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Eating organic: what you need to know

Slowly but surely, like the pace of a well-meaning Algarvian donkey, Portugal is catching up with the rest of the world.

The word ‘organic’, or ‘biológico’, is cropping up more and more on supermarket shelves, and we are lucky enough to have local, organic produce right on our doorstep at the Saturday market in Lagos. In this article, I ask what eating organic really means for our health.

Not just hype

One may be forgiven for being skeptical of the hype surrounding organic produce.

However, after years of controversy, organic foods do seem to be more healthful – and organic farming, which does away with man-made fertilisers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), is kinder to the delicate ecosystems that sustain our health indirectly.

Nutrient density

Strangely, initial research found little difference in the vitamin and mineral content of organic and non-organic fruits and vegetables. But a 2014 review, while finding some differences in these nutrients, discovered that organic produce contained up to 69% more antioxidant and anti-inflammatory phytochemicals(1).

Plants, like medicinal herbs, make these beneficial compounds in response to environmental threats, so it stands to reason that more would be found in plants that have had to fight for their survival.

It is these compounds that have such wide-ranging effects on our health, including protection against cardiovascular, neurodegenerative and cancerous disease.

Low toxicity

The above study found four times less pesticide residue in organic products as well as lower concentrations of the toxic metal cadmium.

A recent Australian study also measured levels of organophosphate pesticides in people’s urine, and found that levels were 90% lower in people consuming an 80% organic diet compared to a conventional one(2).

Glyphosate, a pesticide used on wheat crops, is a broad-spectrum antibiotic and carcinogen, and most organophosphates are hormone disruptors. But it is the combined effect of all the chemicals we are exposed to in food, beauty, cleaning and household products that has the greatest effect on our health, and we must try to reduce our load wherever possible.

Which foods to buy?

Washing and scrubbing is sadly not enough to get rid of pesticides, and peeling removes most of the nutritional content.

A good way to reduce your load is to buy the ‘dirtiest’ fruits and vegetables organic – those with thin, permeable skin or a large surface area – and the ‘cleanest’ non-organic (see table).

Shocking spices

Just like coffee, spices are heavily sprayed with pesticides and imported from countries with little regulation of toxic chemical use. India ranks 12th in the world for pesticide use and high rates of cancer are reported in agricultural areas(3).

This Christmas, buy organic cinnamon, nutmeg and black pepper, and spice up your holidays in a way that is safe and healthy for your whole family.

“Dirty” – buy organic


“Clean” – buy non-organic

Sweet potatoes

1) Barański et al. (2014) Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses. The British Journal of Nutrition 112(5): 794-811.
2) Oates et al. (2014) Reduction in urinary organophosphate pesticide metabolites in adults after a week-long organic diet. Environmental Research 132:105-111.
3) Abhilash & Singh (2009) Pesticide use and application: An Indian scenario. Journal of Hazardous Materials 165(1–3):1-12.

By Poppy Burr
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Poppy, BSc MCPP, is a qualified medical herbalist practising from Aljezur and Praia da Luz. To book a consultation, visit
or call on 969 091 683.