In modern terms, the organic trend began in Europe in the 1920s. The negative impact of chemicals used in agriculture was an assumption at a time for which evidence was needed. Nowadays, the evidence is mounting. Due to this, we had to ban some chemicals and create additional limits for others so that their levels were not toxic for our bodies.
It is probably clear that I am not going to defend conventional food production but there are some interesting facts that can help you make a better decision in the store.
Difference between organic and non-organic foods
The main difference between organic and conventional foods is in the concentration of pesticide residues. In organic food, we find low amounts of these substances and no synthetic chemicals. In addition, organic products in the EU cannot be genetically modified, producers cannot use synthetic fertilizers and antibiotics usage is limited. While in conventional agriculture, there are no restriction on genetic modification and antibiotics are used to a greater extent along with growth factors and other stimulants.1, 2
Important note: Currently, we use 385 authorized pesticides in the EU. From those, 26 are also allowed in organic farming. However, I want to point out that we talk about pesticides of low toxicological magnitude. These are usually substances normally consumed such as iron, rapeseed oil, bicarbonate and similar. The only exception is pyrethrin and copper, which can also be used for organic crops.3,4
Chemicals in the environment
When we judge whether organic products are better or worse than conventional products in terms of chemicals, we usually look at the pesticide used in agriculture. However, we do not take into account that our environment is also contaminated by industry. Water, air, and soil are interconnected. Therefore, chemicals form the industry can contaminate our food, whether organically grown or not. Both conventional and organic products may contain forbidden persistent (and poisonous) pesticides, such as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and others 5 released from the environment.
For example, there are several studies that found higher levels of environmental pollutants in organic foods than in conventional ones. Thus, it is important where the organic farm is located and what can escape from the environment into growing plants and affect their quality.6
It seems that supporting organic farming is the first important step in improving the quality of our food. We can make a difference by improving soil quality and cleaning up chemicals used in agriculture. However, the food will still contain chemical residues from industry if we do not change anything about it too. Countries have a different degree of pollution dependent on the leading industry. You can find more about it in this study.6 On top of this, we have not even taken into consideration processing, packaging and transport which have also an impact on food quality.
Now, let’s look at the use of pesticide in Europe.
EFSA Results (European Food Safety Authority)
The EFSA 2017 results show that 96.2% of tested product samples were within the approved limits. In other words, this means that 96.2% of the samples contained pesticides at a level that did not exceed European standards, and 3.8% of samples contained pesticides above the legal limit.
In contrast, 83.1% of organic samples did not contain quantifiable pesticide residues, 15.6% contained residues at concentrations within the legal limits (these were naturally occurring substances and persistent organic pollutants), and 1.3% of samples exceeded the European limit of permitted residues.7
Thus, the EFSA report shows a significantly higher pesticide content in conventional products compared to organic.
Nutritional differences in fruits and vegetables
Studies show that organic fruits and vegetables have a lower nitrate concentration. In contrast, they can contain more phosphorus, minerals (e.g. iron, magnesium and zinc), vitamin C, carotenoids and tocopherols. In addition, some studies suggest that organic fruits and vegetables contain more phenols and flavonoids. Differences in the presence of toxic metals, including lead, mercury and arsenic, are similar between conventional and organic crops. This is possibly related to penetrating chemicals from industry. For instance, significant differences were found in the level of cadmium with 30% higher content in conventional cereals.3,8
Nutritional differences in animal products
The differences between organic and conventional products mainly reflects on animal feeding. Organic farming requires that a substantial proportion of animal food is locally grown grass and clover, while conventional farming feeds animals with soy, palm kernel cake and cereals.9 This leads to several differences:
# 1: Omega 3 fatty acids
Organic milk contains 50% more omega-3 fatty acids10 and has a better ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 than conventional dairy products. You will find more about the importance of the omega 3 and 6 ratio in my article here.
Consequently, there are also differences between organic and conventional meat and eggs. It is estimated that consumption of organic products compared to conventional products may increase omega 3 fatty acid intake by 2.5-8% from dairy products and by 2.5-4% from meat.3,8
# 2: Trace elements and vitamins
A recent study showed a significantly higher content of iodine (74%) and selenium (21%) in conventional milk, but in contrast higher iron (20%) and tocopherol (13%) in organic milk.
# 3: Antibiotics
Conventional farming prioritize a high production with a minimal cost for space and feed. These conditions cause stress in animals and increase their risk of disease and growth problems. As a result, animals are treated with antibiotics and growth stimulants.11,12
In organic farming, animals are reared in their natural environment, which improves their quality of life, and so product quality.3 In addition, animals treated with antibiotics more than three times during the year cannot be sold as organic. Also, animals with life cycle less than one year cannot be sold as organic, if treated with antibiotics more than once 13. Unfortunately, these standards are not applied in conventional production. A resistance to antibiotics is a global problem, and excessive use of antibiotics in agriculture contributes to this.
Organic food and health
We have quite a lot of evidence that eating organic foods strongly reduces the presence of pesticides and their metabolites in blood and urine.3,10,14-16 Also, we can decrease the level of pesticides in our urine after just 1 week of consuming organic foods.17-19
There is a growing number of studies showing that eating organic foods can decrease a risk of allergies or promote higher sperm density in men.8 In contrast, pesticides can adversely affect the cognitive function of children. Furthermore, we have some indications that organic diet can reduce the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. 8,20,21
However, to clearly prove benefits of organic diets is problematic because people who consume organic foods usually have a healthier lifestyle. These people usually have a higher physical activity, limited alcohol consumption and nutritionally richer diets and thus the contribution of organic food in their health status is equivocal. 22,23
What can we conclude from the evidence?
- Organic foods do not contain detectable residues of conventional pesticides.
- 96.2% of conventional foods contain pesticides at the permitted standard and 3.8% above the permitted limit in the EU.
- Both, organic as well as conventional product can be contaminated to various extent with environmental (industry) toxins.
- Organic foods contain fewer nitrates and may contain more minerals, vitamins and phytochemicals.
- Animal products from organic farms contain more omega-3 fatty acids and probably less antibiotics and growth stimulants.
- We have an indication that organic food is better for our health and may reduce the risk of certain chronic diseases, but further studies are needed to make a strong conclusion.
If buying everything organic is painful for your wallet, try the following tips:
1. Choose European products rather than foreign.
The EFSA report states that foods from non-EU countries are more likely to contain higher level of pesticide and exceed legal limits stated by EU. The highest exceeded values were found in foods from Laos, Vietnam, China, Uganda, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Pakistan, Cambodia and Suriname. Countries that exceeded the average level of pesticides were India, Israel, Colombia, Egypt, the Dominican Republic, Tunisia, Kenya and Brazil. When looking at food from the EU, Malta, Iceland, Cyprus, Norway, France and Poland had the highest exceeding pesticides levels (over 4% of the samples exceeding the permitted value).
Read where foods come from. Foods from the EU market are more likely to contain level of pesticides within legal limits.
2. Broccoli, leeks, lettuce, tomatoes and apples is worth buying organic even from EU market
The EFSA report of EU products states that foods with the lowest levels of pesticide overdose were rye, head cabbage and strawberries while values above the allowed limits included peaches, leeks, lettuce, tomatoes and apples. Low values were also found in wine and with an exception of one lard sample, tested animal fat and milk did not exceed the permitted values. However, it is important to add that they tested only 11 types of products. Thus, a detailed analysis has not been done on all types of fruits, vegetables and animal products.
* The EFSA report contains also an overall food rating, including foods brought to EU market from non-EU countries. However, the method for samples analysis and reported values do not provide statistically representative numbers.7
3. Invest in quality organic meat and animal products rather than fruits and vegetables
The main reason is the farming standards, the environment in which the animals live and how they are fed, which reflects the presence of antibiotics and growth factors in the products. For instance, small farms and local producers may often have the problem of obtaining a license as an organic producer, but the quality of the products is probably much higher than in the big store chains.
Also, you can follow a strategy of enjoying a higher quality meat once or twice a week rather than consuming low-quality meat in high quantities.
4. Foods you do not need to buy organic
You do not have to by organic fruits such as bananas, melon, mango, kiwi or avocado. Most pesticides remain on the surface of the fruit. In contrast, what we consume without peeling is better to buy organic. Especially green leafy vegetables, which are often sprayed.
5. It is better to invest in organic food if you are trying to conceive, during pregnancy and for children8
6. If you do not buy organic food, you can reduce pesticides on the surface of the foods by washing them
- running water removes some pesticides from fruits and vegetables 24
- 10% salt solution will also help ( to make a 10% salt solution, mix up about one-part of salt to nine-parts of water)
To make these methods effective, washing must take 20 minutes.
- Sodium bicarbonate seems like the most effective method for removing pesticides not only from the surface but also from the inside of the plant (tested on apples)25.
How to do it?
Put 30 g of soda bicarbonate into 3 liters of water. In this solution, let the fruit or vegetables soak for 12 to 15 minutes. However, if you do not have enough time, try at least 5 minutes. This will be still healthier than to consume all the pesticide residues with your food.
Well done to you, if you reached the end of this article! I hope you found it useful.
- Council of the European Union: Council Regulation No 834/2007 of 28 June 2007 on organic production and labelling of organic products and repealing Regulation (EEC) No 2092/91. In: Off J Eur Union 2007.
- The EU’s organic food market: facts and rules (infographic). http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/society/20180404STO00909/the-eu-s-organic-food-market-facts-and-rules-infographic.
- Mie A et al. Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture: a comprehensive review. 2017, Environmental Health (2017) 16:111.
- European Commission: COMMISSION REGULATION (EU) No 1107/2009 of 21 October 2009 concerning the placing of plant protection products on the market and repealing Council Directives 79/117/EEC and 91/414/EEC. In: Off J Eur Union 2009.
- Gomiero, T., 2018. Food quality assessment in organic vs. conventional agricultural produce: findings and issues. Appl. Soil Ecol. 123, 714–728. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apsoil.2017.10.014.
- Gonzalez N et al. Occurrence of environmental pollutants in foodstuffs: A review of organic vs. conventional food. 2019, Food and Chemical Toxicology 125 (2019) 370–375.
- EFSA (European Food Safety Authority), 2018. The 2016 European Union report on pesticide residues in food. EFSA Journal 2018;16(7):5348, 139 pp. https://doi.org/10.2903/j.efsa.2018.5348
- Brantsæter AL et al. Organic Food in the Diet:Exposure and Health Implications. Rev. Public Health 2017. 38:295–313.
- Eur. Communities. 2008. Commission Regulation (E C) N o 8 89/2008 of 5 S eptember 2008 laying down de tailed r ules for th e implementation of Council Regulation (E C) n o 8 34/2007 on organic production and labelling of or ganic products with regard to organic pr oduction, labelling a nd control. Off. J. Eur. Union 889/2008:1–84. http://data.europa.eu/eli/reg/2008/889/oj
- Średnicka-Tober D et al. Higher PUFA and n-3 PUFA, conjugated linoleic acid, α-tocopherol and iron, but lower iodine and selenium concentrations in organic milk: a systematic literature review and meta-and redundancy analyses. Br J Nutr. 2016:1–18.
- European Food Safety Authority. Scientific opinion of the panel of animal health and welfare on the request from the Commission on the welfare of weaners and rearing pigs: effects of different space allowances and floor types. EFSA J. 2005;268:1–19.
- European Food Safety Authority. Scientific opinion of the panel of animal health and welfare on the request from the Commission on animal health and welfare in fattening pigs in relation to housing and husbandry. EFSA Journal. 2007;564:1–14.
- European Commission: Commission Regulation (EC) No 889/2008 of 5 September 2008 laying down detailed rules for the implementation of Council Regulation (EC) No 834/2007 on organic production and labelling of organic products with regard to organic production, labelling and control. In: Off J Eur Union 2008.
- Heudorf U, Butte W, Schulz C, Angerer J. Reference values for metabolites of pyrethroid and organophosphorous insecticides in urine for human biomonitoring in environmental medicine. Int J Hyg Environ Health. 2006; 209(3):293–9.
- Spaan S, Pronk A, Koch HM, Jusko TA, Jaddoe VW, Shaw PA, Tiemeier HM, Hofman A, Pierik FH, Longnecker MP. Reliability of concentrations of organophosphate pesticide metabolites in serial urine specimens from pregnancy in the generation R study. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol. 2015;25(3):286–94.
- Roca M, Miralles-Marco A, Ferre J, Perez R, Yusa V. Biomonitoring exposure assessment to contemporary pesticides in a school children population of Spain. Environ Res. 2014;131C:77–85.
- Lu C, Toepel K, Irish R, Fenske RA, Barr DB, Bravo R. Organic diets significantly lower Children’s dietary exposure to Organophosphorus pesticides. Environ Health Perspect. 2006;114(2):260–3.
- Oates L, Cohen M, Braun L, Schembri A, Taskova R. Reduction in urinary organophosphate pesticide metabolites in adults after a week-long organic diet. Environ Res. 2014;132(0):105–11.
- Bradman A, Quiros-Alcala L, Castorina R, Aguilar Schall R, Camacho J,Holland NT, Barr DB, Eskenazi B. Effect of organic diet intervention on pesticide exposures in young children living in low-income urban and agricultural communities. Environ Health Perspect. 2015;123(10):1086–93.
- Wang X et al. Fruit and vegetable consumption and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. BMJ. 2014;349:g4490.
- Zong G et al. Whole grain intake and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer: a meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Circulation. 2016;133(24):2370–80.
- Kesse-Guyot E et al. Profiles of organic food consumers in a large sample of French adults: results from the Nutrinet-Sante cohort study. PLoS One. 2013;8(10): e76998.
- Torjusen H et al. Reduced risk of preeclampsia with organic vegetable consumption: results from the prospective Norwegian mother and child cohort study. BMJ Open. 2014; 4(9):e006143.
- Zhi-YongZhang et al. Effects of home preparation on pesticide residues in cabbage. 2017.Food Control.18(12) 1484-148.
- Yang T. Effectiveness of Commercial and Homemade Washing Agents in Removing Pesticide Residues on and in Apples. J. Agric. Food Chem., 2017, 65 (44), pp 9744–975.