Onions have long been praised as a miracle plant with a seemingly unending list of health benefits, from being used to cure colds to being thought to be the symbol for eternity by the Egyptians back in 3500 B.C. But with the rise in demand for these layered veggies, people are starting to wonder about the differences between organic onions vs. regular onions, and whether they should favor one over the other.
The key difference between organic onions and regular onions is the way they are grown. Organic onions are produced without pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. Organic onions are more costly than regular because the way they are grown. Organic onions were tested and found to have more nutrient content than regular onions.
Throughout this article, you’ll learn the following about this comparison:
- The nutritional aspects and health benefits of onions
- The differences between regular and organic onions
- Whether one is better than the other
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The Differences Between Organic and Regular Onions
Next, we’re going to be looking at some of the differences between organic and regular onions.
The Way They Are Grown
When it comes to organic vs. regular onions 1, the differences in how they are grown are often the first thing people think of. And with good cause, because it is probably the biggest difference, you’ll find between these two types of farming.
Fertilizers are natural and synthetic materials used in agriculture that are applied to the soil or plant tissues to provide one or more nutrients and aid the growth of crops.
Fertilizers used in conventional farming methods use fertilizers that contain man-made, inorganic compounds that are usually derived from by-products of the petroleum industry, such as ammonium nitrate, ammonium phosphate, monocalcium phosphate, and potassium sulfate. 2.
Organic fertilizers are fertilizers derived from the residues and matter of plants and animals. Things like blood meal, crop residues, compost, guano, manure, seaweed, and vermicompost can all be used as organic fertilizers 3.
The plants can’t tell the difference between the two types of fertilizer, and the nutrients are processed in the same way. While organic and synthetic fertilizers provide the necessary nutrients to the crops, only organic fertilizers also add organic matter and living organisms into the soil 4.
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Pesticides are substances meant to control pests, such as weeds, insects, rodents, bacteria, and fungi, among others. They are meant to deter, incapacitate, kill, or otherwise discourage pests. They are usually sprayed onto the plants using a crop duster.
Many people believe that organic farming methods don’t use any pesticides at all, but this isn’t true. They do use pesticides; only these pesticides are derived from natural origins as opposed to the chemical origins of conventional pesticides.
25 organic pesticides have been approved for use in organic farming, the most popular among these being copper, rotenone, and spinosad 5. However, in conventional farming, there are around 900 chemical pesticides allowed to be used on the crops that are being grown.
Crop rotation is a practice used by organic farmers in which they grow a series of different types of crops in the same area across a sequence of growing seasons 6. This ensures that the soil does not become reliant on certain nutrients and reduces pest and weed pressure.
Conventional agriculture uses monocultures, which means that the same crop is grown in the same place for a number of years 7. This depletes the soil of its natural nutrients, leaving it unbalanced and creates a highly competitive pest and weed community.
Crop Yield Size
One of the other differences between organic and conventional farming methods is the size of their crop yield. Crop yield is the number of crops grown per unit area of land 8.
In a study published in the journal ‘Archives of Agronomy and Soil Science,’ it was found that organic farming methods produced 24.6-43.6% less yield consistently over six years than their conventional farming counterparts did 9.
As we have previously discussed, onions contain many beneficial vitamins, minerals, and other essential substances to our health. Many people not only buy organic produce because they want to reduce their exposure to chemical pesticides, but also because they believe that organic produce is healthier for them than conventionally grown produce.
In a study published in the 2017 journal ‘Archives of Agronomy and Soil Science,’ an ongoing field experiment was done to compare organic and conventional farming of onions. 9.
During this experiment, it was found that the onions that were grown by organic methods had higher levels of gross phenol, gross flavonoid, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), and quercetin-3-glucoside overall than those grown using conventional methods.
This may indicate that organically grown onions contain higher levels of the vitamins and minerals that we ingest that are necessary for a healthy gut and, in turn, a healthy body. These higher levels of nutrients may also aid in preventing many diseases that we are prone to developing.
Impact on the Environment
There’s no denying that agriculture has significant impacts on the environment, some of which are good and some of which are bad, but is there really a difference between the impacts of conventional farming and organic farming?
Some of the environmental issues related to agriculture are climate change, deforestation, genetic modification, problems relating to irrigation, pollution, degradation of the soil, and agricultural waste.
A meta-analyses article published in the Journal of Environmental Management analyzed the results of several published studies done, comparing the impacts that both organic and conventional farming methods in Europe have on the environment 10.
The results showed that organic farming generally has a positive impact on the environment per unit of area. They found that organic farms are likely to have more organic content in their soil as well as lower levels of nutrient loss (such as nitrogen leaching, nitrous oxide emissions, and ammonia emissions)per unit area of the field.
However, nitrogen leaching, nitrous oxide emissions, and ammonia emissions were higher per unit of produce. Organic farms have required less energy but use more land, which could lead to more deforestation in the surrounding areas. They also showed a higher potential for eutrophication and acidification.
The organic farms also had a lower impact on the biodiversity of the soil and surrounding plant life in comparison with conventional farms. In another study, it was found that organically grown crops had significantly higher microbial population values, fungal-to-bacterial ratio, and dehydrogenase activity than those grown using conventional methods. 9.
These findings were published in the Archives of Agronomy and Soil Science journal. That said, conventional farming methods definitely do have some very large negative impacts on the environment.
It has caused an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion from overuse, water pollution as a result of pesticide and fertilizers leaching into ground soil and rivers nearby, as well as threatening human health, mostly the people who spend extended periods of time exposed to the chemicals used in conventional farming.
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Is One of Them Better Than the Other?
One of the biggest reasons people are drawn to organic produce is the belief that it is better than regular produce. Organic onions have largely proven that they provide more health benefits, contain more nutrients, make use of more natural methods of protection against things like pests and other environmental factors, and have less negative impacts on the environment.
In terms of the impact that the pesticides used on the onions will have on you, there isn’t a very big difference. Conventional onions are ranked number four on the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Clean Fifteen list, meaning that there were very low levels of pesticide residue found on the onions once the outer layers of skin were removed 11.
The pesticides used on organic onions have been shown to produce fewer health complications with long term exposure than those used on conventional onions. Rotenone is the only pesticide to have been linked to a health complication, as it increases the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease in people who are exposed to it because of their occupation 12.
The pesticides used on regular onions have been linked to respiratory issues, reproductive problems, disrupting the endocrine systems, neurological damage, and an increased risk of developing certain types of cancers 13.
Nevertheless, if you take into account that less than 10% of conventionally farmed onions that were analyzed by the EWG in 2018 were found to have pesticide residue on their skin, this doesn’t seem to be sufficient reasoning to switch to buying only organic onions 14.
However, there are also some downsides to both types of produce. Because organic produce is not as popular and due to their smaller crop yields, it means that the product is often more expensive and more difficult to find if you do not live in a large city or a farming community.
On the other hand, the downside to buying conventional produce is that conventional farming methods are often not as transparent as organic methods. So it can be difficult to know what is being done to your food before it reaches the supermarket that you buy it from.
Knowing that there isn’t really a clear winner for whether either organic or regular onions are better, it may just be best to try to grow as much of your own produce as you can; this way, you’ll know, exactly, what you are eating and you’ll be saving some money in the process too.
Nutritional Aspects and Health Benefits of Onions
Onions, whether regular or organic, are vegetables that are part of the flowering plant genus ‘Allium’ that have been shown to improve our health in a lot of different ways. These veggies are packed full of nutrients that are essential to our overall health, as well as some compounds that may serve as preventatives to diseases and illnesses.
Onions always seem to go hand and hand with tomatoes. I always have both ready to throw into a salad but can you store them together? You may want to read my blog post on the topic right here, Can You Store Tomatoes With Onions?
Full of Nutrients
Onions are nutritious foods, which means that these vegetables have few calories, but contain many vitamins and minerals 15. A large, raw onion can provide you with up to 20% of your recommended dietary allowance of vitamin C 16.
Vitamin C is essential in the production of collagen, the repair of tissue, and absorption of iron, as well as helping to regulate the body’s immune system. It is also a strong antioxidant, protecting your body from free radicals found in our food, medicines, and environments.
Onions are high in B vitamins as well, such as B9 (folate) and B6 (pyridoxine), which are important for the functioning of our metabolism, nerves, and in the production of red blood cells.
Lastly, they also contain potassium, which is a mineral that many people don’t ingest enough of and aids in balancing bodily fluids, transmission of nerve impulses, kidney function, and muscular contraction and is also important for normal cellular functioning.
High in Prebiotics
Organic or regular onions have been known to be high in prebiotics. Prebiotics are not to be confused with probiotics, however. Prebiotics are a type of dietary fiber that humans cannot digest, which the beneficial bacteria in your gut, called the gut flora, feed on.
On the other hand, probiotics are live bacteria found in certain types of foods and supplements that provide health benefits to the body. Onions contain a dietary fiber called inulin (which makes up 10% of its total fiber contents), as well as a sweet, naturally occurring prebiotic called fructooligosaccharide (FOS, which makes up about 6% of its fiber contents) 17.
FOS helps strengthen gut flora, break down fats, and boosts the immune system by increasing nitric oxide production in cells.
Contain a Lot of Antioxidants
Antioxidants are compounds that hinder the process of oxidation. Oxidation leads to cell damage and also promotes diseases like diabetes, cancer, and heart diseases. Onions contain no less than 25 different types of bioflavonoid antioxidants 18.
Yellow onions contain between 270 and 1187mg of flavonols per kilogram of fresh weight, while red onions contain between 415 and 1917mg, which is quite a large difference. Red onions contain a flavonoid called anthocyanin, which is a plant pigment that gives a red onion its deep color.
Two separate studies, one conducted on a group of men 19 and the other on a group of women 20, have shown that people who consume more foods that contain anthocyanin had between 14% and 32% less risk of having a heart attack than people who have a low intake of anthocyanin-containing foods.
Anthocyanins have also been found to help prevent certain cancers as well as diabetes.
Have Heart Health Benefits
As previously discussed, onions contain antioxidants and other compounds that lessen inflammation, decrease the amount of triglycerides in the body, and lower cholesterol levels, which all lower your risk of developing heart disease.
Quercetin, a flavonoid found in high concentrations in onions, is a potent anti-inflammatory that may help decrease heart disease risk factors such as having high blood pressure. A study 21 done showed that consuming more quercetin-containing onions helped lower systolic blood pressure, and another study done on women with polycystic ovarian syndrome showed that it helped to lower “bad” low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels over time.
Onions have been linked to lowering the risk of developing stomach and colorectal cancer. The sulfur composites and antioxidants in onions have cancer-fighting properties. Onions contain Onionin A, which is a compound that contains sulfur, as well as quercetin and fisetin; flavonoid antioxidants that have all been shown to decrease tumor growth and inhibit tumor development 22.
Control Blood Sugar Levels
Consuming onions could potentially help control blood sugar, a concept that may comfort people with diabetes and prediabetes. The quercetin and sulfur compounds in onions have an antidiabetic effect.
In particular, quercetin has been shown to work with cells in the liver, small intestine, pancreas, muscles and fatty tissue to help regulate the body’s blood sugar levels. Eating red onions may even reduce fasting blood sugar levels.
Can Increase Bone Density
Though most people attribute strong bones to consuming dairy products, onions may also be able to increase bone density because of their believed ability to decrease oxidative stress, increase antioxidant levels and hinder bone loss, helping to suppress osteoporosis and increase bone density.
Boost Digestive Health
The prebiotics and non-digestible types of dietary fiber found in onions are important to maintain optimal gut health. The beneficial bacteria in your gut break down and feed on these substances and make short-chain fatty acids, namely acetate, butyrate and propionate.
Short-chain fatty acids help to increase gut health, strengthen immunity, lessen inflammation, and improve digestion. Consuming foods high in prebiotics also increases probiotics in the gut, most notably the Lactobacillus and bifidobacterium strains, which are good for your digestive health.
The prebiotics in onions can also help the body absorb calcium. Not only are onions very good for your health, but they are also very easy to add to your diet, as they go with virtually any savory dish, and perhaps with sweet dishes too if you’re adventurous.
In the never-ending conflict between the world of organic vs. conventional farming, foods grown conventionally are still being sold for more than those grown by organic methods. However, the popularity of organic produce is increasing more and more every year, and perhaps one day, all of our food will be grown organically.
Read Next – More Food vs Food!
- Wikipedia: Onions
- Wikipedia: Inorganic compound
- Oregon State University: Here’s the scoop on chemical and organic fertilizers
- Cornell University Cooperative Extension: Soil Organic Matter
- Organic Trade Association: National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances
- USDA: Tipsheet: Crop Rotation in Organic Farming Systems
- Wikipedia: Monoculture
- Genetic Literacy Project: USDA data confirms organic yields significantly lower than with conventional farming
- Taylor & Francis Online: Comparison of organic and conventional farming for onion yield, biochemical quality, soil organic, and microbial population
- ScienceDirect: Does organic farming reduce environmental impacts? – A meta-analysis of European research
- EWG: Clean Fifteen: EWG’s 2020 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce
- National Center for Biotechnology Information: Pesticide/environmental exposures and Parkinson’s disease in East Texas
- National Center for Biotechnology Information: Chemical Pesticides and Human Health: The Urgent Need for a New Concept in Agriculture
- USDA: Pesticide Data Program
- National Center for Biotechnology Information: Onions–a global benefit to health
- NutritionValue: Onions
- National Center for Biotechnology Information: Structural analyses and immunomodulatory properties of fruit-oligosaccharides from onion
- National Center for Biotechnology Information: Onions: a source of unique dietary flavonoids
- National Center for Biotechnology Information: Habitual intake of anthocyanin and flavanone and risk of cardiovascular disease in men
- National Center for Biotechnology Information: High anthocyanin intake is associated with a reduced risk of myocardial infarction in young and middle-aged women
- National Center for Biotechnology Information: Effects of a quercetin-rich onion skin extract on 24 h ambulatory blood pressure and endothelial function in overweight-to-obese patients with hypertension
- National Center for Biotechnology Information: Onionin A, a sulfur-containing compound isolated from onions, impairs tumor development and lung metastasis by inhibiting the protumoral and immunosuppressive functions of myeloid cells