When I give talks related to Eaters Digest, a frequent question is: Is organic food healthier than commercial food? The healthiness of food depends on many things and that is not an easy question. For starters, growing food organically (or “all natural”) means without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, grown in certified organic soil, and not GMO. So, all organically grown foods are healthier for the environment because of the reduction in pollution caused by pesticides and fertilizers.
Whether organic foods are healthy for the consumer is a completely different question. If you go to the store and look at the organic produce section, you can find nearly all fruits, nuts, and vegetables have organic options. Is does not mean they were not grown in greenhouses or hydroponically. They certainly have received fertilizers and certain kinds of pesticides. They might have had no contact with soil or sunlight at all. In fact, the original intent of “organically-grown” has been all but lost. Regardless of that, what about healthy and nutritious?
Herein lies the problem. Plant nutrition (i.e., the nutrition that benefits human health) comes from the chemicals in the plant that help it survive in the wild. Plants grown outdoors have to withstand a constant barrage of stresses that include insects, herbivores, heat, sun, and wind. The plant must grow large enough and with enough leaves to produce flowers, seeds and fruit. These processes take time and the chemicals in the plant are constantly changing as the plant ages and faces more challenges.
Until the fruit is ripe, all of those protective chemicals are likely to be toxins to prevent attacks. Those toxins, in small amounts, can be essential to human nutrition. If plants are grown in ideal conditions with no stress, they are not stimulated to defend themselves and those nutrients are not produced at all or only in low quantities. The plant is deficient in what I consider call “food quality”.
Organic food producers, like all farmers, grow their crops with as little stress as possible. They do not want the plants to divert energy into defense because it means have less energy for leaves and fruits. They want their plants to grow fast and with no scars or damage. Organic plants, like commercial plants, are maintained in a “naïve” state; they have never experienced the rigors of the real world. This is the goal of all farmers.
And those organic foods are just as nutritionally depleted as commercially grown foods. Because of that, we shoppers must understand what “quality” means in our fresh produce. Yes, organic can mean “quality”, but it likely doesn’t these days. What is more important is for us to understand that food quality is related to the conditions under which the plant was grown. We should try to avoid naïve foods and I’ll outline some ways to do that in Eaters Digest.