Over the last two decades’ organic food has exploded in popularity. Australia owns 53% of the world’s organic farmland.1 This is an increase of 23% since 2015.1 People choose to eat organic for many reasons including reducing pesticide intake, health benefits as well as due to concerns over the environment and animal wellbeing.
What does organic really mean?
Organic food refers to the way that food is produced. Organic foods are produced without the use of synthetic fertilisers, growth regulators, artificial chemicals, hormones, antibiotics, pesticides or livestock feed additives. In Australia, organic food must meet strict criteria to be certified.
Organically grown crops use natural fertilisers such as manure to help improve plant growth. Unlike conventional farming, animals raised organically are not given any antibiotics or hormones.
Organic foods contain fewer pesticides
One of the key reasons why many people decide to move to organic is to avoid artificial chemicals and pesticides. Pesticides are any substance used to kill, repel or control certain forms of plant or animal life that are deemed “pests”.2
Conventionally produced plants contain a variety of pesticides including herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, disinfectants and compounds used to control rodents.2
Naturally, due to organic food not using pesticides, eating this way will naturally reduce exposure. Studies show that pesticide residue is four times more likely to be found in non-organic crops.3,4
In addition, one study found that levels of the toxic metal cadmium were 48% lower in organic produce.3 Some experts are concerned that cadmium can accumulate over time in the body, potentially causing harm.
More long-term studies are needed to determine the full health effects that pesticide residues can have on our health.
Organic food is often fresher
After food is harvested, it begins to lose nutrients. This is normal for both conventional and organic food. As organic food does not contain any preservatives, it doesn’t last as long as conventional food. Because of this, organic food is often sold very soon after it is picked, making it the fresher choice. Aim to purchase organic produce from markets close to the farms where it is cultivated.
Organic food may contain additional health benefits
Emerging research has studied the link between human health and eating organic produce. Observational studies in children and infants have linked organic foods to a lower risk of allergies and eczema in children and infants.8,9,10 Animal studies have also found that eating an organic diet may benefit reproduction, the immune system and reduce the risk of weight gain.8,11 However, more research is needed in this area.
Organic farming is better for the environment
Organic farming practises has been shown to have a variety of sustainable benefits including:12
- Improved soil quality
- Reduced energy use
- Increased crop biodiversity
- Reduced water pollution
- Reduced worker and environmental exposure to pesticides
- Reduced antibiotic resistance (via animal agriculture)
How to know if you’re buying organic
When trying to determine whether a product is organic, it is important to look out for claims such as:
- 100% organic
- Made using organic ingredients
- Certified organic
In Australia, organic certification is not legally required on a product. Despite this, many products carry a symbol, logo or trademark to show that they are certified organic.13
Organic food may contain more nutrients
Studies that compare the nutrient content of organic and non-organic foods provide mixed results. This is likely the result of the variety of production methods and natural variation in food handling.
Several studies have indicated that organic foods contain higher levels of antioxidants and micronutrients including vitamin C, zinc and iron.3,5,6,7
Antioxidants are molecules that fight free radicals in the body. Free radicals are compounds that can cause harm if their levels become too high in the body. They’re linked to illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
One study found that organically grown berries and corn contained 58% more antioxidants and up to 52% higher amounts of vitamin C.7
Another study found that the extra antioxidants contained within organic fruits, vegetables and grains are comparable to eating an additional 1-2 portions of fruit and vegetables daily.
Tips for buying organic products:
- Read the labels carefully to see which ingredients in the product are organic
- Ask the business about any certification used
- If no certification is used, ask the business to explain how its processes ensure the product is organic
What to do if you can’t eat 100% organic
Unfortunately, organic foods do generally cost more. The reasons for this is due to food production costs. Organic foods are more labour-intensive than conventional foods. Production yields are also smaller on organic farms because they don’t use artificial fertiliser and pesticides.
Every year the Environmental Working Group (EWG) releases the Dirty Dozen. This is a list of 12 non-organic fruits and vegetables highest in pesticide residues. If you can’t purchase all your produce as organic, it may be worthwhile to consider purchasing the following foods as organic.
Although it is important to look at the pesticide content of fruits and vegetables, pesticides are also used in the production of body products, as fertiliser and to control insects and pests.
Since pesticides are so widespread, the best course of action to reduce your exposure is to choose organic food and body products where possible and practice more sustainable garden care.
Can I wash away pesticide residues on my fruits and vegetables?
You can reduce some of them. It is best to wash produce under cold water and scrub the outside of hard porous foods. Rinsing these products removes the surface residues and potentially harmful dirt and pathogens.
Some pesticides are taken up through the plant’s root system and get into fruit and vegetable flesh so they can’t be washed off.
How can I get started?
Organic foods can now be found both in conventional supermarkets such as Woolworths and Coles as well as health food stores. Local farmer’s markets also often have farmers selling organic produce.
If you’re worried about cost, aim to choose fruits and vegetables that are in season. Find out when the produce is delivered to the market, to ensure you’re buying the freshest food possible.
If you’re looking to start living a healthy lifestyle, Garden of Vegan’s meal delivery service is whole food plant-based, gluten-free and best of all, organic!
Author: Kiah Paetz
Accredited Practising Dietitian, Accredited Nutritionist
Founder Plant Nutrition and Wellness
- Australian Organic, 2017. Australian Organic Market Report 2017. [online] Available at: <https://ausveg.com.au/app/uploads/2017/12/Monk_Bradley.pdf>
- Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority. 2020. Definition Of Terms. [online] Available at: <https://apvma.gov.au/definition-of-terms/p>
- Barański, M., Średnicka-Tober, D., Volakakis, N., Seal, C., Sanderson, R., Stewart, G., Benbrook, C., Biavati, B., Markellou, E., Giotis, C., Gromadzka-Ostrowska, J., Rembiałkowska, E., Skwarło-Sońta, K., Tahvonen, R., Janovská, D., Niggli, U., Nicot, P. and Leifert, C., 2014. Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses. British Journal of Nutrition, 112(5), pp.794-811.
- Ponisio, L., M'Gonigle, L., Mace, K., Palomino, J., de Valpine, P. and Kremen, C., 2015. Diversification practices reduce organic to conventional yield gap. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 282(1799), p.20141396.
- Brandt, K., Leifert, C., Sanderson, R. and Seal, C., 2011. Agroecosystem Management and Nutritional Quality of Plant Foods: The Case of Organic Fruits and Vegetables. Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences, 30(1-2), pp.177-197.
- Hunter, D., Foster, M., McArthur, J., Ojha, R., Petocz, P. and Samman, S., 2011. Evaluation of the Micronutrient Composition of Plant Foods Produced by Organic and Conventional Agricultural Methods. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 51(6), pp.571-582.
- Asami, D., Hong, Y., Barrett, D. and Mitchell, A., 2003. Comparison of the Total Phenolic and Ascorbic Acid Content of Freeze-Dried and Air-Dried Marionberry, Strawberry, and Corn Grown Using Conventional, Organic, and Sustainable Agricultural Practices. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 51(5), pp.1237-1241.
- Huber, M., Rembiałkowska, E., Średnicka, D., Bügel, S. and van de Vijver, L., 2011. Organic food and impact on human health: Assessing the status quo and prospects of research. NJAS - Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences, 58(3-4), pp.103-109.
- Alfven, T., Braun-Fahrlander, C., Brunekreef, B., Mutius, E., Riedler, J., Scheynius, A., Hage, M., Wickman, M., Benz, M., Budde, J., Michels, K., Schram, D., Ublagger, E., Waser, M. and Pershagen, G., 2006. Allergic diseases and atopic sensitization in children related to farming and anthroposophic lifestyle - the PARSIFAL study. Allergy, 61(4), pp.414-421.
- Kummeling, I., Thijs, C., Huber, M., van de Vijver, L., Snijders, B., Penders, J., Stelma, F., van Ree, R., van den Brandt, P. and Dagnelie, P., 2008. Consumption of organic foods and risk of atopic disease during the first 2 years of life in the Netherlands. British Journal of Nutrition, 99(3), pp.598-605.
- Huber, M., van de Vijver, L., Parmentier, H., Savelkoul, H., Coulier, L., Wopereis, S., Verheij, E., van der Greef, J., Nierop, D. and Hoogenboom, R., 2009. Effects of organically and conventionally produced feed on biomarkers of health in a chicken model. British Journal of Nutrition, 103(5), pp.663-676.
- Reganold, J. and Wachter, J., 2016. Organic agriculture in the twenty-first century. Nature Plants, 2(2).
- Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. 2020. Organic Claims. [online] Available at: <https://www.accc.gov.au/consumers/groceries/organic-claims>