Are Organic Foods Healthy For Humans?

Lindsay Bright (Animal Science), Alyssa Chadwick (Animal Science, Environmental Science), Kate Jolly (Animal Science)

Nowadays, the healthiness of organic food is a common topic that society is familiar with. Many people are fully aware that certain types of foods are unhealthy, but it is also a bit unclear about what foods are actually healthy for you.  It is also unknown to most people where their food comes from and what the term ‘organic’ truly means. One would think it is common knowledge that constantly eating fast food negatively impacts human health and leads to obesity.  Obesity and weight gain from eating unhealthy food can be linked to hypertension, coronary heart disease, stroke, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, respiratory problems, endometrial cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, colon cancer, insulin resistance, asthma, reproductive hormone abnormalities, dyslipidemia, hepatitis, hyperuricemia, cystic ovarian syndrome, impaired fertility, and adult onset diabetes (Super Size Me, 2004).  Although it can be clear to some people what foods are unhealthy, there is a lot of discrepancy about what foods are healthy and, even more, about whether organic foods are healthier for humans than conventionally farmed foods. Ideally, in the hopes to educate the population, there should be a set of guidelines put forth from the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) or the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) to help clarify what ‘healthy’ is before being able to determine if organic food is or is not healthy for humans.

Many people do not know what healthy is. Some think that all food is healthy and would be content eating McDonald’s burgers everyday, assuming that because there is meat, carbohydrates and vegetables, they have hit all the major food groups. In the documentary Food Inc. (2008), one mother states, “We didn’t even think about healthy eating because we just thought that everything was healthy” (m 39.34).  This shows that people in the United States are in need of education about what healthy is and what foods are healthy for them. Having better guidelines put forth by the USDA or FDA of what is healthy can alleviate this problem. This documentary also touches on the fact that ‘healthy’ foods are far more expensive than anything that is offered on a dollar menu.  The same mother goes on to tell us, “Now that I know that the food is really unhealthy for us I feel really guilty giving it to my kids… when you have only a dollar to spend and you have two kids to feed, you go straight to the drive through and get two hamburgers”(m. 40.48). Unfortunately, many people feel that they do not have the time or money to eat healthy food, but this could all be changed if the FDA and USDA gave better guidelines and directions about what is healthy.

What is healthy?  Theoretically, the definition of healthy should be a resource to help determine whether organic foods are better than conventionally farmed foods.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines healthy as an adjective: “Possessing or enjoying good health; hale or sound (in body), so as to be able to discharge all functions efficiently (Healthy [Def.1]).”   Merriam-Webster dictionary defines healthy as: “: having good health: not sick or injured, good for your health (Healthy [Def. 1-3]).” However, the FDA and USDA do not have definitions of the word healthy readily available. The word ‘healthy’ became a fairly relative term.  Considering this, the Oxford English Dictionary or Merriam-Webster dictionary definition, does not accurately define if organic foods are in fact better for humans than non-organic foods.

With this term ‘healthy’ being so broad, it is logical for Americans to turn to the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) and the media for regulations and guidelines for the definition of organic in relation to healthy.  According to the USDA, organic food, as opposed to conventionally farmed food, is defined through the Organic Food Production Act, USDA organic regulations, the National Organic Program Handbook, and Draft Guidance (US. Department of Agriculture 2015).  Along with the USDA, Batra et al. (2014) attests that organic food is said to be grown without application of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, fumigants (containing nitrogen or other heavy metals), human excreta, growth hormones or genetically engineered techniques.  Batra et al. (2014) also states that organic foods are rich in antioxidants, phenolics, vitamins A, C and E, potassium, phosphorus and nitrates. Although these supposed benefits of organic foods are given, there is still not fine line as to what organic is and if it provides more health benefits than conventionally farmed food.

Most would assume these counterparts should reveal to society that ‘organic’ really is healthier. But, when looking for the actual definition there were dead ends and a lot of confusion. Eventually, the USDA came to the conclusion that “organic operations must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances” (US. Department of Agriculture, para 2, 2015) if their food would like to be considered organic.  The not so extensive list of prohibited substances included: ash from manure burning, arsenic, calcium chloride, lead salts, sodium nitrate, strychnine and tobacco dust. Pesticides, although not specified on this list, could be used in trace, specific, or natural amounts (U.S. Government Publishing Office, 2015). This list, still, does not solve the on-going problem of what healthy or organic is.

Many studies reveal varying arguments on what organic really is, and conclusively show it is not definitive if organic food is really healthy for humans.  Lee et al.(2015) describes that because studies done on organic farms are usually in less than one year,  they are actually not long enough to reflect true organic practices. Thus, revealing it is actually scientifically unknown if organic foods are better or worse for the environment.  Alongside this, there is no way to rid the soil of legacy pesticides and fertilizers. With this known, the crops grown there are absorbing all of the chemicals that were sprayed on the soil of these farms in years past (Lee et al., 2015).  With no way of riding the soil of pesticides, it cannot actually be said that organic food is healthier.

With no clean term when defining healthy, a great deal of confusion arises. The USDA currently does not have any information on defining the term ‘healthy’. Many scientific articles do not agree upon what is considered healthy. They all base their results on different measures of what they each, individually, believe is healthy or unhealthy. Multiple scholars have studies that resulted in different conclusions due to “differences in data sources, sample size, statistical analyses and measurement (Lee et al. 2015). An example of this is Batra et al. (2014) findings state: “Organic foods are said to be rich in antioxidants, phenolics, vitamins A, C and E, potassium, phosphorus, and nitrates (p. 350).” Which is completely different compared to Kroger (2015) who also professes that organic food should sustain and enhance the health of soil, plant, animal and human. Batra et al.’s (2014) article examines the nutrient content of organic food while Kroger (2015) explains how organic food should help the health of the planet while growing the food and vaguely states that organic food should increase the health of the consumer. When comparing both of these articles they do not have any type of agreement of what is healthy to base their results on. Alongside that, if the scientists cannot agree upon a universal definition of what is considered healthy how is the public able to understand the concept of what is healthy or not healthy? The general public should understand what they are putting into their body for their own safety and wellbeing. From a consumer’s standpoint every person has the right to understand completely what they are putting into their body and since it is so difficult to determine what is ‘healthy’ many consumers tend to ignore the unknown to make their lives easier. Because there is so much ambiguity, it is unclear that organic food is better or worse than conventional farming these better guidelines need to be set in place by the USDA or FDA.

On the contrary, the USDA’s mission statement regarding organic food is to “protect consumers by ensuring that meat poultry, and egg products are safe, wholesome, and accurately labeled” (Guilabert & Wood, 2012). With that information, and the practically useless guidelines, the USDA does not have a more detailed, specific, set of criteria regarding organically grown food. Although the USDA does not have much information about organic food, there are other organizations that try to identify if organic food is healthier compared to conventional food. One organization called World Health Organization (WHO) was able to define the term health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” (Healthy [Def.2]). WHO is an organization that the United Nations supports. Unlike the FDA and USDA in the United States, WHO’s guidelines were able to simply explain healthy making it possible to determine if organically grown food is healthier for human consumption or not.

In conclusion, we are not able to identify if organic food is indeed healthier than conventionally farmed food due to the fact that there is no universal definition of what is ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’. When measuring ‘healthiness’, it is too hard to determine which factors are actually important. One factor is nutrient content but within nutrient content, there are so many other factors that it would be impossible to know what to specifically measure. The level of pesticides used while farming the crops is another factor to take into account. There are so many options but still no answers as to what is deemed ‘healthy’.  Since the scientists doing the research on organic farming cannot understand the term ‘healthy’ there is no way to say that the general public is able to understand. With the increase in organic farming and food supply maybe all food will eventually become ‘organic’ and conventional foods will cease to exist. If the information concerning ‘healthy’ were more regulated and accepted it would be easier for the general public to make their decisions of what to eat. Having clear, strict, guidelines from the FDA or the USDA to help clarify what ‘healthy’ is can allow society to better determine if organic food is or is not healthy for humans.

References

Adler, M., Hirshberg, G., Kenner, R., Pearce, R., Pearlstein, E., Roberts, K.,…Robledo, M. (2009). Food Inc. United States, Los Angeles, CA: Magnolia Pictures, Participant Media, River Road Entertainment, American Documentary, Magnolia Home Entertainment.

Baker, B., Benbrook, K., Benbrook, C. & Groth, E. I. (2002). Pesticide residues in conventional, integrated pest management (IPM)-grown and organic foods: insights from three US data sets. Food Additives and Contaminants: Analysis, Surveillance, Evaluation Control, 19(5), 427-446. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Batra, P., Sharma, N. & Gupta, P. (2014). Organic foods for children: health or hype?. Indian pediatrics, 51, 349-353. doi: 10.1007/s13312-014-0412-1.

Department of Agriculture. (2015). What is organic agriculture? Organic Agriculture. Retrieved from http://www.ams.usda.gov/grades-standards/organic-standards.

Guilabert, M., & Wood, J.A. (2012). USDA certification of food as organic: An investigation of consumer beliefs about the health benefits of organic food. Journal of Food Products Marketing, 18(5), 353-368, doi:10.1080/10454446.2012.685028.

Healthy [Def. 1]. Possessing or enjoying good health; hale or sound (in body), so as to be able to discharge all functions efficiently. Oxford English Dictionary. In Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved November 19th, 2015, from http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/85033?redirectedFrom=healthy#eid.

Healthy [Def. 2]. Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Official Records of the World Health Organization. In World Health Organization. Retrieved November 19th, 2015, from http://www.who.int/about/definition/en/print.html.

Healthy [Def. 1-3]: Having good health: not sick or injured, good for your health. Merriam Webster. In Merriam Webster Dictionary. Retrieved November 19th, 2015, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/healthy.

Hoppe, A., & Vieira, L.M. (2015). Organic food: Production and control. Encyclopedia of Food and Health, 1, 178-180. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-384947-2.00506-7.

Kroger, M., & Schafer, M. (2014). Between ideals and reality: Development and implementation of fairness standards in the organic food sector. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 27(1), 43-63. doi:10.1007/s10806-013-9444-0.

Lee, K., Choe, Y., & Park, S. (2015). Measuring the environmental effects of organic farming: a meta-analysis of structural variables in empirical research. Journal of environmental management, 162, 263-274. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvman.2015.07.02. Retrieved from Web of Science

U.S. Government Publishing Office. (2015). The National list of allowed and prohibited substances. Electronic Code of Federal Regulations. Retrieved from http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?c=ecfr&SID=9874504b6f1025eb0e6b67cadf9d3b40&rgn=div6&view=text&node=7:3.1.1.9.32.7&idno=7#sg7.3.205.g.sg0.

Spurlock, M. (2004). Super size me. United States: Samuel Goldwyn films, Roadside Attractions.

Evan

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