You may have been confused about the organic label when you first came across it at the supermarket, and then also expressed shock at the higher prices at which they are sold. But with mindful eating and long-term health becoming more important for most, organic foods and diet are being picked by more and more people. And, going by what most recent studies have to say about it, switching to organic foods is the healthy choice today.
What is organic food?
"The word organic refers to the way farmers grow and process agricultural products, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products and meat," says Akanksha Mishra, a Nutrition and Wellness Expert associated with myUpchar. "What you need to know if you are planning to consume organically grown food or want to grow your own organic food is primarily that the crop must be produced without the use of synthetic substances like pesticides, herbicides, and fertilisers, except those approved by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI)."
The regulations for organic production in India are set according to the FSSAI's National Programme of Organic Production (NPOP). "No prohibited substances can have been applied to the land for three years prior to harvest," Mishra explains further regulations. "Soil fertility and crop nutrient management must be done in a manner to improve soil conditions, minimise soil erosion, and prevent contamination of crops, soil or water by plant nutrients, pathogenic organisms or heavy metals." These strict regulations are tailored to provide organic foods with several benefits, which most recent studies support.
What's so special about organic?
A study published in Nutrients in January 2020 indicates that while the macronutrient values of organic products " that is the protein, carbohydrate, fat and dietary fibre content " barely show variation from the conventional products, the micronutrient values may differ. Organic crops may have higher antioxidant concentrations, particularly polyphenols. Organic dairy products have higher omega-3 fatty acids and organic meat products have improved fatty acid profiles.
While the benefits of these nutritional differences need further studies to be established, it's what organic foods don't have that matters even more. The research mentioned above shows that organic foods have low levels of toxic metabolites, including toxic heavy metals like cadmium, synthetic fertiliser and pesticide residues. It also links organic food consumption with reduced exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Another study in Environmental Research in August 2020 observed four diverse families in the US who followed a regular diet for a week, and an organic diet for another week, to evaluate if their toxic glyphosate levels declined. Glyphosate (aminomethylphosphonic acid) is a non-selective herbicide which is used extensively in non-organic farming in the US and the world. It's widely used in India as well. The study found that during the week in which the families consumed a purely organic diet, their glyphosate levels went down by 70 percent.
Switching to organic foods and a predominantly organic diet can help reduce the toxicity in your body. Given that antibiotic resistance, increased toxicity and fertiliser residues can have immense negative outcomes for your health, it's better to reduce the intake of foods that heighten your chances of diseases that affect your immune, nervous or reproductive systems in the long run - or cause cancers.
But while the case for choosing organic is strong, there's a huge downside to it too. Organic farming focuses on enhancing soil and water quality, preventing pollution and promotes the development of a self-sustaining cycle of crop and livestock rearing - and all of this, without the use of fertilisers on crops and antibiotics in livestock, is rather expensive. And hence, organic foods are more costly whether you source them directly from the farm or pick them from the supermarket.
So, organic foods are healthier, yes, but maybe not yet affordable for all. If you still choose to make the switch to organic foods, make sure you check for the FSSAI's approval or India Organic mark on the label and buy seasonal products only.
For more information, read our article on Balanced diet.
Health articles in Firstpost are written by myUpchar.com, India's first and biggest resource for verified medical information. At myUpchar, researchers and journalists work with doctors to bring you information on all things health.