Food Science and Nutrition Myths: Is Organic Food Better for Us?

From the Lecture Series: Medical Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths — What We Think We Know May Be Hurting Us

By Professor Steven Novella, MD, Yale School of Medicine

Is organic food better for us? An organic label does not say anything directly about the final product, only about the production method. But does that mean it is inherently healthier?

People Buying Fresh Local Vegetable From a Farmers Market
(Image: Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock)

Health Benefits From Organic Food

A 2010 review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that the last 50 years of research demonstrated there were no significant differences in nutritional value and no health benefits from eating organic food. Even with 50 years of evidence, it wasn’t in many studies. Twelve studies were most important in this review, but the evidence we have so far does not show any health or nutritional advantage.

This is a transcript from the video series Medical Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths: What We Think We Know May Be Hurting Us. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Pesticides

What about organics and pesticides? This is a great example of the bigger issue of natural versus synthetic. Organic farmers claim that natural pesticides are safer and better to use than synthetic pesticides. Many people may be surprised to learn that pesticides can be used at all in organic farming. While there are different philosophies among organic farmers, the regulations allow for the use of pesticides from a list of what are naturally-derived pesticides, but not a list of synthetic pesticides.

Farmer spraying pesticide
(Image: Bannafarsai_Stock/Shutterstock)

The distinction that’s been made is one of natural versus unnatural, not necessarily safe and effective. There is no convincing evidence that current levels of synthetic pesticides that are used in conventional farming pose any health risk. Some residues from these pesticides remain on food. If you are interested in minimizing as much as possible this residue, then organic farming does have fewer pesticide residues on it—according to the research.

However, another option might be thoroughly washing vegetables, which has been shown to significantly reduce the number of pesticides you consume.

Thoroughly washing vegetables has been shown to significantly reduce the number of pesticides. Click To Tweet

This alleged advantage to organic or natural pesticides is based upon its origin but is not necessarily evidence for actual superiority. One example of an organic pesticide is Bt, which derives from the bacillus thuringiensis bacteria. It releases a toxin that kills insects. Interestingly, there are some GM or genetically modified foods that put this gene from the Bt into the crop itself—so it makes its own natural pesticide. Here, we have a combination of organic technology with a genetically modified technology.

Learn more about how the way you cook food affects its nutritional value

Are Organic Pesticides safe?

But, this doesn’t fully answer the question of are organic pesticides better? A 2010 Canadian study comparing several organic pesticides to several synthetic pesticides found that organic pesticides were less effective, particularly at killing insects. Therefore, the farmers had to use higher doses and this had a broader environmental impact. In terms of the environment and amount of pesticides used, the organic pesticides fared worse than the synthetic pesticides.

Dead honey bee on a leaf
Pyrethrins derived from chrysanthemum is very toxic to honeybees. (Image: Photografiero/Shutterstock)

Other organic pesticides that are used included one called Neem, which is a combination of chemicals AZA0 and liminoids. This disrupts the hormone cycle in insects. It is derived from seeds, therefore, it’s natural and okay for organic use, but it is a hormone disrupter and does kill insects. You can also get pyrethrins derived from chrysanthemums—also a natural source. But, this is a very broad spectrum insect toxin. It’s very toxic to honeybees, for example.

When you look at what makes up these organic pesticides, it turns out that the natural source is irrelevant to their chemical activity. The assumption that they are safe, better for the environment, or maybe even safer for human health, is based largely on this “natural” assumption. It seems to be more reasonable to base it simply on what the evidence shows about their chemical activity, how they’re used, and the impact that they have on the environment and human health.

Learn more about common fallacies about the “natural foods” 

Hormones

growth hormone and antibiotics in beef concept
Hormones in animal production can lead to health issues. (Image: HENADZI PECHAN/Shutterstock)

Another concern that comes under the banner of natural being better is the use of hormones in meat production or other animal production such as eggs and milk. There are several kinds of hormones that are given to animals that include endogenous hormones, hormones that animals make for themselves ordinarily—such as estradiol and progesterone—and exogenous steroids, ones that animals do not make for themselves, like zeranol.

Hormones in meat, for example, have been banned in Canada and the European Union based upon alleged health concerns. But, this is based upon theory and on a popular notion that hormones are not safe; it’s not based on any scientific evidence. In the United States and elsewhere, the use of these hormones is carefully monitored and regulated. But, the scientific evidence has been enough to convince regulators that, at certain levels, it is safe for public consumption.

Learn more about myths and half-truths on vitamin use

Antibiotics

Antibiotics are another issue. The use of antibiotics in animals to minimize infection is an example. Whenever you crowd a bunch of animals together, they will spread infections. There are techniques you can use to reduce the need for antibiotics to minimize the risk of disease spread. But, for large industrial purposes, antibiotics are used to prevent infections in the animals. The question that comes up is, are these antibiotics posing any risk or a direct threat to human health?

One concern is that extensive use might increase the risk of bacterial resistance to antibiotics, a legitimate concern. While there does not appear to be any direct harm to humans, it is true that relying on antibiotics and using them heavily in animals does increase the number of bacterial species in the world with resistance to antibiotics. Thus, there may be an indirect concern for human health there.

Common Questions About Whether Organic Food is Better

Q: Is organic food healthier?

Organic food is required to be labeled; however, it was found in studies that most organic foods are as dangerous or more so for the environment than non-organic. There is very little evidence that organic equals more nutritious and while organic animal products are more humanely kept, the vegetables contain as many or more pesticides and both contribute to enormous greenhouse gas emissions

Q: Why is organic food so much more expensive?

Organic food is 10-30% more expensive than non-organic food due to many reasons: the farms are smaller (leading to lower yields); they are more regulated and thus require more money for red tape; they’re less protected from diseases (leading to more yield issues), and they cannot rely on cheap synthetic materials and so must source higher-priced pesticides and equipment.

Q: Why should you eat organic?

Some people feel that you should eat organic, at least meats, because organic meats have far fewer hormones and antibiotics to transfer to you. The vegetables often lack preservatives and use fewer pesticides.

Q: Why are there both regular and organic foods?

Many people believe that organic foods are generally safer and less toxic to eat, and as such, they are in demand. At the same time, non-organic foods are cheaper to produce and so the price is affordable for lower-income families.

This article was updated on June 26, 2020

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