The Benefits of Eating Organic—Plus Shopping Tips to Make it More Affordable
Here are the science-backed benefits that prove it’s more than just a health food trend.
When you hear the word “organic,” what do you think? Some might say healthier and better for the environment. Others might consider organic foods too expensive, unnecessary and even elitist.
Surprisingly, using scientific research to figure out if it’s worth it to buy organic foods isn’t exactly black and white—and there are many factors to consider when choosing whether to opt for organic or not. To help you navigate this growing section of the grocery store, read on. We’ll take a look at what organic food is, the science-backed health benefits, and realistic shopping tips that can help you save money.
First, What Exactly Does Organic Mean?
Organic agricultural products must meet certain requirements to carry the organic label. These requirements …
- Prohibit the use and interaction with genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
- Ask farmers to refrain from the use of synthetic substances, pesticides, or herbicides
- Require specific maintenance and enhancements of both soil and water quality
- Guarantee your food isn’t grown using conventional chemicals (and that the farm hasn’t used these for at least three years)
Organic farmers also rotate crops and utilize composted animal manures and green manure crops to improve soil nutrient density.
Is Organic Food More Nutritious?
Scientific opinions vary on whether organic growing practices lead to improved nutritional composition of the foods or better health outcomes. However, it’s important to mention that funding for organic research has been very underwhelming in the past several decades. In 2020, the USDA dedicated $20 million to organic research, just a sliver of the $2.9 billion research budget. Fortunately, the research on the benefits of eating organic foods is continuing to grow. USDA funding is expected to increase to $50 million by 2023 and large companies like General Mills and Danone are increasing funding for soil health, regenerative agriculture, and organic foods.
Still, we do know that observational studies have shown an increased intake of organic foods may be associated with reduced incidence of infertility, birth defects, allergic sensitisation, otitis media, pre-eclampsia, metabolic syndrome, high BMI and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. But more clinical studies are needed to confirm these health benefits. In the meantime, there are a handful of other key benefits associated with organic farming, including improved soil health, reduced exposure to pesticide residue, and increased levels of crucial micronutrients.
Growing Food Organically Improves the Health of our Soil
The benefits of creating healthy soil can lead to healthier plants and in turn, better health for people and our planet. According to the Rodale Institute, soil that contains organic matter is able to hold more air and water and produce higher yields compared to soil that is low in organic matter. Healthy soil also provides a consistent release of nutrients to plants and contains a more abundant and diverse microbial and fungal populations.
Like humans, soil has its own microbiome that helps to protect against disease-causing pathogens. In fact, soil and the human gut have a very similar number of active microorganisms! That said, the diversity of the human gut microbiome is only 10% of the biodiversity found in soil.
For both humans and soil, having a microbiome with more biodiversity leads to more efficiency in cycling nutrients (in plants) and absorbing nutrients (in humans). The increasing use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers in addition to conventional soil management practices sterilize the biodiversity of the soil health, leading to a negative effect on the complexity and resilience of our crops. These changes in the health of the soil may be directly tied to the increase in lifestyle-related disease that occurs as a result of deficiencies in the human microbiome.
Choosing Organic Also Reduces Our Exposure to Pesticides and Herbicides
Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in conventional farming in the world. In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency of Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen. A 2019 meta-analysis reported a 41% increased risk of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma among workers exposed to glyphosate-based herbicides. In a follow up report, the authors noted that this 41% increased risk is very likely underestimated.
A 2014 meta-analysis that reviewed 343 peer-reviewed studies found that pesticide residues were four times higher in conventional crops. This study also found that 94% of organic produce was free from pesticide residues.
Yet while many scientists argue that lower pesticide residue exposure in food may not lead to significant changes in health results, there is a need for more research to better understand the true impact. To wit: One 2018 study published in JAMA demonstrated that an increased consumption of organic foods was associated with a lower risk of cancer.
Organic Food Also Has a Higher Nutrient Density
Translation: Opting for organic foods may help us maximize the nutrients we get from what we eat. This is important given that studies demonstrate an ongoing decline in key nutrients in produce, including protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin, and ascorbic acid. Some research even shows that organic foods contain more nutrients than conventional produce. One well-conducted meta-analysis comparing organic and conventional crops found that organic crops had significantly greater antioxidant activity and bioactive phytonutrients like flavonoids and anthocyanins. Another comparative study calculated nutrient contents of organic and conventional produce and grains and found higher levels of vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus in the organic crops.
It’s not just organic produce that comes out on top: One meta-analysis that compared conventional and organic meat found improved nutritional composition in the organic meat, with a 47% increase in total omega-3 fatty acids and no major difference in total fat composition. When breaking it down to specific types of meat, organic chicken and pork had higher levels of omega-3s and omega-6s compared to their conventional counterparts, and beef had a higher omega-3 content. It is worth noting that purchasing grass-fed and pasture-raised provides additional nutritional benefits given that animals fed an organic diet consume primarily organic corn and grain.
The Bottom Line, Based on What We Know Right Now
While the benefits of organic are far from conclusive, I often consider that what is deemed “safe” and qualifies as “best practice” today may not hold those designations years from now, as we learn more. In fact, there are many instances in history where the use of a chemical that was normalized or celebrated in society at one point was later found to be harmful to human health. For example, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), a powerful insecticide that was able to kill hundreds of insects at once, was approved for use in 1945. Most people celebrated the ability to use DDT except for Rachel Carson, a former marine biologist who was one of the first whistleblowers who warned about the risk of cancer and DNA damage in humans this insecticide could cause. After an investigation inspired by Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, DDT was banned in the United States in 1972.
There are many other examples of this throughout history and even recently. Just a few years ago, the popular herbicide glyphosate was linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and blood cell related cancers—despite chemical manufacturers, such as Monsanto, arguing that glyphosate causes no harm to human health.
Because of this, I feel clear that buying organic, when possible, is an optimal choice—both for my own health and for the health of the planet. And the best part is that it doesn’t have to be as expensive and elitist as some people would have you believe. Keep reading for my tips on how to simply, easily, and affordably work more organic foods into your diet.
8 Ways to Make Buying Organic Foods More Affordable
Full disclosure: I firmly believe the most important thing to remember is that a diet filled with fruits and veggies (whether they’re organic or not!) is better than a diet that lacks produce. Eating vegetables and fruits in any form is always better than not consuming them at all! (Sadly, it’s estimated that only 1 in 10 Americans meets the daily minimum recommendations for fruit and vegetable consumption.)
For budget-friendly ways to add more organic foods into your diet:
1. Buy organic frozen produce, which can be less expensive and last longer than fresh.
2. Subscribe to a company like Imperfect Foods, which sells “ugly” produce delivered straight to your door for a discount.
3. Shop for organic produce in conventional grocery stores or large retailers (think Walmart, Target, Aldi’s and the 99 Cent Store, all of which are starting to offer organic produce!) versus specialty stores or Whole Foods.
4. Buy a membership to a big store like Costco, which can provide a discount on bulk organic produce.
5. Eat what’s in season, since it’s likely that farmers will have more in-season foods and will be able to offer them for less as a result.
6. Grow your own organic produce! Even if you start out with an organic herb garden in your window sill, it’s something.
7. Purchase half of a cow from a local grass-fed, organic farm and store the meat in your refrigerator. This is a large upfront cost, but it’s one of the most cost-effective ways to purchase high-quality meats.
8. Visit your local farmers market and support farmers who are following organic growing procedures but can’t afford the organic label, which often means you’ll get organic produce at a discount. Also, keep in mind that many farm stands now accept government food assistance program dollars, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women Infants and Children (WIC).
What Happens When I’m In a Restaurant and Can’t Choose Organic?
First, consider finding restaurants that support your organic food goals. Organicresaurants.com and the Organic Food Finder app have great tools that let you search for organic offerings in your area. That said, remember that you can prioritize organic without obsessing! If you’re at a restaurant with no organic options, focus on eating a rainbow of fruits and vegetables—one of my Core Nutritional Principles. If you’re not sure where to start, take a look at my Optimal Plate Method for more guidance.
To learn more about using food as medicine and improving the way that your body functions through personalized nutrition, sign up for our My Food is Health program waitlist. If you are interested in learning more about organic food, download the Rodale Institute’s free pdf: The Truth About Organic.