Organic Foods: Warning: seriously good for your health

BSE-free? No nasty chemicals? More and more of us are switching to organic produce as a healthy option.

It is a truism that organic food is good for you - purer, more wholesome and healthier than its conventional equivalent. Lady Eve Balfour, a founder of the Soil Association in 1946, wrote of how "the health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible". Organic food, grown without chemicals and fertilisers within a natural farming cycle, would enhance the health of the land that produced it, and those who ate it.

This message has been accepted without question by consumers, many of whom choose organic produce primarily for health reasons. Indeed, health is the main motivation for 70 per cent of organic food customers in Germany, and for 46 per cent in the UK.

The health argument is twofold. First, to avoid the negatives of conventional farming. Organic crops are grown without synthetic insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, molluscides, growth regulators and other chemicals that are used routinely on most farms, and they are stored without additional agro- toxins. Ten or more applications of chemicals over a growing season would not be unusual for many crops, followed by further dosing to prevent spoilage in store.

Concerns about chemical contamination have been given weight by the UK Pesticide Safety Directorate's annual review of pesticide residues in food, published last Thursday. Of the 2,500 samples taken in 1998, 25 per cent included detectable residues of pesticide and 1.4 per cent exceeded government-defined Minimum Residue Levels (MRLs).

Particularly bad were pears, many of which contained the unlicensed growth regulator chlormequat; and winter lettuce, which contained the unlicensed fungicide iprodione and the organophosphate (OP) insecticide malathion. One tin of corned beef contained the insecticide DDT, banned across the EU as a persistent bio-accumulative carcinogen. Lindane, another carcinogen, was found in a bar of dark chocolate.

Peter Beaumont, director of the Pesticides Trust, believes that the short- term dangers to health are small, as the actual amounts of pesticide involved are small. However, he adds, there can be wide variations among individual vegetables, leading to higher potential dosages. Of two carrots grown in the same field, one may contain 30 times more pesticide than another.

"The average level may be safe, but eat three `hot' carrots and you may get a bad tummy ache. Many pesticides such as the OPs work in the same way, and the toxic effects are additive."

Another concern is the widespread use of antibiotics in animal feeds to increase growth rates, as they encourage the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria which may go on to cause disease in humans. By contrast organic livestock may only be given antibiotics medicinally. Growth hormones are also used in conventional farms to make animals put on weight fast - and residues in food can potentially affect those who eat them. Again, such hormones are banned on organic farms.

Organic food is also seen as carrying a lower risk of BSE infection - a reasonable supposition since no organically bred and reared cattle in the UK have ever developed the disease. People are also going organic to avoid genetically modified material, which is strictly forbidden in organic foods. While there is no firm evidence that GM foods are a danger to health, nor is there any firm evidence that they are safe.

Rather harder to pin down are the positive perceptions of organic food: that it is richer in minerals and vitamins, and that it encapsulates a more vigorous "life force" which can be transferred to its eater. Neither the Ministry of Agriculture, the Department of Health, the Soil Association, nor the Henry Doubleday Research Association (HDRA), Britain's premier organic research body, could point to any specific evidence of the health- enhancing (or detracting) qualities of organic food.

However the Putney-based Institute for Optimum Nutrition had some information to offer. Its nutritionist Yara D'Avella quotes a study by Bob Smith (Journal of Applied Nutrition, 1993) of foods bought in Chicago shops, which showed that organic pears, apples, potatoes and wheat contained nearly double the nutritional minerals, and smaller amounts of toxic metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium.

Lawrence Woodward, director of the Elm Farm Research Centre near Newbury, cites a 1997 review of 150 investigations (1926-1994) on the subject carried out by Germany's Federal Institute for Health Protection of Consumers. The study concludes that organic produce contains less nitrate, especially in leaf vegetables; however, organic cereals contained less protein. Food selection experiments showed that animals "prefer organic produce".

A paper presented at an Elm Farm colloquium in 1989 confirms such findings. Ludwig Maurer, director of the Boltzman Institute for Biological Agriculture in Austria, showed that rabbits and hens preferred organic produce.

So, such evidence as exists does seem to indicate that organic food is better for health. But given the importance of the subject and the high level of public interest in it, the state of knowledge is patchy - indeed it is, says HDRA director Jackie Gear, a "public scandal".

Life and Style
“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    JavaScript Developer (Angular, Web Forms, HTML5, Ext JS,CSS3)

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: JavaScript Dev...


    £50000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

    SAP Data Migration Consultant

    competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a FTSE 100 organisation are u...

    Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

    £300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice