With this series we’ll try to demolish the wall of misconceptions which separates people from the truth. The series is aimed at demolishing the wall of misconceptions that separates people from the truth. The series covers topics of international relevance. Part 4 deals with organic foods (read previous parts here, here and here). Written by Ádám Hittaller.
Misconception #4: organic foods are healthier and more nutritious than foods produced by conventional agriculture.
The truth: even though I’d much prefer to start with some kind of a definitive, provocative, in-your-face counter-argument, unfortunately, the truth is usually too complex and variable to survive such extreme simplification and compression without serious damage. Health and nutrition are both multifactorial, difficult to study and bursting with political and marketing interests, and organic foods are right in the intersection, so the task is not an easy one.
(Note: the article deals with definitions and regulations of organic food production in the EU.)
What does “organic” stand for anyway? In short, if a product is fully compliant with the EU’s organic farming regulations and also comes from an EU member state, following successful certification, the organic logo can be put on the product, indicating to the consumer that the product in question is organic. Therefore, “organic” refers to the method of production, not the composition or nutritional value of the product.
“Organic farming is an agricultural method that aims to produce food using natural substances and processes. This means that organic farming tends to have a limited environmental impact as it encourages:
-the responsible use of energy and natural resources;
-the maintenance of biodiversity;
-preservation of regional ecological balances;
-enhancement of soil fertility;
-maintenance of water quality.
Additionally, organic farming rules encourage a high standard of animal welfare and require farmers to meet the specific behavioural needs of animals.” 
Most important aspects of organic farming:
- Prohibition of GMOs, ionizing radiation and the use of mineral nitrogen fertilizers;
- limiting the use of artificial fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides;
- use of crop rotation, nitrogen fixing crops and green manure against soil exhaustion;
- use of pest-resistant varieties and breeds and encourage natura pest control.
- Animal feed must be 100% organically produced (except for non-organic products specifically certified for this purpose);
- prohibition of cloning, embryo transfer and the use of hormones;
- limiting the use of antibiotics to single animals and only if the health of the animal requires it;
- natural feeding of suckling animals and natural methods of reproductions (however, artificial insemination is allowed);
- proper training, skills and knowledge of personnel keeping animals;
- limiting livestock density to minimize soil erosion, overgrazing or pollution;
- granting animals access to open air or grazing areas whenever possible;
- prohibition of tethering or isolating livestock, with the exception of individual animals, for a limited time, and only for welfare, safety or health reasons. 
Based on these, one might instinctively think that organic farming uses more “natural” methods, and this most often seems just as instinctively positive. However, the concept “natural” is a tricky one. On the one hand, it’s rather vague (Because where does “natural” end? At virtual reality? At contraception? At industrialization? When humans started using tools? Or when we came down from the trees?). And on the other hand, it reduces an otherwise complex topic to a single value judgement. Moreover, there’s no doubt that not everything that is natural is “good” (smallpox, for example, was a distinctly natural phenomenon, yet no one misses it). This is not to say that being natural as a value should be discarded, in fact, it is a fundamentally important reference in all areas of life, and in general, in the absence of contradictory information, we make fewer and smaller mistakes when we keep naturalness in mind than when we discard it without further consideration. However, since organic foods being more natural has led many to consider (either due to unintended associations or deliberate marketing; most probably both) these foods more nutritious and healthier than their conventionally produced counterparts, in this article, I’ll try to study organic foods on the basis of these measurable and quantifiable properties.
Just to clarify the studied properties:
- Nutritious food: food with a proportion of nutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, water) that promotes a balanced diet, thereby maintaining health. 
- Healthy food: food that, as part of a balanced diet, helps maintain health, thus reducing the risk of developing related diseases and problems (cardiovascular diseases, obesity, allergies, cancer, etc.) or premature death. 
I usually use PubMed as a source. This is a free search engine that indexes the MEDLINE database, which contains millions of scientific articles from thousands of selected academic journals. I prefer systematic reviews and meta-analyses to get the most reliable and comprehensive results. Based on these , I was able to draw the following conclusions:
- Certain studies suggest that consumption of organic foods can reduce the risk of obesity and different allergic diseases, but it’ likely that this effect is not actually attributable to organic foods, but to the fact that people who eat organic foods tend to have healthier lifestyles in general.
- Organic foods contain more antioxidants (vegetables, fruits, grains) and omega-3 fatty acids (meat and dairy products) compared to conventionally farmed foods, but none of these have a clearly demonstrated positive effect of health. In addition, organic foods contain less cadmium and pesticide residues, but these pose relatively low risks to begin with due to strict regulation and control in the EU and the US, and further reductions might not provide significant benefits. So, although organic foods seem to be somewhat more nutritious in some ways, it cannot really be stated that they’re healthier.
- Antibiotics used in conventional farming are key contributors to antibiotic resistance in society, so one potentially important benefit of organic farming is the significantly less intensive use of antibiotics.
These not too definitive statements might leave you disappointed, but they can be used to formulate a number of tips that can help you achieve more effectively the goals you hitherto hoped to achieve only by buying organic food:
- If you want to eat healthier, then eat more fruits and vegetables in general. Whether these come from conventional or organic farming doesn’t really matter.
- If you’re driven by environmental consciousness, you should focus on buying products with the shortest possible supply chain: whenever possible, buy seasonal products from local producers.
- If you’re motivated by animal welfare or if you’re depressed by the looming threat antibiotics resistance, buying organic products seems a sound choice.
- Overall, buying organic products does no harm, but unfortunately it has to be accepted that organic farming is not simply a “better” method that can replace the “outdated” conventional farming.
Source of featured image: pxhere.com