many people choose organic vegetables more than any other organic products. In another research by a group of scientists in Belgium, the authors concluded that in terms of public health concerns, organic vegetables are not more favorable than conventional alternatives due to insufficient evidence (Hoefkens 3065). A particular result of the study shows that organic lettuce contains more nitrate than their conventional alternatives (Hoefkens 3065). Exceeding intake of nitrate causes blue baby disease in infants. However, the European Food Safety Authority’s Contaminants Panel asserts: “the beneficial effects of eating vegetables and fruit outweigh potential risk to human health from exposure to nitrate through vegetables” (Hoefkens 3065). Moreover, the study found that most organic consumers consume more vegetables and fruits than conventional consumers, and this habit is more valuable than the kinds of vegetables consumers choose (Hoefkens 3065). Therefore, if people consume enough conventional vegetables, they still receive positive health effects. They may not needs to organic vegetables to significantly improve their health. Furthermore, the authors also go further to emphasize public education on food choice “instead of the farming system by which the vegetables are produced” because a great number of individuals do not consume enough vegetables (3065). While consuming enough vegetables is the first priority, organic vegetables still have similar values to conventional alternative in terms of public health.
As organic food becomes more ubiquitous, people think it is healthier than conventional food and are willing to pay extra money for it. However, scientific studies have insufficient evidence to promote organic food among the public. Although children can benefit more from organic food because it contain less pesticide, in a broader spectrum, conventional food can provide the same health benefits organic food does. People have rights to choose what they eat. Organic consumers have other reasons to uphold their belief, such environmental care. However, one thing people should learn from organic consumers is their habit, which is the adequate consumption of vegetables and fruits.