Organic foods have exploded in popularity over the last two decades.
In fact, US consumers spent $39.1 billion on organic produce in 2014 (1).
The popularity does not seem to be slowing down, as sales increased by more than 11% from 2014 to 2015 (1).
Many people think organic food is safer, healthier and tastier than regular food (2).
Others say it’s better for the environment and the well-being of animals.
This article objectively compares organic and non-organic foods, including their nutrient content and effects on human health.
What is Organic Food?
The term “organic” refers to the process of how certain foods are produced.
Organic foods have been grown or farmed without the use of artificial chemicals, hormones, antibiotics or genetically modified organisms.
In order to be labelled organic, a food product must be free of artificial food additives.
This includes artificial sweeteners, preservatives, coloring, flavoring and monosodium glutamate (MSG).
Organically grown crops tend to use natural fertilizers like manure to improve plant growth. Animals raised organically are also not given antibiotics or hormones.
Organic farming tends to improve soil quality and the conservation of groundwater. It also reduces pollution and may be better for the environment.
The most commonly purchased organic foods are fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products and meat. Nowadays there are also many processed organic products available, such as sodas, cookies and breakfast cereals.
Organic foods are produced through farming practices that only use natural substances. This means avoiding all artificial chemicals, hormones, antibiotics or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Organic Foods May Contain More Nutrients
Studies comparing the nutrient content of organic and non-organic foods have provided mixed results.
This is most likely due to natural variation in food handling and production.
However, evidence does suggest that foods grown organically may be more nutritious.
Organically Grown Crops Have More Antioxidants and Vitamins
Several studies have found that organic foods generally contain higher levels of antioxidants and certain micronutrients, such as vitamin C, zinc and iron (3, 4Trusted Source, 5Trusted Source, 6Trusted Source).
In fact, antioxidant levels can be up to 69% higher in these foods (6Trusted Source).
What’s more, one study reported that replacing regular fruit, vegetables and cereals with organic versions could provide extra antioxidants in the diet. This was comparable to eating 1-2 extra portions of fruit and vegetables daily (6Trusted Source).
Organic plants do not rely on chemical pesticide sprays to protect themselves. Instead, they produce more of their own protective compounds, namely antioxidants.
This may partly explain the higher levels of antioxidants in these plants.
Nitrate Levels are Generally Lower
High nitrate levels are linked to an increased risk of certain types of cancer (8Trusted Source).
They’re also linked to a condition called methemoglobinemia, a disease in infants that affects the body’s ability to carry oxygen (8Trusted Source).
That being said, many people believe that the harmful effects of nitrates have been overstated. The benefits of eating vegetables far outweigh any negative effects.
Organic Dairy and Meat May Have A More Favorable Fatty Acid Profile
However, organic milk may contain less selenium and iodine than non-organic milk, two minerals that are essential for health (9Trusted Source).
A higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids has been associated with many health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease.
However, Several Studies Found No Differences
While several studies find organic foods to contain more nutrients, many others have found insufficient evidence to recommend organic over inorganic (11Trusted Source).
An observational study comparing the nutrient intakes of nearly 4,000 adults consuming either organic or conventional vegetables found conflicting results.
Although a slightly higher intake of certain nutrients was seen in the organic group, this was most likely due to higher overall vegetable consumption (12Trusted Source).
A review of 55 studies found no differences in the nutrient content of organic versus regular crops, with the exception of lower nitrate levels in organic produce (13Trusted Source).
Another review of 233 studies found a lack of strong evidence to conclude that organic foods are more nutritious than regular foods (11Trusted Source).
Nevertheless, it is important to remember that these studies vary quite widely in their results.
This is because the nutrient content of food depends on many factors, such as soil quality, weather conditions and when the crops are harvested.
The composition of dairy products and meat can be affected by differences in animal genetics and animal breed, what the animals eat, the time of year and type of farm.
The natural variations in the production and handling of foods make comparisons difficult. Therefore, the results of these studies must be interpreted with caution.
Organically grown crops may have less nitrate and more of certain vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Organic dairy products and meat may have more omega-3 fatty acids. However, the evidence is mixed.