Organic Food: Proven To Be Healthier and Better For The Environment? Let’s Take A Look At Some New Studies

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Researchers across the globe, including some at Washington State University and Newcastle University (U.K.), recently conducted a “meta-analysis of 342 scientific studies on the nutritional and health values of organic produce and found solid proof that it is higher in antioxidants and lower in pesticides and toxic metals.

True, consumers for the most part think they have already known this for years but sometimes the importance of organic food is questioned, and it hasn’t been so solidly proven until now.

Summarizing the major antioxidant finding of the report, The Organic Center writes:

...organic crops had significantly higher antioxidants than conventional crops, including 19% higher levels of phenolic acids, 69% higher levels of flavanones, 28% higher levels of stilbenes, 26% higher levels of flavones, 50% higher levels of flavonols, and 51% higher levels of anthocyanins.”

Check their info-graphic for even more easy-to-understand details about the study. Antioxidants, of course, have many known cancer-fighting benefits and are generally accepted as a healthy addition to your diet. But here’s the big question you might be asking: Why would organic produce have more antioxidants than the same plant grown with the assistance of pesticides? Kenneth Chang of The New York Times explains:

The findings fit with the expectation that without pesticides, plants would produce more antioxidants, many of which serve as defenses against pests and disease.”

Aha!

And speaking of pesticides, the study also found that organic produce has significantly less synthetic pesticide residue. Certainly we would expect that. But the levels of less vs. more are perhaps more alarming than you may have realized. Eric Sorensen of Washington State University explains:

The researchers also found pesticide residues were three to four times more likely in conventional foods than organic ones, as organic farmers are not allowed to apply toxic, synthetic pesticides. While crops harvested from organically managed fields sometimes contain pesticide residues, the levels are usually 10-fold to 100-fold lower in organic food, compared to the corresponding, conventionally grown food.”

Many pesticides, of course, are known carcinogens and endocrine disrupters that can cause a host of terrible problems for humans and most other living things. Similarly, cadmium can cause plenty of its own adverse effects, and the study found that conventionally grown produce has almost twice as much of that heavy metal than its organic counterpart.

Now, before we go trumpeting that “organics will make you healthier” it is important to recognize that this is a extremely hard claim to support. Marion Nestle, nutritionist extraordinaire, is cited in The New York Times as taking this study with a grain of salt. In her blog she adds that the real issue with organics pertains to the environment and this study may be confusing consumers:

The implication here is that research must prove organics more nutritious in order to market them.  But most people who buy organics do so because they understand that organics are about production values.  As I said, if they are more nutritious, it’s a bonus, but there are plenty of other good reasons to prefer them.”

Harsher criticism abounds as well. Damian Carrington and George Arnett of the Guardian explain that some academic skeptics question the study’s methods, its sensationalism, and its lack of accounting for agricultural variations (climate, soil type, management methods, etc.) They also cite a two-year old Stanford study (which had its own problems, mind you) that attempts to prove this new one wrong:

The greatest criticism, however, will be over the suggestions of potential health benefits. The most recent major analysis, which took in 223 studies in 2012, found little evidence. ‘The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods,’ it found.”

But, everyone is a critic and we’ll take that 2012 study and the other criticisms of the Newcastle study with our own grain of Celtic sea salt. It is important though, to recognize that eating more vegetables and fruits, regardless of how they were raised, is much better than eating hamburgers and pizza, and eating organic food will not inherently make you healthy if some other important lifestyle factors aren’t in place. Despite that, we are happy to see this study promoting organics, which we know to be an all around better way of producing food.

PHOTO: This week’s “Good Farm Box” CSA from Suzie’s Farm, San Diego, CA, © Creative Commons

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Read all articles by Damon Cory-Watson

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