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Study Finds Organic Foods Have More Benefits

A new international study suggests that organic foods contain higher levels of antioxidants than conventionally grown versions.

The research, led by Newcastle University and published last week in the British Journal of Nutrition, found concentrations of antioxidants such as polyphenolics that were 18- to 69-percent higher in organic food.

“Many of these compounds have previously been linked to a reduced risk of chronic diseases, including CVD and neurodegenerative diseases and certain cancers, in dietary intervention and epidemiological studies,” the study reads.

The researchers suggest that switching to eating organic fruit, vegetables and cereals provide consumers 20- to 40-percent more antioxidants, which would be equivalent to eating between one to two extra servings of fruit and vegetables a day.

The team also found that pesticide residues were four times more likely to be found in conventional crops than organic ones and that levels of the toxic heavy metal cadmium are nearly twice as high for conventionally grown foods.

However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide Data Program (PDP) tests conventional fruits and vegetables each year and finds that “U.S. food does not pose a safety concern based upon pesticide residues.” As for cadmium, the study itself notes that “the exact health benefits associated with reducing [cadmium] intake levels via a switch to organic food consumption are difficult to estimate.”

The paper is a meta-analysis of more than 340 studies of the compositional differences between organic and conventional crops.

“There are a lot more high-quality studies comparing the nutritional quality and safety of organic versus conventional foods and this larger, higher-quality database supports some conclusions that were not reached in some of the earlier studies,” said one of the authors, Professor Charles Benbrook of Washington State University.

While fewer pesticides on organic foods may not have come as a big surprise, Benbrook said the cadmium findings were certainly interesting.

“None of the earlier reviews picked that up and reported significant differences in cadmium levels, but our meta-analysis was much more sophisticated,” he said. It takes into account the sample size and variance of each study included in the analysis, in addition to the mean level of nutrients.

The findings contradict a 2009 study commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency, which found there were no substantial differences or significant nutritional benefits from organic food.

Critics of this latest study suggest that it overstates the public health significance of the findings. While the findings on increased antioxidants may be news, nutritionists have a hard time saying exactly how beneficial they are.

“This article is misleading because it refers to antioxidants in plants as if they were a class of essential nutrients, which they are not. The article misleadingly suggests health benefits result from a high consumption of antioxidants, particularly cancer protection,” Professor Tom Sanders of King’s College London’s School of Medicine told The Independent. “This study provides no evidence to change my views that there are no meaningful nutritional differences between conventional produced and organic crops.”

The Alliance for Food and Farming stands by its position that both organic and conventional fruits and vegetables are healthy and that the best thing people could do for their health is to eat more of either or both.

“Everyone seems to agree on this, and we don’t understand how arguing which farming method is better is of any benefit to consumers,” said Marilyn Dolan, executive director of the Alliance. “Certainly, raising unnecessary concern among consumers about the safety of either system is not beneficial. Pitting one system against the other does not drive increased consumption of fruits and vegetables, which is what we need to be doing.”

On her blog, Food Politics, Marion Nestle also noted that the Newcastle study was not entirely independently funded. It was jointly funded by the EU’s European Framework 6 Programme and the Sheepdrove Trust, which supports initiatives to increase organic farming and sustainability.

In addition, she suggested that the point of the study seems to be to prove organic foods are more nutritious for marketing purposes.

“But most people who buy organics do so because they understand that organics are about production values,” Nestle wrote. “As I said, if they are more nutritious, it’s a bonus, but there are plenty of other good reasons to prefer them.”

To critics who are not convinced that the extra antioxidants make a meaningful difference, Benbrook said, “Notice that they didn’t say, ‘The science says it does not.’ They’re saying that it’s an open question.”

He acknowledged that other aspects of the diet will alter the response of an individual.

“With people who are eating their recommended six to eight servings of fruits and vegetables and are getting adequate antioxidants, another 20 percent isn’t going to make a big difference for them,” he said. “But people who are only getting two servings of fruits and vegetables and are probably getting less than half of their optimum daily antioxidant intake, a 20- to 40-percent increase for those individuals is going to translate into health benefits down the road.”

© Food Safety News
  • pawpaw

    As a certified organic producer, I’m obligated to follow my whole-farm plan, monitored through yearly, onsite inspections. Including maintenance of wildlife habitat, limiting nutrient loss thru erosion or runoff, planting for pollinator health and diversity, steps to build and maintain soil including soil organic matter (sequestered carbon), etc.

    Some of my customers choose organic foods to support these land stewardship choices. So even if there were NO measurable nutritional differences between foods, to quote Wendell Berry “How we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.”

    But increased dietary antioxidants are nothing to sneeze at, esp. the chemopreventative effects on colon and other digestive tract cancers. This reference, though dated, is a good overview of work published in the journal “Nutrition and Cancer”. http://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/brberry.htm
    Easy to google recent work on the chemopreventative effects of antioxidant compounds in fruits and veggies.

  • Stan

    I thought there was another study not long ago which said just the opposite of these results.

    • mec

      you must have seen the lamestream propaganda,i have never heard that.

      • Joe Blow

        @mec…directly from this article. So much for “lamestream propaganda”.

        “The findings contradict a 2009 study commissioned by the UK Food
        Standards Agency which found there were no substantial differences or
        significant nutritional benefits from organic food.”

        • mec

          i noticed the difference in grapefruits and apples the most,also cherries,conventional grown food is never juicy,just dry.and it doesnt cost more in many cases.

      • mdolan

        You may want to know about another study by an independent team of scientists from Stanford published in 2012. ( http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleID=1355685). This study found no difference between conventional and organic foods. But, if you love organic and think it’s better, by all means, please eat it. Just don’t eat fewer fruits and vegetables because you can’t always find an organic option or you can’t afford it. The best thing people can do for good health is eat more fruits and vegetables — either conventional or organic. Period. If more people did this there would be fewer incidents of cancer, heart disease and obesity.

  • Joe Blow

    “Certainly, raising unnecessary concern among consumers about the safety
    of either system is not beneficial. Pitting one system against the
    other does not drive increased consumption of fruits and vegetables,
    which is what we need to be doing.”

    Exactly…this is what everyone should be focused on; not organic versus conventional. Eat more fruits and veggies in general.

  • KennethKendrick

    When I worked for Peanut Corp, and we know what a disaster that was, the TX dept of Agriculture gave organic certification to them, but to me the process was a joke anyway. You blew off the equipment that processed non organic food with an air hose, then put the organic through. I do not believe that got rid of any chemical residue. The standards to calls something organic are not really effective, and the Salmonella may have started from Chinese Organic Peanuts, but you could still label them as organic. Until we get food safe, I am still for GMO labeling, organic certification, but imho we are not at a point of overall food safety, PCA that both organic and non, is an example of that.