Thanks to many awareness-raising campaigns operated over the past 30 years, people are now more and more interested in what is in their plate. However, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish facts from fiction, truth from wishful thinking, and while it is tempting to go all-out organic (provided that you can afford it), one should ask oneself if doing so would really be that beneficial.
A recent edition of the New Scientist contains a very interesting article on the topic. While we all know that farmed fish and meats have a higher amount of Omega-6 than of the more desirable Omega-3, and that there is a clear link between pesticides use and the incidence of a number of diseases, it is important to acknowledge that intensive farming is not overall negative, on the contrary. Intensive farming has allowed the availability of large amounts of cheap food, has contributed immensely to the prosperity of our industrialized societies, and has led to the improvement or our health and lifespan. I propose to present some important points on the subject with additional considerations relating to evolutionary biology and nutrition. The goal here is not to advocate intensive farming at all costs but to provide a more scientific, nuanced approach.
Is today's food less nutritious than before?
While there may be some differences in the nutrient contents of cultivars grown in the 50's as opposed to those grown nowadays, the accuracy of the measurement methods have been debated. Let's assume nonetheless that it is true and that we accept the latest figures (an average drop of 15% vitamin C, 15% iron, 6"% protein, etc.), we must still factor in what intensive farming has provided. The added availability of vegetables compensates largely the slight loss of nutrient value. In industrialized countries like France, people eat more vegetables now than before, and less meats. Our diets are therefore better and more balanced nowadays thanks to the availability of large amounts of cheap fruits and vegetables, and as a result, we live better and longer lives than before.
Is it better to buy a product fresh off the market shelf or frozen from the supermarket?
It sounds like a no-brainer but interestingly, research showed that spinach sold under the fluorescent lights of supermarkets had increased amounts of vitamins C, E, K, and folic acids compared to those stored under natural lights. Also, frozen vegetables consistently score higher than fresh ones, regardless of origin, for nutrient content because they are left to ripen longer (they do not need to be picked up earlier to facilitate transport) and the freezing ensures that the vegetable stays in its most nutritious state. For the same reasons, it is also better to consume a locally mass-produced vegetable than an organic product grown in a distant place. Talking about locally-grown, organic food does not mean grown locally by small businesses, quite the opposite, and many organic brands are owned by larger companies such as Coca-cola, Danone, or Hersheys.
Are organic foods healthier and more natural?
Organic food are foods that are produced with a limited use of chemical fertilizers, antibiotics, or growth hormones. The limit in the US is usually 5% (not total absence). While such products are often advertised as a healthy option, there is currently insufficient evidence in the medical literature to support the claim that organic food is safer or healthier than conventional food.
Organic food is not natural food
The totality of the crops and animals that we consume today have been extensively selected and bred over thousands of years so while the production methods change, the actual cultivar grown or breeds raised vary little between organic and non-organic farming. The answer is therefore no, organic food is not more natural.
Do we really need natural foods?
I would argue that we are in fact better off not eating "natural foods". While a rabbit will instinctively run away from the hunter, a plant does not have that luxury, and therefore, it is quite common to see plants resorting to the use of other means such as chemical warfare to discourage some species from eating them. For example, nuts and seeds are often toxic as their consumption undermines their reproductive purpose (the plans needs you to consume the fruit, but only as long as you egest the seed or the pit in its intact state in a fertile place). Acorns, while full of nutrients, are filled with toxic alkaloids, and so are apple and apricot seeds. Some of nature's most potent poisons are found in plants. Not a plant but on the same idea, if I send you to the forest to pick up mushrooms for our dinner, I am not sure whether we will live to enjoy another meal...
Domestication of plants has allowed the lowering of these toxic compounds and the increase of yield and nutritive value. It is therefore safer and healthier to eat a "non-natural" food that has been crossed and selected extensively. While the wheat we consume is a monster of genetic engineering created by man over thousands of years through crossing (it is hexaploid, it has 6 copies of every chromosome), it is also much more nutritious and yields ridiculously larges spikelets, and it is thanks to features like these that we have so far been able to feed the world's population.
This is only a quick overview of a very complex topic. If you wish to learn more about it, you can borrow a copy of the 17 October issue of the New Scientist from the library. Do you have opposing evidence to propose? Feel free to comment below. By the way, you may be wondering: "but what about GMOs?". An article on the topic is coming soon don't worry! :)