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Health Benefits versus Detrimental Effects of Non-organic Food Consumption

Organic foods are grown and processed without the use of chemicals and additives. Organic foods do not contain hormones, synthetically compounded fertilizers, antibiotics, herbicides or medicated feed or the chemicals associated with food processing.  Organic foods are described as being ‘organically farmed’. Organic farming uses plant and animal manures rather than man-made fertilizers, growth regulators and feed additives.  Hand weeding can be used as a biological pest control method in organic farming and care is taken to avoid contamination by harmful micro-organisms. During processing, care is also taken not to have the food contaminated by chemicals. Non-organic foods on the other hand, are foods that have been processed through the use of fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, pesticides or some other chemicals. If organically grown food items are processed in such a way that they lose a significant level of their nutrients or natural characteristics, then they are no longer termed organic, but rather processed. The difference between organic and non-organic food is therefore two-fold and lies in the method of farming as well as the method of processing.

Research has shown that organic foods contain more vitamins and minerals than non-organic foods.  A study analyzing the mineral content for organically and conventionally grown potatoes, apples, wheat, pears and sweet corn in Chicago yielded the data below:

The organically grown food averaged 63% higher in calcium, 73% higher in iron, 118% higher in magnesium, 178% higher in molybdenum, 91% higher in phosphorus, 125% higher in potassium and 60% higher in zinc. The organic food averaged 29% lower in mercury than the conventionally raised food (Leu).

Calcium, zinc and magnesium are three of the most essential minerals needed by the body to gain and sustain good health. Calcium and magnesium are needed to maintain healthy bones. Zinc is necessary for cell division and growth as well as for immune system support. Organic foods also contain more antioxidants than non-organic foods. Some of such antioxidants are vitamin C, A and E, beta carotene, lycopene and flavonoids. Antioxidants are compounds that protect the cells of the body from damage by free radicals. Free radicals are extremely unstable molecules produced during natural processes such as digestion or after exposure to radiation, cigarette smoke, environmental contaminants and some chemicals. The damage caused by free radicals is believed to contribute to the development of many diseases such as cancer, eye diseases, Alzheimer’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis and Parkinson’s disease. Studies have suggested that the consumption of diets rich in vegetables and fruits, which are high in antioxidant content, lowers the risk and incidence for many chronic diseases.   Organic foods also contain essential fatty acids such as omega 3 and conjugated linoleic acid.  These aid metabolism as well as help to prevent high blood pressure and coronary heart disease. They have also been found to help reduce depression and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in children. 

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There are numerous health concerns with regards to non-organic or processed foods. Food coloring and additives have been linked to asthma, allergic reactions as well as growth retardation in children.  The potential risks of genetically modified organisms which are used in processed foods have not been fully studied.  Organophosphates found in pesticides have been linked to some forms of cancer, Parkinson’s disease and fetal abnormalities.  Also, residues of multiple pesticides have been found in food products.  This cocktail effect can exponentially increase the health dangers associated with processed food.  The combination of nitrates, herbicides and insecticides can be very dangerous to health. A chemical that might be non-toxic singly at a small dose can become extremely dangerous when in combination with other chemicals. Studies have confirmed pesticide residues in children that eat non-organic food but the effect of that situation has not been shown fully. However, children as a rule are very vulnerable to health problems since their systems are still developing and might not be able to detoxify most of these chemicals. The continued retention of such chemicals in the body is a health hazard.  Pesticides are able to disrupt the endocrine chemical balance and can cause cancer.  Research has also shown that such chemicals can cause disruptions in the hormones, the nervous system as well as the immune system (Leu).

The practice of using soluble chemical fertilizers has led to high nitrate concentrations in many conventionally foods. This is especially true in fruits and vegetables. Leafy vegetables can have very high concentrations of nitrates. High nitrate levels have been found in drinking water systems in various places around the world because of the leaching of fertilizers. This subsequently leads to even higher nitrate concentrations in food as well. Nitrate can be converted to nitrosamines which is a carcinogenic agent. Nitrates pose a health risk for methemoglobinemia as they are able to impair the blood’s ability to transfer oxygen. This condition can occur in infants as well as adults who have a reduced capability to produce gastric acid.  A rise in pH within their digestive system permits the proliferation of bacteria, and thus increases the conversion of nitrate to nitrite.  Nitrite absorbed into the bloodstream oxidizes iron in the hemoglobin of red blood cells and forms methemoglobin. This altered hemoglobin lacks the ability to carry oxygen.  The symptoms are usually lethargy and tiredness. In severe cases, Blue Baby syndrome can result. The nitrate content of crops that are farmed organically is usually much lower than in crops that are farmed conventionally.

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It is not clear by precisely how much the nutritional benefit of organic foods differs from that of non-organic foods.  In a study to assess this the nutritional quality of organic foods, Danguor et al. tried to assess the evidence of the nutritional benefits that can be ascribed to the consumption of organic foods. They systematically revised related articles and identified 12 relevant studies.  The studies used several different designs including clinical trials and cohort studies. The results of the largest study indicated an association between reported consumption of organic dairy products and a reduced risk of eczema in infants. However, the majority of the studies showed no differences in nutrition-related health outcomes between organic and processed foods.

Fletcher summarizes the current thoughts about organic foods. He notes that organic foods are considered healthier and more beneficial for the consumer since they have more nutrient density than food processed foods. Organic farming is also better for the environment. He noted that Dr. David Thomas, a physician and researcher, had studied and compared the United States government guidelines and the nutritional content table for various foods. The study revealed a falling trend in the nutritional quality of vegetables and fruits that had been produced through modern farming practices.   Another study indicated that farming methods affected nutrient quality, and that nutrients were altered depending on how they were farmed. This study had compared organically farmed pears, apples, potatoes, wheat and corn to the ones that were grown using modern farming systems. Other studies showed changes in the level of beta-carotene in fruits, vitamins B and C associated with pesticide use.  Organic Corn for example had 52% more vitamin C than the commercially grown product (Fletcher).

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There is increasing health awareness globally and an increasing awareness of the health benefits of organic food, especially in industrialized nations.  Proponents of healthy living are promoting organic foods as the safe, tastier and healthy option.  The organic foods market in the United States has increased from $3.5 billion in 1996, to $28.6 billion in 2010 (Forman).  Organic food and products are sold in specialty stores, grocery stores as well as conventional supermarkets.  Organic foods are usually more expensive than processed foods, due to the time and effort that goes into the process of organic farming. But organic foods are not produced in enough quantities to sustain global population.   Processed foods are necessary to feed the growing world population, especially in the industrialized nations. Also, economic status dictates people’s abilities to afford organic food.   Some consumers might be able to afford a primarily organic diet while others are only able to include some organic food into their diet. In either case, it is very important for the consumer to be informed about the benefits of organic foods and the hazards associated with non-organic foods, so they can make informed decisions about food. Presently, the claims in organic marketing are mostly unregulated and they are not standardized. Therefore, there are certain claims that have not being scientifically proven especially with regards to the use of certain organic products as cures for diseases. However, organic foods definitely reduce exposure to harmful chemicals and pesticide residues. Even that on its own is a strong advantage over conventional foods.  In terms of environmental safety and conservation, organic farming also has a strong advantage as organic farming techniques are environment friendly.

In conclusion, organic foods can be seen to have numerous benefits and advantages over non-organic foods. Organic foods have the proven benefit of having more nutrients and reduce the amount of poisonous chemicals which a person ingests since they do not contain man-made chemicals. By eating organic products whenever possible, a consumer is increasing his or her intake of valuable nutrients like essential fatty acids and anti-oxidants. The consumption of organic foods also makes it possible to completely avoid genetically modified agents. The ingestion of potentially toxic additives is also reduced. In addition, organic foods are believed to taste better than non-organic foods, this can improve the appetite and lead to overall enhanced general health. Organic foods can help to maintain healthy weight since they have sufficient nutrients for the body’s needs and stop hunger cravings. Organic food is usually sold locally too, so fresh produce can be readily available in some locales. Environmental safety also affects health. Since harmful chemicals are not used to grow organic foods, pollution of the air, soil and water is minimal. A sense of well-being is also produced for people concerned about animal welfare since organic meat, poultry and fish are produced with sensitivity to animal welfare and cruelty issues. Yet another significant health benefit of organic food is that there are lower risks for contact with harmful microorganisms such as E. Coli. This is likely due to the hygiene process inorganic farming practices. Organic foods therefore have health benefits that include physiological, mental as well as psychological aspects.

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