Scientific review published in Advances in Nutrition suggests consuming an organic diet confers both human health and environmental health benefits

Is an organic diet better for your health?  Is it better for the health of our environment?  These are two key questions a group of French epidemiologists, nutritionists, economists, and toxicologists sought to answer when they launched the BioNutriNet project in 2014.  As part of the project, the investigators surveyed 34,442 French participants to determine their organic and conventional (i.e., nonorganic) food consumption habits.  Data on individual organic and conventional food habits were then merged with price, environmental, and pesticide residue data in order to develop a fuller picture of the impact of organic farming and organic food consumption.

Published in Advances in Nutrition, the international scientific review journal of the American Society for Nutrition, “Key Findings of the French BioNutriNet Project on Organic Food–Based Diets: Description, Determinants, and Relationships to Health and the Environment” synthesizes and analyzes the results of the BioNutriNet project.  The authors offer a detailed profile of organic food consumers, their diets, and the complex relationships between organic food consumption, human health, and the environment.

According to the findings from the BioNutriNet project, high organic food consumers were more likely to be women, have higher levels of education, live in rural areas, and have higher levels of physical activity.  They were more likely to report purchasing food for health and environmental reasons compared to conventional food consumers.  High organic food consumers also consumed less alcohol and were less likely to smoke.  Interestingly, high organic food consumers were less likely to be on a weight loss diet, but more likely to report allergies.

Overall, organic food consumers had diets that were healthier and richer in plant-based food than conventional food consumers.  Regular consumption of organic food was associated with reduced risks of obesity, type 2 diabetes, postmenopausal breast cancer, and lymphoma.

In keeping with other study findings, the BioNutriNet project found that organic food consumers recorded lower concentrations of urinary pesticide metabolites compared to conventional food consumers.  According to the authors, “the lower quantity of pesticide residues in organic foods could partly explain the negative association between organic food consumption and chronic diseases.”  In particular, the authors pointed to studies that have linked exposure to pesticides in food to obesity and diabetes.

The BioNutriNet project not only found a link between organic food consumption and human health, but also with environmental health.  In particular, the authors pointed to the reduced impacts on land use, energy demand, and greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production of organic foods.  The authors did however caution that “organic-based diets should be accompanied by dietary shifts toward plant-based diets to allow for better planetary and human health.”

Although organic foods may confer both health and environmental benefits, organic foods are more expensive due to the higher labor intensity of organic farming, lower yields, and the income demands of producers, among other factors.  The authors noted that organic food consumers incurred higher costs due to their food choices, and that these higher costs may make organic food unaffordable for lower-income individuals: “The fact that organic food, with its associated potential health and environmental benefits, remains unaffordable for the lower-income segments of the population contributes to health inequalities within society and will need appropriate political interventions.”

The BioNutriNet project does suggest that consuming an organic diet confers both human health and environmental health benefits; however, “it should be noted that general conclusions on the topic cannot be drawn solely from the BioNutriNet project.”  The authors advise that results of the BioNutriNet project “be replicated in other cultural settings and coupled with experimental studies to be able to draw causal conclusions.”