Is organic food really healthier?
Is organic food really healthier? Image Credit: Shutterstock

One of the most emotionally loaded areas of parenting is what to feed your child.

As if simply getting your child to eat sufficient fruits and vegetables every day wasn’t hard enough, the topic of organic produce and whether the veggies you’re choosing are ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’ adds a whole new sense of moral judgement to an already thorny playing field.

But, although UAE consumer interest in organic foods increased by almost 40 percent in a year, according to 2018 YouGov research, the same study shows that cost and convenience remain major barriers to UAE residents going fully organic – two things that are very close to most parents’ hearts.

All of which results in a big fat dose of parental guilt if you aren’t a fully paid up member of the organic brigade.

But is this anxiety misplaced? Some experts certainly think so. “The health and nutritional benefits of organic are hugely overplayed,” says Lovely Ranganath, Dubai-based nutritionist. “It really is a personal choice”

What is classed as organic?

Put simply, organic food refers to fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy or other produce that is grown using specific agricultural methods that comply with standards of organic farming. Although these vary worldwide, the general agreement is that organic produce must be grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes (GMOs), no routine antibiotic use in the case of livestock, no petroleum-based fertilizers, and no sewage sludge-based fertilizers.

Will non-organic food harm my child?

The reason most people go organic is to avoid the potentially harmful chemicals that conventional foods are supposedly laced with in the form of pesticides. Certainly, multiple studies show that there are detectable levels of pesticides in conventional foods — one of the most recent, published in 2019 and led by the University of California and Friends of the Earth, followed four families in the US as they switched from a non-organic diet to a fully organic diet and tested their urine for the presence of pesticides. Of the 14 chemicals tested for, every single member of every family had detectable levels. After switching to an organic diet, these levels dropped dramatically — in some instances by up to 95 percent — including the levels of chemicals thought to be potential carcinogens.

This concurs with the findings from one of the most comprehensive meta-analyses on the health effects of organic and non-organic foods, led by Stanford University and published in 2012 in the Annals of Internal Medicine, which compared the results from 237 past papers and found that overall, “organic foods are 30 per cent less likely to contain detectable levels of pesticide residues.”

However, it is also important to note that “levels [of pesticide residues] in both organic and nonorganic foods were within allowable safety limits,” says Ranganath. Science writer and author Christie Wilcox, says, “Almost all pesticides detected on foods by independent scientific studies are at levels below one per cent of the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) set by US government regulators.

This level isn’t random — the ADI is based on animal exposure studies in a wide variety of species. They determine the highest dose at which no effects can be found. The ADI is then set 100 times lower than that level. Lovely agrees: “Please don’t get worried seeing the figure 30 percent because you need to keep in mind that this is an extremely weak amount; like the lowest of the lowest amount of pesticide content possible. The level of pesticides that are making it into your body is hundreds if not thousands of times lower than any known factor that would cause harm.”

It’s also very important to realize that just because a food is organic doesn’t mean that no pesticide has been used on it – just that no synthetic pesticides have been used on it. There are a number of natural pesticides allowable in organic farming – and indeed that are naturally created by animals and plants themselves as a defence mechanism against being eaten – that can also be potentially harmful to our health, and much more research is needed into the toxicity of these natural pesticides; as a 2003 review of food safety concluded, “what should be made clear to consumers is that ‘organic’ does not equal ‘safe’.”

Bc organic food healthy
How much of a difference is there between organic and non organic food?

Will organic food make my child healthier?

Although the general perception is that organic food is more nutritious and better for you, the 2012 Stanford meta-analysis cited above concluded that there was little significant difference in health benefits between organic and conventional foods. No consistent differences were seen in the vitamin content of organic products, and only one nutrient — phosphorus — was significantly higher in organic versus conventionally grown produce (although since few people have phosphorous deficiency, the researchers note this has little clinical significance).

There was also little difference in protein or fat content between organic and conventional milk, although evidence from a limited number of studies suggested that organic milk may contain significantly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Nevertheless, an even more recent meta-analysis by the University of Newcastle in 2014 reviewed an even larger pool of papers – 343 rather than Stanford’s 237 – and found that eating organic food could boost a person’s antioxidant intake by up to 40 percent. The researchers postulate that this could provide health benefits to human nutrition because many antioxidants have been linked to a lower risk for chronic diseases (although lead researcher Carlo Leifert admits that there is “no evidence of what the potential health impact may be”).

Most recently, a 2017 review of existing evidence on the impact of organic food on human health found that, although the nutritional difference between organic and conventional food may seem to be marginal at the moment, of greater concern is the prevalent use of antibiotics in conventional animal production as a key driver of antibiotic resistance in society. As antibiotic use is less intensive in organic production, this is likely to have a beneficial impact on human health.

Will organic food make the world a better place for my child?

While some of the farming practices that are commonly employed on organic farms are very positive from an environmental perspective, many of those practices are also used by progressive “conventional” growers, explains US-based sustainability consultant Steven Savage. “There are also quite a few farming practices with excellent environmental profiles which are difficult to implement under the organic farming rules (e.g. no-till farming, spoon-feeding of nutrients via irrigation),” he continues. “Compost, which is a major input for organic farms, has a shockingly high “carbon footprint” because of methane emissions. The carbon footprint of “synthetic” fertilizer is much smaller.”

Similarly, it might seem intuitive that organic farming’s shunning of synthetic pesticides should be more environmentally friendly, but a 2010 University of Guelph study found that some organic pesticides can actually have a worse environmental impact than conventional ones, because the organic pesticides are required to be used in higher doses.

Also, organic farms require significantly more land to achieve the same level of production, which some studies have said creates a higher carbon footprint due to deforestation and a higher degree of carbon dioxide as a result. Nevertheless, there are proven benefits to organic practices for animal welfare and for the welfare of those working on the farms, as occupational pesticide exposure is generally much lower.

The verdict

In short? It’s complicated. There’s still much more research that needs to be done, and none of the studies into the health benefits or risks for humans of consuming organic food compared to conventional food have been properly long-term yet. “Having the entire world fed a wholly organic diet would be amazing though not realistically possible – an ever-growing world population and interlinked factors in itself are barriers,” says nutritionist Lovely Ranganath. “So it really becomes a personal choice, based on factors like financial capability, your budgeting priorities and your ease of access to organic foods, amongst others.”

The burgeoning organic market in the UAE can only be a good thing, as more attention is paid to locally grown fresh food and improving its quality. However, one thing is clear: Eating fewer fruits and vegetables due to fear of pesticides or the high price of organics is likely to do more harm to our health than any of the pesticide residues on our food. Keep on trying to give your little one as many fruits and vegetables as you can, whether they are organic or not, and you’ll be doing something right.

Jordana Smith, nutritionist at Genesis Healthcare Centre in Dubai
Jordana Smith, nutritionist at Genesis Healthcare Centre in Dubai Image Credit: Supplied
Jordana Smith is a mother herself as well as a nutritionist at Genesis Healthcare Centre in Dubai. She shares her realistic advice for parents...

Organic food is any meat, vegetable, fruit, or food product that is produced without the use of man-made fertilizers, pesticides, growth regulators and livestock feed additives. Foods or food products that have been produced from or by GMOs are generally prohibited by organic legislation. The UAE tends to conform to the international standards. The biggest thing is look for the certification with a food or food product to ensure it is truly organic.

There is a mixed consensus on whether organic food is healthier for our children or not. When assessing the nutritional differences there isn't a consistency in whether the organic produce has a higher level of nutrients. Most research is indicating that organically produced food will have increased amounts of nutrients, for example we expect 50% more omega 3 in organic milk products versus non-organic. However, we do have the issue of food being moved around the world before being eaten. This is going to be affecting the overall nutrition of the food. Foods that are grown locally or for example livestock fed on better diets, such as grass-fed meats will have higher micronutrient levels, than a meat which is organic but still fed an artificial feed. For me it's more a case of being a smart shopper. If you have a choice of an organic tomato grown in Spain versus a tomato grown in the UAE, I would choose the tomato that is grown locally in terms on nutrients, and if you can get the local organic tomato then that would be even better.
We have stopped buying seasonally because everything is available at any time of the year, the source place has changed.
On the other hand, organic food is going to contain fewer amounts of toxins within them, which means we are taking in less toxins which can be affecting your child's and your own overall health. There unfortunately is no easy answer at this point. We really need to look at how we are living our lives as a whole and not as separate facets for example: food, cosmetics, sun creams etc. They all are going to be impacting on health and more focus should be made on improving all aspects and not just one.

The flavour of food is going to be determined more by the freshness of the food. So the more locally produced food you eat the better, this doesn't always mean it is organic.

There isn't an easy answer here. For some foods absolutely but for others no. I prefer you to look at what is the best that you can afford. I would certainly look at the "Clean 15, Dirty Dozen" lists before I make a choice. (These are available very freely).

Focus on the "Clean 15, Dirty Dozen" to help you make decisions if you are going to choose between certain foods. For example: If you are eating the whole food like a blueberry for example, spend the extra and buy organic, but something like a banana the necessity to buy organic becomes less. For me I would focus on meat products being grass-fed and if you can get organic grass-fed even better, but dairy products I would spend the extra and choose organic. For fish - Wild caught fish would be the absolute premium, and organic farmed would be a next best option.