Whoever enters a supermarket today can choose between varieties of natural products, and celebrity cooks promote organic food, which has – without doubt – become one of the most consistent nutritional trends of the last decades, with consumers being willing to pay a lot extra for their groceries.
The main argument behind this seems very logic. Organic food is believed to be healthier because it lacks all these evil chemicals that the modern food industry is using. To put it in the words of Jamie Oliver, “organic food is natural food, where nature has been allowed to do its thing, and I’m sure most of us will agree that putting natural ingredients into our bodies is only going to be a positive thing.” And indeed, pesticides ARE often toxic to humans, and quite a few of those had to be removed from markets because of their negative impact.
So the superior quality of natural products is a fact then, isn’t it?
Not really. Scientists have indeed tried to prove this in numerous studies. Results are sometimes very hard to compare, as consumers of organic food are in general more aware of their nutrition, and - in average – are living a healthier lifestyle. If you subtract those effects, studies indicate that there is no health advantage whatsoever of organic food.
Now how is that possible?
First of all, past scandals have led to the application of rigorous legal limits for pesticides in food – at least in the western world, and especially in the EU. As a consequence, the concentrations of those chemicals in food are mostly too low to show any effects on humans.
Second, there is one tiny problem that advocates of organic production seem to overlook: mycotoxins. Those are toxic compounds produced by molds, and many of them are proven or suspected carcinogenics (they cause or promote cancer growth).
Now I hear you saying: “Give me a break, I’m not eating moldy food! How is this relevant?”
Yes, you might not intentionally bite into a rotten Tomato. But what about that organic tomato sauce on your vegetarian pizza? What about this delicious natural apple juice in front of you? Do you really think every single fruit was manually checked for mold contamination before it was processed? Or even washed?
Now you get my point. To make things worse, some molds produce their toxins before they are visible to the eye of the consumer.
Of course, there are also legal limits for mycotoxins that have to be respected, same as for pesticides. But this only applies to the best studied toxins. Nature is very complex, and so are its products. There are more than 400 different mycotoxins known today, and less than 20 of them are regulated. The rest – 95% of those compounds – isn’t even searched for during the food monitoring process, which means any unknown concentration of them could be present in your food without anyone knowing it.
But what has this to do with organic food now? Well, the whole point of pesticides is to keep hostile organisms from damaging agricultural plants. This might be other plants (weeds), insects, but also molds. So the application of those chemicals does not only lead to a higher quantity of crops (the main reason why it’s done), but – as a side effect – also prevents molds and thus their toxins from entering the food chain. As a consequence, there are growing concerns in the scientific community that mycotoxins might be found in much higher concentrations in organic foods.
Data on this topic is still limited, and we can expect a lot more to come over the next years – but from what is published, it seems that what you don’t take up in pesticides, you take up in mycotoxins instead.
In conclusion, I can still see many good arguments to buy organic: The heavy use of pesticides is harming the soil. The application of antibiotics in animal breeding is contributing to the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. By buying organic food, you often support small, local farmers that can only compete with multinational corporations when they offer niche products they can sell at a higher price. Home-growing rare vegetables is fun and tasty.
But Healthiness? Not so much. Remember: There is no conclusive scientific evidence of increased food safety through natural production. The health advantage of organic nutrition seems to be a myth.
Disclaimer: In my blog, I'm stating my honest opinion as a researcher, not less and not more. Discuss and disagree with me - if you are bringing the better arguments, I might even rethink.