5 Common Misconceptions on Organic Foods: Debunked!
1. Organic Foods do not use Pesticides
Organic foods like conventional foods both use pesticides. The difference lies in quantity and source. Organic foods just do not use synthetic pesticides and instead rely on naturally derived pesticides which have gone through little to no processing. Moreover, it is important to note that “natural” is not synonymous with “safe” and therefore the pesticides used in organic farming are not safer than those that are synthetic (University of Illinois, 2017). Different pesticides whether naturally derived or not have advantages and disadvantages, it really just depends on the pesticide itself (Mie et al., 2017). That being said, A 2012 systematic review published in the Annals of Internal Medicine (AIM) have found there to be significant differences in the quantity of pesticide residues found on organic compared to conventional produce with organically grown produce having lower levels of pesticide residues compared to conventionally grown produce. Nevertheless, when examining whether the levels of pesticides surpassed maximum allowed levels as designated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) there were no statistical differences found.
2. Organic Foods are “Healthier” and “Safer”
Not necessarily. There is little to no difference between the nutrition density of an apple that is conventionally grown and one that is grown organically. The aforementioned 2012 AIM systematic review found that after accounting for outliers it was found that there were no statistically significant differences in vitamin content, mineral content, E. coli contamination and presence of toxins or heavy metals between organic and conventional foods. The aforementioned 2012 AIM systematic review also examined 17 studies with over 13,800 participants and found that there was no difference in markers for atopic disease markers among pregnant women and children and in men and women of a non-childbearing age therefore no difference in biomarker levels in serum, urine, breast milk and semen. Thus, according to the systematic review there is no significant difference in health between groups that ate organic food and those who did not.
3. Antioxidants found in organic foods make them more nutritious
Few studies have found that organic fruits and vegetables are higher in antioxidants, claiming that this makes organic food healthier is unfounded claim because there is no consensus within the scientific community on if and how antioxidants exactly ameliorate health. In 2014, a study published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) found that lung cancer in mice is enhanced by antioxidants. In contrast, a study in 2017 published in The Internal Journal of Molecular Sciences found that antioxidants exhibit a myriad of biological effects such as anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral, anti-aging, and anticancer. Whereas, in the same year, a study in the Annals of Research in Antioxidants found that the effects of certain antioxidant supplements can have positive effects in men but negative in women and vice versa. All in all, it is yet to be made clear if or how antioxidants improve health as the research is not really black and white.
4. Organic farming practices are better for the environment
It depends. Organic farming practices use less energy than conventional farming. However, organic farming requires much more land to produce the same amount of crop as conventional farming. Because organic farming uses less pesticides and frequently use more sustainable farming practices such as crop rotation thus are less ecotoxic. Nonetheless, conventional and organic farming practices have similar greenhouse gas emissions. These results are reiterated by a report from the Swedish Food Agency and a 2017 meta-analysis published in Our World of Data, the results are mixed, and one practice is not really significantly better than the other
5. Organic Farming is sustainable
Demand for organic produce is constantly rising and producers are struggling to supply the market while abiding to the strict and expensive quality requirements of organic food standards. This leads to unsustainable production processes. In most cases growing demand cannot be covered by domestic production especially in areas where tropical fruits and vegetables are more difficult to cultivate (ie. Canada), this increases the global trade of organic food. Hence, making it even harder and more complex to ensure that organic standards are met, and cases of fraud are more common than not.
So, what should be the takeaway?
If you would like to eat healthy, follow the Canadian Food Guide. Eat your fruits and vegetables, eat a variety of foods and choose whole grain. If you would like to get all your nutrients in, variation is the key, choose different fruits and vegetables. If you would like to support environmentally and economically sustainable practices of agriculture. Choose local and try your best to eat foods in season (as explained by McGill’s Food and Dining Services!) Finally, remember not to vilify foods, buying organic feels right and we do it with good intentions. But, thinking of organic as “good” and conventional as “bad” clouds reasonable judgement. They both have pros and cons and a combination of their advantages would probably lead to more sustainable practices.
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Framework for Assessing Non-occupational, Non-dietary (Residential) Exposure to Pesticides. (2016, September 21). Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/pesticide-science-and-assessing-pesticide-risks/framework-assessing-non-occupational-non-dietary.
Going organic: Are organic pesticides safer than their synthetic counterparts? (2017, June 2). Retrieved from https://news.aces.illinois.edu/news/going-organic-are-organic-pesticides-safer-their-synthetic-counterparts.
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