There is no evidence proving that organic food is any healthier than conventionally grown options, a Harvard University professor claims.
Organic foods, valued at over $75 billion, have long been touted as superior to conventionally grown foods, with some studies claiming they have added health properties and can ward off disease.
More than two-thirds of Americans believe these foods, which claim to be grown with fewer pesticides and often cost significantly more than regular food, are healthier.
However, Dr Robert Paalberg, professor in the Sustainability Science Program at Harvard University, said that evidence suggesting organic food is more nutritious is unreliable, and consuming fewer pesticides may not have an impact on health.
‘There is no reliable evidence showing that organically grown foods are more nutritious or safer to eat,’ he said.
‘If we follow science, organic food loses its apparent advantage.’
In order to be considered organic by the USDA, foods have to have been grown on soil that contains none of its prohibited substances for at least three years prior to harvest
Dr Robert Paalberg, professor in the Sustainability Science Program at Harvard University, said that evidence suggesting organic food is more nutritious is unreliable, and consuming fewer pesticides may not have an impact on health
Dr Paalberg pointed to a 2012 review from Stanford University, which looked at 237 studies on organic food. The researchers found no convincing differences in nutrients or health benefits between organic and conventional foods.
The main difference was that organic foods had fewer pesticides.
Dr Dena M Bravata, senior study author, said at the time of publication: ‘There isn’t much difference between organic and conventional foods if you’re an adult and making a decision based solely on your health.’
Organic foods still use pesticides, but per the US Department of Agriculture, they are mostly restricted to natural sources, like copper and sulfur, whereas conventional produce can use synthetic pesticides.
However, organic farmers still have restricted access to 25 synthetic pesticides, whereas conventional farming can use more than 900.
Dr Paalberg said that banning synthetic pesticides from organic foods doesn’t have any health benefits.
‘The organic ban on synthetic chemicals also fails to improve food safety in the US, since the use of pesticides is now significantly regulated in conventional farming (insecticide use today is 82 percent lower than it was in 1972), and because produce in supermarkets has been washed to remove nearly all of the chemical residues that might remain,’ he said.
What is organic food?
The term ‘organic’ refers to how certain foods are produced.
In order to be labelled ‘organic’ foods have been grown and farmed without the use of:
- Artificial chemicals
- Genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
Organic foods range from fresh produce, dairy products and meats.
But also includes processed food such as crackers, drinks, and frozen meals
The market for organic food has significantly expanded since the late 20th century, and has become a multibillion dollar industry.
He pointed to a 2021 USDA analysis of pesticide residues on more than 10,000 conventional food samples. It found that more than 99 percent of samples had residues that were safely below the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) tolerance levels, which are one in one hundred parts of exposure.
‘Food scientists at the University of California, Davis, conclude from such surveys that the “marginal benefits of reducing human exposure to pesticides in the diet through increased consumption of organic produce appear to be insignificant,”‘ Dr Paalberg said.
In order to be considered organic by the USDA, these foods have to have been grown on soil that contains none of these prohibited substances for at least three years prior to harvest.
Organic meat regulations require animals be raised in conditions that accommodate their natural behaviors- such as grazing in a pasture- fed 100 percent organic, and not be administered any antibiotics or hormones.
Still, about 40 percent of Americans believe at least some of the food they eat is organic, according to Pew Research data. And 68 percent believe organic food is healthier than conventionally grown options.
This could be due to organic food’s higher price tag, as well as some studies that suggest it could be healthier.
For example, in 2018, a French study in JAMA Internal Medicine showed that among 70,000 adults, those who consumed organic food had 25 percent fewer cancers than those who never ate organic.
Two years earlier, a meta-analysis in the British Journal of Nutrition found that organic meat and milk provided 50 percent more omega-3 fatty acids, which are vital for brain and heart health, than non-organic products.
Dr Paalberg suggested Americans may be more drawn to organic food because they think it supports smaller farmers, but this isn’t the case.
‘Many consumers continue to think organic foods come from small local farms, but most now come from distant industrial farms. By one estimate in 2014, only 8 percent of organic sales in the U.S. were still being made by small farmers through farmer’s markets or through community-supported agriculture,’ he said.
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