If you’ve ever found yourself questioning whether you should choose organic or conventional foods, you are not alone. The National Organic Program (NOP) – the office within the US Department of Agriculture responsible for overseeing the organic agricultural goods – was established in in 1990, and in the last decade the accessibility to organic products has flourished. While organic products typically cost more than conventional, they are also often associated with being healthier or more nutritious.
First, it’s important to understand that the NOP was established for environmental reasons, rather than nutrition purposes. Per the NOP, the goal of organic farming is to produce goods in “an ecological management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity.” Farming practices are specifically outlined and monitored, to include things like crop rotation and allowable pesticides.
While organic farming has many positive attributes, a recent meta-analysis of environmental impacts of farming practices found that there are also many positive attributes to conventional farming. While organic farming uses less energy and contributes to soil biodiversity, conventional farming uses far less land to yield greater crops, and both were fairly even for greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, the researchers concluded that to feed the growing world population using only organic farming, 50% more farmland than we have today would be required. It was concluded that both organic and conventional farming practices not only have a place but a necessity in the world.
From a nutrition standpoint, studies to date have found no clinically significant difference in the nutrition content of organic vs conventional foods. Some studies have found differences such as an increased amount of omega-3 fats in organic beef and eggs, yet when the recommended amount of omega-3 intake in a diet and the content of other foods like salmon are taken into consideration, the increase is of no significant impact. Both organic and conventional produce can contain pesticides – the former must be natural pesticides allowable per the NOP. Studies have repeatedly shown that pesticide levels on conventional foods are well below the amount considered safe for human consumption. In any case, all produce should be rinsed before consumed to reduce the risk of foodborne illness.
When this discussion comes up, I always remind patients that the use of organic or conventional products is really a personal choice. Not everyone can afford to purchase all organic products, nor should they feel they are choosing a nutritiously inferior choice if choosing conventional. Knowing the available facts around organic and conventional foods can help you make the right choice for you.
Clark M, Tilman D. Comparative analysis of environmental impacts of agricultural productions systems, agricultural input efficiency, and food choice. Environ Res Lett. 2017: