Going organic – nutritional cure-all or expensive con?

As we approach a new year, many athletes will be looking to optimise their diets for both health and performance. One question that is often asked is whether organic produce really is any healthier than its conventional alternative, and is it worth paying extra for? Peak Performance looks at the evidence…

With the growing interest in health, fitness and the environment, and concerns over food safety, increasing numbers of consumers are asking themselves what price cheap food? In particular, the past decade has seen a large growth in the sales of organic produce, driven largely by the perception that ‘organic is best’. But just how true is this?

What is organic farming?

In simple terms, organic farming involves the production of food produce without the use of pesticides or artificial fertilisers. Pesticides are synthetic chemical agents which kill or interfere with weeds (herbicides), insects (insecticides) or fungi (fungicides). Artificial fertilisers are man-made chemicals, which are added to the soil or crop to enhance growth – eg inorganic fertilisers such as NPK (nitrogen/potassium/phosphorous).

To qualify as ‘organic’, produce must be also produced on soils with no detectable residue of pesticides from earlier intensive chemical farming. To ensure that organic standards have actually been met, many organic food producers are registered with organisations such as the Soil Association, which set strict standards of compliance and verification procedures. It’s important to remember however that organic food doesn’t have to come from organic farms; wild fruits and vegetables, deep sea fish or wild game, produce grown in your own back garden – all of these are organic is the true sense of the word!

The case for going organic

There are a number of reasons that are commonly cited for going organic. But how many of these are supported by evidence, and what if any drawbacks are there to choosing organic produce? Let’s look at the evidence.

*Residue avoidance

One of the most persuasive arguments for going organic is that organic food is free from the chemical residues that inevitably remain in food produce when it’s been dosed with herbicides/pesticides/growth hormones/antibiotics etc. Although the government sets strict criteria for maximum limits of residues in food, many of these chemicals – at higher intakes – have been linked to cancers, disruption of the endocrine system and neurological disorders. Regular monitoring of foods and strict limits of the use of these chemicals should ensure that nobody eating a ‘normal’ diet exceeds the ‘acceptable daily intake’ (ADI).

However, studies show that even with tight regulations in place, some people might be consuming more than the ADI for certain chemicals, with potential health implications. For example, a very large French study investigated the occurrence of 325 different pesticides in 194 individual food items, constituting 90% of total dietary intake(1). From 2007-2009, 19,000 food products were purchased in 36 different French cities and prepared according to standard food preparation practices.

The results showed that 73 pesticides were detected and 37% of the samples contained one or more residues, with the most common being post-harvest insecticides pirimiphos-methyl and chlorpyrifos-methyl-particularly in wheat-based products-together with chlorpyrifos, iprodione, carbendazim and imazalil, mainly in fruit and fruit juices. More worryingly perhaps, while chronic exposure levels were below the acceptable daily intake (ADI) for 90% of the pesticides, the researchers identified 9 pesticides for a chronic risk could not be excluded (dithiocarbamates, ethoprophos, carbofuran, diazinon, methamidophos, disulfoton, dieldrin, endrin and heptachlor) and one pesticide (dimethoate) where the ADI was exceeded in those who consumed high intakes of soft fruits such as cherries.

Verdict: Given these facts, and that little is known about health effects of pesticide combinations, the ‘avoidance of chemical residues’ argument for switching to organic produce seems justified, and is supported by scientific evidence.

*Higher nutrient levels

Another commonly cited reason for going organic is that organic food is more nutritious. The theory is that using artificial fertilisers helps conventionally grown plants to grow rapidly, but this very rapid growth can mean that the plant has less time to absorb and accumulate other minerals from the soil as well as synthesise important nutrients such as vitamins. A similar argument is made for animals being reared for maximum growth rates.

Look at the science however, and this claim is rather more tenuous. Some studies have found superior nutrient profiles in some foods; for example, organically reared cows produce milk that has higher levels of healthy omega-3 fatty acids (which are often lacking in the diet) and less omega-6 fatty acids (which tend to be abundant in the diet)(2,3). That’s important because nutritionists now believe that the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats consumed by many people in the UK is too low, leading to potential health problems. By consuming organic dairy produce, that ratio could be favourably shifted.

There’s also some evidence that some organic vegetable produce might contain higher levels of certain minerals. For example, one study on carrot production found the organic produce to have 70% higher levels of magnesium and 10% higher iron(4). However, a number of other studies have shown little or no nutritional superiority of organic produce over conventional.

A study on grapefruit farming showed that while the organically grown grapefruits were richer in vitamin C than conventionally grown grapefruits, they had lower levels of lycopene (a powerful antioxidant)(5). Meanwhile, a study on organic vs. conventionally grown wheat found no differences in the nutrient levels(6), and another study found that the climate in which the wheat was grown had far more impact on nutrient levels than whether it was organically or conventionally grown(7). Likewise, a study on tomatoes found no specific nutritional benefits of organic farming over conventional; rather, it was much more down to the tomato variety, the farm management skills and the micro-climate of the site(8).

Verdict: There’s good evidence that some organic animal produce has a better fatty acid profile. For fruits, vegetables and grains, there’s much less evidence that organic produce is routinely more nutritious than conventional produce.

*Better taste

If organic produce grows more slowly (because of the lack of growth promoting fertilisers/diets), does it result in tastier produce – because the complex compounds that give rise to flavours and aromas have more time to develop and mature and become more concentrated in the plant? While this is a popular claim, there’s little evidence to substantiate it. Studies on organic vs. conventional production of potatoes(9), beef(10), wine(11) and carrots(4) have all failed to find taste benefits. And in the grapefruit study above(5), consumers actually preferred the taste of the conventionally grown produce. Moreover, I’m sure most readers can relate to buying organic produce in the supermarket and feeling a bit let down that (despite a price premium), discovering the taste was no better than the non-organic version!

Verdict: There’s no reliable evidence that organic produce taste better just because it’s organic.

Organic drawbacks?

When deciding whether to purchase organic produce, you also need to consider the following:

  • *Slower retail turnover –Lower volumes and turnover means that (especially fruits and vegetables) tend to sit around in storage an on display for longer. Not only can this lead to a poorer taste and texture, some vitamins in the product can gradually degrade over time, leading to a less nutritious product by the time it’s consumed. Is it better to consume fresh non-organic than less fresh organic produce?
  • *Higher cost – Organic food, especially fruits and vegetables costs significantly more than conventionally produced produce, which means you might have to cut back on the quantity of fresh fruits and vegetables you consume in order to go organic. This is a real conundrum, especially as more and more research continues to indicate that not only are high intakes of fresh fruits and vegetables an excellent way to protect the body against a number of degenerative diseases, but also that most people in the West continue to consume far less than required for optimum health.
  • *Organic blinkers – for many people, the mere mention of the word ‘organic’ conjures up healthy connotations. So when you see that organic fruit yoghurt or breakfast cereal on the supermarket shelf, it’s easy to assume that it’s healthy. However, this is not necessarily the case; many organic products may contain high levels of (organic!) sugar and fat, which can be detrimental to health regardless of whether they’re organic or non-organic! 

Overall verdict

There’s a good rationale for eating more organic produce – doing so means you’ll consume less chemical residues, which can only be a good thing. There’s also evidence that organic animal produce is potentially more nutritious than conventionally reared produce. For fruits, vegetables and grains, there’s less evidence that this is the case, while there’s very little evidence for taste benefits. Bearing in mind the possible drawbacks above, a selective strategy described below will give you the best organic bang for your buck!

Advice for athletes: organic buying strategy

  • Choose organic grains such as rice, bread, wheat, pasta, cereals, oats etc. which carry only a small price premium over conventional grains;
  • Grow as much of your own fruit and vegetable produce as possible if you have a garden – you won’t get fresher than this!
  • Organic root vegetables such as carrots and potatoes tend to carry a lower price premium (and may contain more minerals) compared to other organic fruit and vegetables – worth remembering for those on a budget;
  • Check out your local farms to see whether they supply direct to the public. Many organic growers do and will almost certainly be cheaper than supermarket organic produce;
  • Remember that deep sea fish (not farmed fish such as salmon) are by their very nature organic – apart from being healthy in their own right, you can use them to replace conventionally farmed meat and poultry;
  • Take care to read labels carefully – terms such as “farm fresh” and “natural produce” are meaningless. Genuine free range produce does involve higher standards of animal welfare but will generally still entail the use of antibiotics/hormones etc. Conservation grade produce can be considered as an interim between intensively farmed produced and true organic produce.


  1. Environ Int. 2012 Sep 15;45:135-50
  2. PLoS One. 2013 Dec 9;8(12):e82429
  3. J Sci Food Agric. 2012 Nov;92(14):2774-81.
  4. J Sci Food Agric. 2013 Aug 30;93(11):2611-26
  5. J Agric Food Chem. 2007 May 30;55(11):4474-80
  6. Food Chem. 2015 May 15;175:445-51
  7. J Agric Food Chem. 2009 Nov 11;57(21):10116-21
  8. J Agric Food Chem. 2009 Feb 25;57(4):1188-94
  9. Food Chem. 2014 Feb 15;145:903-9
  10. J Dairy Sci. 2014 Mar;97(3):1828-34
  11. Front Psychol. 2013 Nov 29;4:896

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