Organic vs Non-Organic Food: Is there a difference?

organic food

I love hearing about organic food. Whenever somebody starts ranting about the benefits and “magic” of fruits or vegetables that look exactly the same as as any other non-organic alternative, but are deceitfully priced three times higher and sport a shiny label, I gradually look away and into the distance. Eyes riveted on a point directly behind the person who is speaking so eloquently, I start thinking about how good it would be for our health if we simply stopped throwing all our toxic waste into our rivers and the atmosphere. Rather than carefully growing particular specimens of fruit in organic conditions and spending money on green labels and countless advertisements, growers of organic produce could use their precious dollars to grow more at less cost, helping feed those without enough money to buy food.

Instead of switching off and continuing to dismiss organic produce as an everlasting “fad”, however, I have recently decided to challenge my assumptions and take a look at what all the fuss is about. Could it be that varieties of organic food possess such outspoken, innumerable benefits, both for our health and planet earth? Given the attention and money involved in organic food, I concluded it would definitely be worthwhile investigating both the positive and negative sides of organic farming, remembering to take into account that the debate over organic food is heavily influenced by industry and politics.

Before setting out on a spontaneous and perhaps reckless organic crusade, it’s important to take a look at what actually makes up organic food. Although it may seem obvious, many people don’t actually know what differentiates organic produce from regular fruits and vegetables and how the produce sold to us as deliciously organic is grown. I certainly didn’t know the difference before deciding to dig deeper and research the facts, making a fool of myself as I confused organic produce with food that was not genetically modified.

Typically, organic produce is grown the way fruits and vegetables have been cultivated for thousands of years. Although heavy machinery that is ubiquitous on the modern farm continues to be used, the chemicals developed to enhance and render modern agriculture more efficient that were not available for use in the middle ages are left aside. The main differentiating characteristic of organic food versus conventional food is that no chemical, artificial, or otherwise dubious fertilizers or pesticides are used, either on the plant that is being grown or in the soil around the plant. This way, none of the noxious and toxic chemicals found in pesticides and fertilizers are able to enter the organic plants and therefore be consumed as part of the produce.

Another important characteristic of organic plants that is often confused or cast aside is that they are never genetically modified. Although some plant species are selected over others in order to produce a particular form of produce, this selection is done in a very basic fashion that ensures no significant alteration of the plant’s composition takes place and that the plant is able to reproduce as it normally would without human intervention. Consequently, large agricultural businesses are unable to provide seeds for organic crops that require the farmer to return to the seed producer each year for a new crop. Were they to modify the seeds in a way that allowed such practices, the crop would no longer be organic.

In other words, organic foods are grown as nature intended them to grow.

So how do we make sure the “organic” produce we might like to eat fits the criteria? Just because an item is branded as “organic” with a fancy green label at a supermarket or grocery store does not mean it is organic. Although a number of laws have been implemented by the United States and the European Union in order to protect organic labelling and ensure the consistency and quality of organic products, many fruits and vegetables that are advertised as organic are still affected by harmful pesticides or fertilizers. For example, vegetables that are produced on one property that are labelled as organic can easily be affected by fertilizers used on an adjacent property that is producing vegetables not considered organic. Care and precaution must therefore be taken if you wish to eat truly organic food or shop for healthy, all natural fruits and vegetables.

As a result of poor certification processes resulting from United States and European Union legislation, organic products are best sourced directly from a local producer, where the farm and method of farming are known or able to be observed and examined. Alternatively, organic products that have been certified by an independent organization that has a vested interest in upholding organic standards are more likely to be free of harmful chemicals than those certified by government bodies.

The question remains: Are organic products truly healthier?

In order to reach a meaningful conclusion regarding health benefits, several key aspects of organic food must be compared. As well as measuring the potential for noxious chemicals and toxins present in fertilizers or pesticides to be absorbed by fruits and vegetables, the quantity and quality of nutrients and content of both organic and conventional produce must be examined in order to determine whether the use of fertilizers and artificial substances has an effect on the nutritional value and chemical composition of each fruit and vegetable. In simpler terms, we must make sure that using chemical enhancers doesn’t reduce the quality of our food, which is paramount in determining the health effects and value of organic food.

Traditionally, most scientists have argued that organic and non-organic produce are essentially the same, with very few differences in taste and chemical composition. Despite this, consistent survey results and testing have found that most people deem organic food to taste better, even when examining different forms of produce and differentiating between organic and conventional produce without knowing which is which.  More recently, as scientific interest in environmental issues such as pollution and genetic modification of our food increases, several studies have emerged pointing to rather severe differences between organic and conventional foods.

A study conducted in 2014 which analyzed the results of 343 published scientific studies has found that quite significant differences exist in the composition of conventional produce versus organic produce. Led by Professor Carlo Leifert from the University of Newcastle, the study discovered that levels of antioxidants found in organic produce were on average 19-69% higher than those in conventional produce. Antioxidants, being linked with moderate health benefits and forming a major part of naturally available food, have significant nutritional value. As a result of this difference in antioxidant quantities, it can be observed that the continued use of non-traditional farming practices which make use of potent chemicals results in the modification of fruit and vegetable content, both in a chemical context as well as the size, shape, texture and taste of the produce.

Furthermore, traces of pesticide and cadmium, a highly toxic metal, were found in conventional produce that were not present in organic produce. This reinforces the idea that chemicals not intended for human consumption are able to be found in our food as a result of pesticide use.

Although a large proportion of scientific studies suggest very little differences exist between organic and conventional produce, as pollution of the environment increases and more people become aware of the way in which this is occurring, recent and emerging scientific analysis has come to concur that differences between organic and non-organic produce exist, and are increasing in number as time progresses. Although any direct links between organic produce and everlasting longevity are yet to be established, wouldn’t it be nice if our food was delivered to us the way nature intended it, free of toxins, metals and particles derived from petroleum? Regardless, I stand corrected in the idea that organic produce is simply a “fad”, and will definitely join in the conversation next time a friend broaches the subject.

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