Is organic food really better for your health?

by ROSALIND RYAN, femail.co.uk

Last updated at 19:38 12 September 2007


Three out of every four households now buy organic food and sales are predicted to hit £1 billion every year. But is it better for your health than non-organic produce?

The debate over whether organic food has any real health benefits has been raging for years. Campaigners say organic food has been proven to be beneficial, but the official government line is it has no more nutritional value than non-organic food. So who is right?

Experts say it is difficult to study the effects of organic food on our bodies because our health is affected by many factors like lifestyle and environment. But despite the slightly higher price of organic food, millions of us are choosing what appears to be a healthier and more environmentally friendly diet.

In a femail.co.uk investigation we ask: is organic food better for your health?

Fruit and vegetables

Last year the Food Standards Agency said there was not enough information available to prove that organic produce is nutritionally better for you. But the Soil Association, the UK's largest organic organisation, says scientific evidence contradicts this view.

Nutritionist Shane Heaton examined over 400 scientific research papers on the benefits of organic food over non-organic. He found that on average organic food could improve your intake of minerals and vitamin C and reduce your exposure to potentially harmful pesticide residues.

Organic produce was found to be higher in vitamin C and essential minerals, but also higher in phytonutrients. Shane explains, 'Phytonutrients include flavonoids, carotenoids and lycopene and are a plant's natural defence system. They work as antioxidants in the body. Researchers think they will be the key difference between organic and non-organic food in the future.'

Antioxidants track down and fight free-radicals in the body. Free-radicals are particles that you can pick up from cigarettes or exhaust fumes which can speed up the ageing process or even trigger a serious medical condition.

A small number of studies found that animals fed on organically grown food showed significant improvements in growth, reproductive health and recovered more quickly from illnesses. The Nutrition Cancer Therapy Trust has also noticed that breast cancer patients who follow an exclusively organic regime may have better recovery rates than those given orthodox cancer treatments. They are planning to release a major report in the new year.

Is organic better for you?

Shane believes organic produce does have proven health benefits. 'If you have a choice between a shopping basket full of organic food and one full of non-organic, is there a difference? I believe there is,' he says. '95 per cent of the toxins in your body come from your food. If people want to get fewer toxins and more nutrients, I recommend organic food as one way to do this.'

Beef

In the UK intensively reared cattle are permitted several growth promoting antibiotics in their feed. This is to protect animals living so close together from spreading diseases, but also stops them from producing too much fat, making the meat much leaner.

Karen Sullivan, a food writer and organic campaigner, believes intensive farming methods have led to the current farming

crisis. She says, 'BSE has never been found in an organic cow. The focus on trying to produce bigger quantities of food for less has led to this crisis. The idea that we should be having everything at a bargain price is very worrying as food is the single most important thing that will affect our health.'

Is organic better for you?

The British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) says the evidence is simply not there to show that organic food is nutritionally better for you, but admits that meat could be altered if animals were fed on organic feed.

'If you change the feed you are giving to cattle, we know we can manipulate the composition of the meat,' says nutritionist Collette Kelly from the BNF. 'But if you fed them exactly the same feed, one organic and one non-organic, we don't know whether that would have differing benefits on human health.'

Chicken and eggs

A report by the Soil Association in August this year found that 20 per cent of chicken meat and 10 per cent of eggs contain drugs 'that are not fit for human consumption'. One of the drugs, nicarbazin, has never been tested for human safety but causes birth defects and hormonal problems in animals.

The Veterinary Medicines Directorate, the government department in charge of monitoring drug levels in food, says roughly 99 per cent of poultry meat and 97 per cent of eggs are free from detectable residues. A spokesman for MAFF added, 'The residues found in the Soil Association report were all at levels well below World Health Organisation safety limits.'

Is organic better for you?

Organic poultry must be free from chemicals by law otherwise it cannot be labelled as organic.

Organic chefs have have also found that you will get more organic chicken for your money. Adrienne Clarke, in her book Living Organic, says conventionally reared chickens are injected with water to swell the meat so they tend to shrink in the oven. But she claims a small 4lb organic chicken will still feed six people for a Sunday roast.

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