At Triodos Bank, we think the principles of organic agriculture should inspire the necessary transformation of our food and agriculture system. The environmental benefits of organic agriculture are largely agreed upon, but what about the health benefits. Is eating organic food better for us? There are many reasons why people may not buy organic food such as the higher prices or differences in appearance. However, health can be a key reason to choose organic food. In this article, we explore this long-discussed topic and look at the health benefits of organic food compared to conventional food.
There is no question that our individual health is strongly influenced by our dietary habits. Far beyond combatting malnutrition, a healthy diet helps to prevent chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes, which together represent the leading cause of death worldwide.
But what is a healthy diet, and what is healthy food? Dietary recommendations vary according to age, lifestyle, gender, and disease history. There is no one-size-fits-all formula for a healthy diet. However, it is generally agreed that a key part of a healthy diet is a balanced intake of essential nutrients, both macro (carbs, proteins, fat, fibre) and micro (vitamins, minerals), as well as water. These are all present in different quantities in the products we eat. Many Western diets are lacking in vitamin and mineral intake because they don’t contain enough different fruit, vegetables and legumes. For instance, it is estimated that 71% of the people in the Netherlands miss out on important nutrients because they do not eat enough vegetables.
Although there is no conclusive proof that organic food is always healthier than conventionally grown food, there is increasing evidence that some health benefits do exist. Studies point to a higher nutritional content and the presence of useful phytochemicals as well as lower pesticide residue in organic food.
Scientific research comparing organic and conventional food has focused on nutrient density to determine which option is healthier. Some studies assert that organic crops contain more nutrients than crops grown using chemical fertilisers, while others report no or a small number of positive differences in the nutrient content of organic food compared to conventionally produced food. It’s a hotly debated issue. There are indications, however, that the organic alternatives of several crops have a higher vitamin content (especially vitamin C) and are richer in other micronutrients. Some studies suggest that soil health is an influential factor in this.
Yet, the effects of food on our health are influenced by more factors than just nutrient density. Two other important factors are phytochemicals and pesticide residue.
Phytochemicals are compounds produced by plants to help them to deal with heat stress, attract pollinators or combat diseases. Several studies show that organically farmed crops have modestly higher phytochemical content compared to conventional crops. This could be because organic crops are grown in healthier soil.
Looking at the health benefits of phytochemicals as part of our growing understanding of what makes plant-based food healthy seems to be justified: some phytochemicals have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. They can play a role in the prevention of chronic diseases. However, there are many different phytochemicals. We still have much to learn about how farming practices influence the phytochemical content of crops, as well as their effects on our nutritional health.
The use of pesticides (insecticides, fungicides, herbicides) in agriculture is responsible for notable levels of soil, water and air pollution, harming biodiversity above and below the ground. This is why the European Commission set a 50% reduction target for pesticide use in agriculture between 2019 and 2030 as part of the Farm to Fork Strategy. Pesticides can have an impact on human health, although the effects of exposure through food intake is not completely clear. Some research suggests that exposure to certain insecticides before birth seems to be harmful to the neurodevelopment of children. Pesticide intake also correlates with cancer and behavioural disorders in clinical animal trials. A particular controversial pesticide is glyphosate (also known by the famous brand name Roundup), which has been linked to diseases like Parkinson’s in farming communities and has recently been subject to heated debate in the EU. More scientific research is needed to establish the extent to which pesticide cocktail residues in soil and food are harmful to humans, especially to the gut microbiome. Still, we do know that these residues are omnipresent in soils and in food.
Triodos Bank therefore calls on EU governments to vote against the renewal of the license for glyphosate as a pesticide. Despite mounting evidence that this pesticide threatens biodiversity and the health of humans and animals, the European Commission wants to renew the authorisation of glyphosate for ten years.
Organic farmers, by definition, are not allowed to use synthetic pesticides. This has concrete effects: soil samples from European agricultural fields show that soils used to grow organic food have 70%-90% lower pesticide residue levels compared to conventional acres. Organic foods also have, on average, lower pesticide residue content and consumers of organic food show significantly less pesticide excretion in clinical trials. Yet, some traces of pesticides are also found in organic food. The cause is not straightforward – some organic farmers might still (illegally) use pesticides, or the traces might come from environmental contamination.
Organic food is usually associated with raw ingredients – crops, fruits, vegetables, and possibly meat and dairy. However, processed and ultra-processed food represent a growing share of food consumption in current Western diets. Processed foods comprise over 40% of calorie intake for adults in Europe and almost 60% in the United States, with this percentage even higher for children and teenagers. For packaged food to be labeled organic it not only needs to contain almost exclusively organic ingredients, but it also needs to fulfill processing criteria related to the number of additives and the type of processing aids.
Studies have found that packaged food labeled as organic contains fewer ingredients that are linked to negative health effects. Organically processed food tends to be lower in total and added sugar, saturated fats and sodium. It is also likely to contain more potassium, which is beneficial for heart-related issues. Additionally, organic packaged foods are in general less heavily processed, and therefore lower in substances linked to eating addictions and overeating problems.
Healthy food = healthy people?
So far, there is no conclusive proof of health benefits that can specifically be attributed to organic diets. There are multiple reasons for this. Like all food systems, organic food systems are complex and diverse. First, organic producers may vary in their production methods, which makes it hard to compare their products to ‘conventional’ products.
Second, there are not many ‘whole of diet’ studies that evaluate the health impact of fully organic diets in controlled intervention trials. A notable exception is an Italian study showing that a Mediterranean organic diet decreased the risk of cardiovascular and kidney disease among participants. In some observational studies, regular consumers of organic food score higher on a variety of health outcomes, like lower risk of cardiovascular disease. However, the consumption of organic food on an individual level correlates strongly with other demographic and lifestyle factors. For instance, organic food consumers are more likely to exercise more, to have a higher income, to not smoke, and to eat more fruit and vegetables. The relation between healthy (organic) food and healthy people is thus not absolute; other lifestyle and genetic factors also have an influence.
A broader view
The relative health benefits of organic food are still hard to distil; we can't conclude that organic food is always healthier. But it is undeniable that diets wield significant influence on our overall health. Most of us should eat more fruits and vegetables to benefit from macronutrients and micronutrients, but we shouldn't reduce a healthy diet to just those compounds. While there is no definitive proof yet, the potential health benefits of phytochemicals and reduced pesticide residues intake through organic options provide extra reasons to choose organic alternatives over conventional food. Moreover, in processed foods, organic food seems to be the healthier option.
Overall, the health impact of organic food may be best understood as systematic. Organic food contributes to healthier soils and environments, which in turn is better for human health in many ways, not just our nutritional health. Less pesticide use reduces health risks for farmers, and healthy functioning ecosystems with low pollution levels are good for everyone’s mental and physical health. Healthy ecosystems control pests and diseases more effectively, also as ecosystem services for humans. Organic animal agriculture takes better care of the physical and mental wellbeing of farmed animals. Choosing organic food offers more than just individual health benefits; it contribute to a systemic improvement of our ecosystems and strengthens our appreciation for and relationship with food, ultimately benefiting us all.
We thank Ilse R. Geijzendorffer from the Louis Bolk Institute and Wendy Jenkins from Wageningen University & Research for generously sharing their insights for this article.