Are Organic Foods Really Healthier?

Are organic foods healthier?

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Many of us choose to eat organic foods whenever we get the chance. In the process, we contribute to an industry that now exceeds $30 billion annually in the US alone. That figure accounts for 4 percent of all retail food sales!

So what does “organic” mean when it comes to our food? A plant or animal food is considered organic if it is grown without synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, hormones, or the routine use of antibiotics. It also must be processed without irradiation or chemical additives and cannot have been genetically modified.

Are Organic Foods Worth It?

Eating organic comes at a high cost: Organic foods can be twice as expensive as conventional equivalents. Does it make any sense to spend all that money? A recent report in the Annals of Internal Medicine attempted to answer this question. After examining hundreds of previous investigations into organic foods, the researchers found:

  • No difference between organic and conventional foods in almost every level of vitamin and nutrient
  • No difference in allergic outcomes (such as skin rashes or asthma) between people who eat organic foods and those who eat conventional products
  • No difference in bacterial contamination, although the bacteria in conventionally processed foods were more often resistant to multiple antibiotics
  • When children switched from conventional foods to organic foods, their levels of pesticides declined, although even prior to the switch their levels were below the safety levels established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

What This New Information Means

Not surprisingly, these findings created a furor. People who have always believed the organic food industry was a scam found vindication in this report, whereas those who favored organic foods focused on the lower level of pesticides, stressing that the EPA still lacks sufficient data to predict the long-term health consequences of any level of pesticides in the body.

But the lowered incidence of resistant bacteria is probably the most important finding that supports eating organic. This is almost certainly a result of the overuse of antibiotics in the food industry, and it poses a direct threat to the future use of antibiotics. Due to the rise in the incidence of diseases caused by bacteria resistant to multiple antibiotics, we no longer have the means to treat illnesses previously treated with ease with common antibiotics. Most researchers agree that the cause of this epidemic of resistant bacteria is the indiscriminate use of antibiotics by the food industry.

The Real Reason to Eat Organic

So although this study didn’t find benefit in organic food consumption in terms of overall nutrition, it also didn’t evaluate the long-term health consequences. The real reason to eat organic foods is that they are simply better for the planet and humankind. The excessive and ill-advised use of antibiotics and other chemicals is prescription for future medical and ecological catastrophes. Whatever the personal health benefits may or may not be, we would be wise to think globally every time we shop for food and sit down to eat. And–let’s face it–organic food tastes better!

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.