Organic Food

See also: Ethical Food Consumption

The organic food movement has grown hugely over the last few years. The Soil Association suggests that the market for organic food in the UK is now worth £3.1 billion, and that there was an increase of 1.6% in sales in 2022. Overall, shoppers spend almost £8.5 million on organic products every day in the UK. In the US, the market is naturally larger, and is now estimated to be worth $76.4 billion. Sales there have risen steadily each year since 2005.

However, is organic food worth the additional cost, or is the organic movement just so much hype? This page unpicks the science behind organic food, and identifies what is worth paying for, and where you might want to save your money.

Defining Organic Food

There are strict definitions for organic farming and food production.

They are set out in law in many countries, including the European Union. Farmers and food producers must comply with certain standards to be able to label their food as organic.

In practice, this means that organic food is produced using:

  • No herbicides, and fewer pesticides than in conventional farming

    The Soil Association’s standards ban the use of any weedkillers (herbicides) and most pesticides.

    Organic farmers can use a small number of naturally derived pesticides such as citronella, but only as a last resort. Instead, organic farmers aim to control pests by encouraging their natural predators. These include beneficial insects such as ladybirds and lacewings.

  • No artificial fertilisers

    The Soil Association does not permit the use of any artificial fertilisers in organic farming.

    Instead, organic farmers use natural manures such as clover, and practise crop rotation to ensure that soil remains healthy.

  • High animal welfare standards

    Organic farming requires high standards of animal welfare.

    For example, standards for organic egg production are higher even than those for certified ‘free-range’ egg production. They require smaller flocks, with greater access to outside space.

  • No routine use of antibiotics

    Organic standards ban the routine preventive use of antibiotics.

    Many animals on non-organic farms are routinely fed antibiotics to prevent them from picking up bacterial infections because of the crowded conditions in which they live. On organic farms, animals must instead be kept in conditions that keep them healthy. This requires better hygiene, more space, and the right diet. The Soil Association’s organic standards even ban the medicinal use of certain antibiotics that are considered essential for humans, to prevent antibiotic resistance from building up.

  • No genetically modified crops or feeds

    Organic systems ban the use of any genetically modified materials.

    Many non-organic farm animals are fed foodstuffs derived from genetically modified plants. This is not permitted under organic standards. Instead, organic farmers have to ensure that their animals are fed a diet that does not contain any genetically modified material, and that they have taken steps to guard against contamination.

    In addition, organic foods do not use a wide range of additives such as artificial colours or preservatives.

    Banned substances include the artificial sweetener aspartame and monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavour enhancer.

What’s in a label?

Any product labelled ‘organic’ in the UK MUST derive at least 95% of its ingredients from certified organic products: plants or animals that have been produced organically.

Organic certification is available for products made from wool or cotton, wellness products and cleaning products as well as food.

Why Choose Organic?

Organic foods are considerably more expensive than their non-organic equivalents.

The standards required of farmers mean that organic food is more expensive to product—and therefore costs more. Why, therefore, would you consider choosing organic food? There are two main arguments:

1. Organic food is better for the environment

Organic farming is designed to be sustainable.

The Soil Association’s standards aim to ensure that organic farms are managing the health of soils, animals, people and ecosystems. They are built around principles of health, ecology, care and fairness (and you can read more on the Soil Association’s website about this).

Organic farming is, therefore, by definition, designed to be better for the environment than conventional farming methods.

Few of us can have failed to notice concerns about the number of pollinators, or the possibility of chemicals leaching into rivers and upsetting the ecological balance. There is no question that organic farming prevents this. The only question is whether you feel you can afford to pay the higher price for that sustainability.

2. Organic food is better for you

There are two parts to this argument.

The first is that the absence of residual pesticides and herbicides (and other chemicals) on organic food must be better for the consumer.

The real issue here is that it is hard to know what has been used in producing non-organic food. Standards for non-organic food production vary around the world. Some countries allow far more aggressive use of chemicals and antibiotics than others.

We also don’t really know what effect many pesticides have on humans.

Studies generally test their effects on rats or mice under laboratory conditions, and look at large-scale outcomes such as deaths, cancer levels, or obvious effects on organs. Large-scale studies in people suggest that some pesticides do increase the risk of a few types of cancers, notably a type called non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. However, very few studies have examined this in enough detail to provide definitive answers.

One area that is extremely understudied is the effects of various chemicals on the gut microbiome. One study that looked at this found that large numbers of people had some level of residue from organophosphates (found in many pesticides and herbicides) in their blood and urine. Those with higher levels showed more changes in their gut microbiome, meaning that these chemicals could be affecting your gut microbes.

Our page on the gut microbiome explains more about the importance of this.

There is therefore an argument in favour of eating organic produce wherever possible, as a way to improve your health.

However, if you can’t afford organic food, you certainly shouldn’t stop eating fruit and vegetables.

Eating more fresh fruit and vegetables decreases the risk of heart disease, obesity, and a range of other conditions by significantly more than eating non-organic foods increases your risk of developing a (very rare) form of cancer.

On balance, you will do more good than harm by eating more fruit and vegetables. However, if you can afford organic food, you will reduce your risk even more.

Organic food may also be better for you because it contains more nutrients.

It is possible that something about using more chemicals reduces the nutritional value of food.

Fruit and vegetables produced organically contain more polyphenols, which are anti-inflammatory molecules that are very good for the body. These are chemicals that plants themselves produce to defend themselves from insect pests. When plants are protected artificially through the use of pesticides, they do not need to produce these chemicals, and so the levels are lower. Organically produced vegetables also contain slightly higher levels of beneficial minerals (and you can find out more about these in our page on Dietary Minerals).

Organic Foods to Prioritise

On balance, therefore, organic foods are likely to be better for both you and the environment. Are they worth the price?

And if you can’t afford to buy organic foods all the time, are there some that you should prioritise?

Professor Tim Spector, a leading researcher into the gut microbiome and food, suggested on the ZOE Science and Nutrition podcast that he would prioritise certain organic foods over others. His research suggested that it was worth buying organic:

  • Oats and breakfast cereals containing oats

    Oats are often sprayed with glyphosate, a herbicide, just before harvesting, to dry them out. Because they are so wet, they absorb a lot of the glyphosate, which means that they contain very high levels.

  • Rice

    Rice is often quite high in pesticides, and many places in India and China have problems with runoff of arsenic into rice fields. Cheap rice from certain parts of the world may therefore be higher in potentially toxic chemicals.

  • Fruits that contain a lot of water

    Cucumbers, nectarines, pears and strawberries have all been found to contain high levels of pesticide residues. This will not be a problem if you only eat them occasionally. However, if these are a major part of your diet, you might want to try to buy organic. Peeling cucumbers, pears or nectarines will also remove some of the pesticide residue.

TOP TIP! Go frozen or tinned for cheaper options

Fresh organic produce is expensive. There is no getting round this, because it spoils quickly.

However, frozen or tinned organic food is usually only pennies more expensive than the non-organic version. It is worth hunting down if you want to add more organic food to your shopping basket without increasing the cost too much.

In Summary

It seems unarguable that organic produce is better for the environment, because its production is more sustainable in the long term. However, there is also growing evidence that organic food is also better for you and your health.

The only question is whether you can afford to pay the premium for organic produce. The answer may be to consume a little less to ensure that you can get the better quality goods, or to prioritise organic versions of the things that you eat or use most often. It is also worth looking for organic foods in their cheapest forms, often frozen or tinned.