Organic food is perceived to be more environmentally friendly, ethical and nutritious, and attracts a premium price to match. Is it really worth it?

What is organic food?
Organic food is produced without the use of synthetic chemicals, such as pesticides and artificial fertilisers. Organics do not use genetically modified components or livestock feed additives, and do not expose foods to irradiation. 

It is important to know that the standard for labelling products as organic in Australia is voluntary, and certification is offered by a number of different bodies. Each of these bodies has their own standard for certification. Manufacturers can also include the word “organic” or similar words that suggest it in a brand or product name, without certification. So, if you are looking for organic, it’s important to read the fine print.

Is it nutritionally better?
Many people believe that organic food is nutritionally superior. This is not really backed up by the science. Research comprising of hundreds of studies has found that organic produce is no more nutritious than conventional equivalents. While vitamin and mineral levels may vary between organic and conventional produce, they also vary significantly within these classifications. Where there are differences, they are often small, and not likely to impact on health.

Is organic better for you?
Pesticide residues and heavy metal levels have been found to be lower in organic produce. While pesticides are often dangerous in large amounts, pesticide levels are monitored in Australia and are kept within safe levels, especially if you wash or peel you fruit and veg before consumption.

Bear in mind that organic foods are not necessarily completely chemical free. They may be grown on land that previously had chemical exposure. Certain naturally occurring pesticides, such as pyrethrins, light oils, copper and sulphur and other biological substances are permitted for use in organic farming.

Pesticides are commonly linked to cancer risk, but a study that followed 620,000 women for nine years found no differences in the overall cancer rate between those who ate organic and those who ate conventional foods.

Does it taste better?
Some people believe that organic foods taste better than non-organic. Interestingly, the scientific studies that have addressed this question show people just need to think foods are organic to believe they taste better. When conventional foods were labelled as organic, the participants rated them more highly. Lots of other research has found that growing a crop organically or conventionally doesn’t consistently affect its taste.

What about the environment?
Organic foods may have less of an environmental footprint. But this might be a privileged position. If all food was farmed using organic methods, studies show that it appears unlikely we could feed the whole world’s burgeoning population due to the significant productivity gap between organic and conventional methods.

The bottom line?
The important thing is to consume fruits and vegetables regardless of the source. When most of us simply aren’t eating enough fruits and vegetables, it is perhaps pointless to quibble over organic status.

Dr Emma Beckett is Broadsheet’s nutrition columnist. A molecular nutritionist with a Ph.D. in Food Science, she is a post-doctoral fellow in the School of Medicine and Public Health and the University of Newcastle. In a world of mixed messages she can be found busting nutrition myths and empowering people to critically assess nutrition information. She tweets at @synapse101.