Is organically-grown food healthier for humans than non-organically grown food?

The following e-mail came in earlier today:

On 01/04/2008, at 11:07 AM, Alexa wrote:

Dear Keith

I am grateful to still be on your distribution lists. I really enjoy the materials you send. What do you think of this?



Here's my answer:

I have time only to skim it, Alexa.

Personally, I would expect organically-grown plants and animals to be more nutritious than others and this paper confirms my expectation. However, we won't know the answer by doing lab tests, only by looking at the health of individuals over many years - a lifetime - and even the health of their children or grandchildren. And don't forget, the purpose behind organic agriculture is not primarily about human nutrition - it's more about restoration and husbandry of the soil.

However, my own view of what is organic is much narrower than theirs. I don't regard the high carbohydrate plants as making a positive contribution to human health. So I would regard a comparison between organic wheat and non-organic wheat (flour/bread etc.) or between organic potatoes and non-organic potatoes as missing the point. Even more so organic and non-organic sugar. None of these foods have a central part to play in a healthy human diet (however, humans are opportunistic omnivores and can tolerate a good deal of rubbish in their diet for a short while without much damage).

I would also say that people who worry about organic vs non-organic foods but then also consume confectionary, trans fats, MSG, pharmaceuticals, who smoke or take drugs (heroin, alcohol, amphetamines etc.) are missing the main game.

Cooking and the time between harvest and eating are two other factors which can be more important than whether a food is organic or non-organic.

I would go further than this. The extent to which nutrients in food that is declared to be organic is also bioavailable will vary person to person.

A healthy person in the prime of life with all their teeth, who is physically active and lives an unstressed lifestyle and has no food addictions, eating largely locally-grown fresh foods may do better on non-organic foods (being able to utilize more of their nutrient qualities) than an older person who is beginning to have the early onset of syndrome-X, whose teeth are missing, who works shifts, leads a sedentary lifestyle and has an unusually large proportion of their diet comprising, say, chocolates, coffee or donuts - even of they are all organic.

Because of our culture, we are inclined to focus on a single aspect of our lives when health and well-being are concerned. We want a simple explanation, rather than the complex truth. However, it's all part of a large, dynamic, interacting system with powerful positive and negative feedbacks either playing out or waiting to be triggered.

For more information see:

Loren Cordain
Choosing a diet
Organic food
Weston Price

Also this document which is a telling example of how natural processes are linked in the environment.

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Last modified 6 April 2008