Step into your grocery store and you’ll see shelves
dedicated to organic produce. Organic foods are gaining popularity in an era
where health, food security, and sustainability of the environment are at crisis
point. The amount of US agriculture space dedicated to organic crops has
doubled since 1997, and in 2005 organic produce turnover in South Africa was
estimated at R200 to R400 million.
But, is organic food truly superior, or is it
merely hype? And in particular, is organic food more nutritious and safer than
is organic food?
Organic farming involves growing fresh
produce without synthetic pesticides, chemicals and genetic engineering, and
raising livestock without growth hormones and antibiotics. According to the International
Foundation for Organic Agriculture (IFOA), it is a farming method that prides
itself in strengthening the health of soils and our ecosystems.
Read: What is organic food?
In 2008, two out of three US consumers bought
organic products, and more than one in four bought organic food at least once weekly.
Closer to home, in a local study on Gauteng consumers’ purchasing behaviour,
one in three respondents reported buying organic food at some point during the
month. The majority of consumers who purchased organic food perceived it to be healthier.
food in SA
South African organic produce includes
various cereals, vegetables (mostly asparagus and potatoes), herbs, spices, fruits
(largely bananas, pears and mangos), avocados, nuts and rooibos tea. Organic
wine and olive oil are also produced, and organic dairy farming is increasing
all over the country. In South Africa, according to estimates by the Department
of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries there are currently 250 organic farms in
the country, which account for only 0.05 % of the country’s total farming area.
Despite growing popularity, to date South Africa
does not as yet have an official certification system for organic farming and
organic farming is not held to strict standards by law. This lack of regulation
makes the SA consumer vulnerable to misleading claims by bogus organic fresh
produce suppliers. SA consumers have demonstrated their concerns, as it has
been found that less than half of consumers purchasing organic food believe
that the products are really organic.
Is it more nutritious?
The primary argument for going organic is
that organic food is healthier, containing more and higher levels of nutrients
than non-organic foods. This is supported by the abovementioned Gauteng-based
study where the majority of SA consumers purchase organic food because they
perceive organic food to be healthier. Interestingly, while it may be argued
that organic food is healthier because of fewer pesticides or has less of an impact
on the environment (though this too is highly questioned), at this point, there
does not appear to be convincing evidence of a substantial difference in nutritional
quality of organic compared to traditional produce.
Read: Is organic food better than non-organic food?
In two large reviews of the research done to
date, the authors concluded in both cases that there is little evidence of
nutrition-related health benefits from the consumption of organically produced
food. There are no disease-promoting benefits deriving from eating an organic
diet. On the flip side, there are also no detrimental or negative health effects
from an organic diet.
Fresh produce like fruit and vegetables is
the most commonly purchased organic food. While there have been small differences
in nutrient levels demonstrated by some studies, this may simply relate to
differences in the way the produce is grown. It is likely that the nutrient
content of fresh produce is affected by a variety of factors such as the geographic
location of the farm, local soil characteristics, climatic conditions which vary
seasonally, the maturity of the produce when picked, and how the produce is
Reserved for the elite market
Research has also shown that milk from
organically raised cows has the same protein, vitamin, antioxidant and fat
content compared to conventionally raised cows. In those studies that have
shown that organic milk has higher concentrations of antioxidants and
polyunsaturated fatty acids, this is not necessarily associated with the
organically raised cow but related to what the cow eats, which differs
depending on the time of year and the type of soil the grass is grown in.
Read: Is organic food a big hoax?
Organic food is traditionally reserved for
the elite market, fetching premium prices compared to non-organic food. In the
US, organic food prices are as much as 40% higher than non-organic foods. This
is because higher production costs, increased labour to produce the food, as
well as a lower demand for organic products. In fact, some researchers argue
that the high cost of organically produced fruits and vegetables may just lead
to consumers to eating less of these supposed super healthy, nutrient-rich foods.
This is occurring despite well-established evidence documenting the health
benefits of eating a minimum of five portions of a variety of fruits and
vegetables on a daily basis.
organic food safer
Is organic food
safer to consume since no pesticides are used during the farming process? It appears that diets with more organic
produce may expose consumers to fewer pesticides. Interestingly, South Africa
is one of the largest users of pesticides in Africa (Hanford, 2014). Not only
is the exposure of produce to pesticides of concern, but also the occupational
exposure of farm workers. Alarmingly,
evidence of pesticide exposure has been observed in almost nine out of 10
Venezuelan farm workers. These farm workers also showed the impact of pesticides
on sperm quality, affecting male reproductive health.
The nervous system is particularly sensitive
to toxins that can contribute to conditions such as Parkinson’s disease,
Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia. The most prevalent findings on the role of
pesticides in health indicate various cancers. Pesticides have also been
associated with hearing loss, diabetes and obesity. An exhaustive review that
evaluated over 600 scientific publications concluded that no final conclusion
can be made, as there are many factors that contribute to the development of
Read: Why are pesticides used?
In summary, while
it seems that organic food is not necessarily more nutritious, it may be that
the lower pesticide levels in organic foods is better for our overall health. Fortunately, international parties such as
the European Union (EU), Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex), and North
American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have attempted to regulate pesticide use
in farming by setting maximum levels of pesticides allowed. The consumer is
encouraged to attempt to limit their exposure to pesticides as far as possible
by for example choosing organic fresh produce (when economically feasible),
washing all fresh fruit and vegetables before preparation, and growing their
fresh produce in a home, school, church or community vegetable garden.
Organic claims often overstated
How do organic farms work?
Enviro crisis spurs organic trend
1. Blair et al. Pesticides and
human health. Occup Environ Med Month. 2014.
2. Butler G, Nielsen JH, Slots T, et al. Fatty
acid and fat soluble antioxidant concentrations in milk from high- and
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4. Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and
Fisheries. National Policy on Organic Production. Draft 10. Date
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Health and Environmental Advantages and Disadvantages. American Academy of
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challenge in reaching the global harmonization of food. 2015. Integrated
Environmental Assessment and Management. 1–12.
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pesticide mixtures at a molecular level: their relevance to human health. 2012.
8. Miranda-Contrarers et al. Occupational
Exposure to Organophosphate and Carbamate Pesticides Affects Sperm Chromatin
Integrity and Reproductive Hormone Levels among Venezuelan Farm Workers. J
Occup Health 2013; 55: 195–203.
et al. Literature review on epidemiological studies linking exposure to
pesticides and health effects. European Food Safety Authority. 2013.
10. Report for the Food Standards Agency.
Comparison of putative health effects of organically and conventionally
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Intervention Research Unit London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
11. US Department of Agriculture. Emerging issues
in the US organic industry economic research service. June 2009. Available at: www.ers.usda.gov/publications/eib55/eib55.pdf.
Accessed 20 October 2016.
12. Vermeulen H, Bienebe E. Food Quality
Behaviour, Perceptions and Knowledge of South African Consumers – A Focus On Middle and Upper Socio-Economic
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The dietitians from Nutritional Solutions are Health24's expert team of registered dietitians.