Does it pay to spend more on organic produce? Nitpicking classifications of food as organic or non-organic aside, let’s look at the state of the science as it stands.
First, let’s address the main putative arguments for consuming organic food:
- It contains more micronutrients, and is therefore healthier
- It has less pesticides and unhealthy chemicals that might damage your health
It contains more micronutrients
This is something that has been looked at in the research, and we have a couple of reviews available to us on this claim. Williams et. al. conducted a review comparing the nutritional value of organic vs conventionally-grown foods and found that there was insufficient evidence to make a strong argument either way.
Previous research has noted that there are probably very few compositional differences between the two. Additionally, to address the question of the impact of eating organic foods on health – there is barely any evidence available that looks at the potential effects of organic foods vs non-organic in animal and human models.
Attempting to compile and compare the data that is available is a difficult task given the intricacies of nutrient interactions and the lack of longer term controlled studies.
This brings us to the next claim.
It has less pesticides and unhealthy chemicals that might damage your health
The main argument against this claim is that – again – there is simply not sufficient data.
Secondly, it is a well-known adage that the dose maketh the poison. The actual levels of contamination in conventionally-grown produce has been consistently shown to be very low, and so in the same way that eating apple seeds (which contain cyanide) has no insidious effect, the low doses of pesticide residues are not dangerous.
Some studies from Japan show that washing vegetables will significantly reduce pesticide residue. Simply washing your vegetables thoroughly may significantly mitigate any potential risk associated with pesticide ingestion.
It should also be noted that plant foods in particular may have compositional differences associated with less pesticide use. The idea is that the use of less pesticides may result in the production of defensive compounds by the plant, some of which may be either beneficial or toxic to humans depending on the dose (smaller doses of these compounds can cause a health promoting response in the body, the same way exercise induces damage and inflammation that allows healthy adaptation to take place). Depending on the context this may be beneficial or detrimental.