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Is organic food really good for our health?

Written by Gianluca Quaglio,

©Shutterstock/Djsash

Despite strong public interest in the subject, very few studies directly investigate the effect of organic food on human health. To help fill this gap, STOA commissioned a study to review scientific evidence regarding the impact of organic food on human health. The development of environmentally sustainable and healthy food systems is an international priority, and this report discusses how organic food and organic agriculture can contribute, from the point of view of public health.

The study analyses the following aspects of organic food and organic agriculture:

The study, presented by its authors to the STOA Panel in November 2016, is now available online.

During the presentation, Professor Axel Mie from the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, highlighted indications from epidemiological studies that organic food may reduce the risk of allergies and obesity, but noted the evidence is not conclusive. Animal experiments suggest that identically composed feed has a different impact on the development of animals, according to whether it comes from organic or conventional production. However, it is not currently possible to conclude from these experiments that either production system delivers the healthier food.

Professor Philippe Grandjean from the University of Southern Denmark, Odense, noted that epidemiological studies point to the negative effects of certain insecticides on children’s cognitive development at current levels of exposure. Such risks can be minimised with organic food, and by introducing non-pesticidal plant protection in conventional agriculture.

In their presentations, the authors also argued that tough restriction of antibiotics in organic animal production serves to minimise the risk of development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. In the EU, more antibiotics are used in animals than in humans, and the development of resistance presents a major public health threat.

The authors added that there are few compositional differences between organic and conventional crops. There are indications that organic crops have a lower cadmium content than conventional crops, which is highly relevant from a public health perspective, but knowledge gaps remain. On the other hand, while organic milk has a higher content of omega-3 fatty acids compared to conventional milk, the nutritional importance of this difference seems to be small. Similarly, slight differences in the content of nutrients and other beneficial compounds between organic and conventional plant foods are probably of low relevance for human health.

In conclusion, the authors highlighted that the ultimate interest should not be in the question as to whether  organic or conventional food is healthier, but rather how we can use this knowledge to shape future healthy food systems.

In addition to Professors Axel Mie and Philippe Grandjean, the full team of authors includes the following experts: Stefan Gunnarsson (Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), Department of Animal Environment and Health, Skara, Sweden), Emmanuelle Kesse-Guyot (Research Unit on Nutritional Epidemiology (U1153 Inserm, U1125 INRA, CNAM, Université Paris 13), Centre of Research in Epidemiology and Statistics Sorbonne Paris Cité, Bobigny, France), Johannes Kahl (University of Copenhagen, Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports, Frederiksberg, Denmark), Ewa Rembiałkowska (Warsaw University of Life Sciences, Department of Functional & Organic Food & Commodities, Warsaw, Poland) and Helle Raun Andersen (University of Southern Denmark, Department of Public Health, Odense, Denmark).

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