There's no debating that organic foods come with a health halo, but no one really seems to be in agreement about whether it's hype or hard-earned. Organic foods go up against their conventional counterparts in three main categories: vitamins, fat, and chemicals. So take them into account before choosing to go organic…or not. Here's a primer to get you started.
Vitamins and Nutrients
Organic foods lost some converts last year when Stanford University released results of a long-term meta-analysis suggesting that, apart from phosphorus, the vitamin and nutrient content between organic and conventional produce, meat, and dairy doesn't differ much. Problem is, other studies have been poking holes in its findings ever since. Case in point: In February, a PLOS ONE study found that despite being 40 percent smaller than those grown by conventional methods, organic tomatoes still pack about 55 percent more vitamin C and about 140 percent more antioxidants (called phenols) than the regularly-grown reds.
What would any health discussion be without talk about our pant sizes? While Stanford researchers reported that organic and conventional milk didn't differ in their fat content, new research from the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University shows that the breakdown of the type of fat does differ. The WSU researchers tested nearly 400 samples of organic and conventional milk over 18 months and found that organic milk contains more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and fewer saturated omega 6-fatty acids compared to regular milk. What's more, organic beef—if it's also grass-fed, that is—is lower in calories, contains more healthy omega-3 fats, vitamins A and E, and antioxidants compared to conventional steaks.
About 80 percent of all antibiotics used in this country go to feed conventional livestock—not only because it prevents disease, but because it fattens up animals fast. (Some experts think it fattens up humans, too.) According to the FDA, eating meat treated with antibiotics can contribute to the spread of drug-resistant diseases in humans; hence why the administration is currently trying to phase out antibiotic usage in conventionally raised meat.
Meanwhile, up to 90 percent of nonorganic processed foods contain genetically modified material, most of which is manipulated to withstand high doses of chemical pesticides. Organic produce is 30 percent less likely to be contaminated by synthetic pesticides than conventionally-grown produce, according to the Stanford study. The government mandates pesticide limits even on conventionally grown food, but some groups like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) believe those limits are too liberal. Why? Chemicals found in insecticides, herbicides, fumigants, and fungicides are suspected of being endocrine disruptors, either mimicking or blocking hormones and inhibiting the body's normal functions. One 2011 Obesity Reviews study even linked endocrine disruptors to weight gain. The Natural Resources Defense Council recommends eating organic to avoid the buggars.
Still, organic or conventional, not all foods are equal—even when they're raised the same way. That's because different foods are subjected to different pesticides and different produce skins react differently to chemicals during the growing process. According to The EWG, apples, celery, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, hot peppers, nectarines, peaches, potatoes, spinach, strawberries, bell peppers, kale, collard greens, and summer squash contain the most pesticides. However, as far as pesticides are concerned, asparagus, avocado, cabbage, melon, sweet corn, eggplant, grapefruit, kiwi, mangos, mushrooms, onions, papayas, pineapples, frozen sweet peas, and sweet potatoes are all cool to buy conventional.
In the end, while experts don't have the definitive deets on whether organic foods really are that much healthier, we do know they certainly aren't unhealthier. So it really can't hurt. Just don't take it as an excuse to load up on junk food—yes, even if it's marked organic.